Social status and identity construction

Shaheen Sardar Ali describes the inter-relationship of religion, class, law and society as forming multiple layers of identity for a Muslim woman within an Islamic framework (Sardar Ali, 2000:89). Culture, customs, religion and law define the space available for self-definition and are strands woven into the formation of identity. Within this framework there are two levels at which gender identity is experienced and defined – the public arena of political discourse and the personal everyday existence. Gender and the position of women become politicised where religious, cultural, ethnic and national identity are under pressure. A woman’s actions, her self-affirmation and desire for change must be negotiated within these boundaries.

When General Zia introduced a process of Islamisation in Pakistan, gender relations and the position of women became highly politicised. A key platform of these reforms affecting women became the oft repeated slogan ‘chadar aur chardiwari’, (the veil and the home – literally four walls) emphasising the veiling of women and their confinement within the home. Ideal woman and ideal society go hand in hand. Women’s personal lives were immediately impacted. Their identity as ‘good Muslim women’ was under threat if they failed to live within these boundary markers. Because these definitions were linked with religion, women who dared to articulate their gender identity differently were at once cast into conflict with state, society, religion and family.

The women most affected by this challenge to self-articulations of gender were those who came from the urban upper and upper middle classes. Through their involvement with the independence movement, and therefore political powerbrokers, they had been able to reconstruct aspects of their identity and their role in society. The State, seeking legitimisation through religion, was now marginalising and silencing their voice.

The self-definition of gender for a majority of other women has been described differently. Mukhtar Mai, a poor woman who was raped to settle male disputes, said it constructed in the way women belonged to the men of their families, objects whom men have the right to do with whatever they want (Mai, 2006:68).

The extent of this disconnect between women from different classes cannot be underestimated when considering the struggle for change in gender relations. Women from different backgrounds have had different issues of concern that have not been addressed and, it could be argued, activists have been unable to connect with them. Farida Shaheed, in an enlightening self-criticism of activists and their strategies in Paksitan contends that “women’s activism came to resemble a negative mirror image of the discourse it opposed” (Shaheed, 1998). Hina Jilani argues that the focus on legislative change was a necessary one in order to provide tools for fighting the injustices of gender inequality, often expressed in violence against women, in the courts (Jilani, 2006). This concentration on strategies and structures for public political intervention has resulted in a de-linking of the political and the personal.

Maybe it is time to include women’s personal stories more fully if we want to negotiate change in gender relations.

My body is not your battleground

Sexual violence against women has long been identified as one of the battle grounds in war. Amnesty International stated in 1995: “The use of rape in conflict reflects the inequalities women face in their everyday lives in peacetime. Until governments live up to their obligations to ensure equality, and end discrimination against women, rape will continue to be a favourite weapon of the aggressor.” From the Democratic Republic of The Congo, to ISIS forces in Syria and the Yazidi region of Iraq; from Uganda to Sudan, women’s bodies have been used as one of the fields of aggression.

But there are other ways in which women’s bodies are used as battlegrounds. In countries like Iran and Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and Yemen, women’s bodies have been intimately linked to male honour and national purity. Women’s bodies become the battle ground on which the battles of resistance to outside pressures for change are fought. The rather crude Arab proverb says the honour of the man lies between the legs of the woman. Pakistan claims to be the bastion of women’s protection and honour places the burden on women: hum maaen, hum behnain, hum betiyaan, qaumon ki izzat hum se hai: We mothers, sisters and daughters, the honour of nations lies in us.

Iranian artist Shirin Neshat has demonstrated in her work the challenge for women. She described in 2004: “The female body has been politicised and has functioned in a way as a type of battleground for ideological, philosophical and religious debates and agendas. Muslim women have been made to embody and practise the value systems of their societies through their bodies and social behaviour.” (https://www.ft.com/content/2aaba124-7b24-11e6-ae24-f193b105145e).

From another perspective, women’s bodies are the battleground on which sales of expensive male toys are played out. They are used to sell everything from cars to alcohol, from male perfumes to chocolates. The exposure and use of women’s bodies to attract the attention of male buyers is but another form of exploitation and war. Women’s bodies are titillated for the consumption of men.

Exploring this the lens of power, the Women in Power conference noted: “The female body has been – and continues to be – politicized, and to function as a type of battleground for ideological, philosophical, and religious agendas. The female body remains at the center (sic) of cultural and political debates about who deserves to take up space and how”. (https://www.womeninpowerconference.org/2020) The question remains, how can women resist the use of their bodies as a battleground, in its many different guises?

The circle keeps coming back to issues such as patriarchy, toxicity, masculinities, sexual violence, power. And when you add religion and politics into this mix, the statement ‘my body is not your battleground’ is tested.

Is violence against women now an accepted norm?

“A man with the help of his grandfather axed to death his mother, sister and their lover in Kot Mangu, some 50kms from [Gujrat], on Thursday evening … with repeated blows of axes.”  (Dawn, 22nd October 2004) The murder of Saima Sarwar, daughter of a prominent industrialist in the North-West Frontier Province, in her lawyer’s Lahore office “passed like a swift wind, leaving the perpetrators untouched and guiltless of a grisly crime.  A precedent had been set by the state, judiciary and civil society that ‘honour killings’ would continue to remain above the law, human rights and religion.”  (Newsline, June 2003, p 83) Saima’s family felt her disobedience in seeking to divorce her abusive husband was a threat to their honour. 

Violence perpetrated against a woman in Pakistan begins from her birth where in some tribal areas it is received with greetings such as “‘Khuday day sharam parda o satee’ (May God preserve your honour), ‘Sart toray mashay’ (May you never lose your veil or purdah) and ‘Naik bukhta day shee’ (May she grow up to be pious).” (Newsline, June 2003, p78) The slapping of a woman is not considered to be an act of violence, and many women are themselves groomed to believe they deserve violence inflicted on them.

Domestic violence is largely hidden and deemed to be a private matter that does not belong in the courts. Many women do not understand that violence is a crime and are often subject to brutalisation not only by their husbands but also in-laws in the extended family. In a 1998 study on violence against women aimed at understanding the magnitude of violence against women and its dynamics “thirty percent of rural women and 17 percent of urban women, i.e. one fifth of the respondents, reported physical abuse by their husbands.” (Rashida Patel, Woman versus Man, p 115) The counter argument is often that Islam allows a husband to beat his wife.

Cases of women being burnt by stoves or acid are regularly reported in the press. Victims are left grotesquely disfigured with injuries covering more than 30 percent of their bodies and often as much as 60, 70 and 90 percent. “The nature of [stove burn] injuries, the position of the victim in the family (she is usually a daughter-in-law, or a daughter to be married), and the frequency with which these ‘accidents’ occur provide circumstantial evidence of a grim pattern; that these women are burnt not by accident, but are victims of deliberate murder.” (Madadgaar’s Press Release, 24 January 2002 ‘223 women died due to burn injuries during the year 2001)

Many victims of rape cannot find redress for their grievance through the judicial system.  In fact, the victim becomes the criminal under the Zina Ordinance. Failure to produce 4 male witnesses to the criminal act of rape the woman finds herself charge with adultery and imprisoned. Her admission of rape constitutes an admission of adultery. Women who seek the help of the law often find themselves victims of violence perpetrated by the custodians of the law. Reported cases of custodial rape have led the Government to issue a number of directives regarding the arrest of women, but practically little seems to have changed.

The eleven years between 1977 and 1988 are considered some of darkest for women in Pakistan’s history. Under the rule of General Zia-ul-Haq “women were systematically attacked through discriminatory legislation, an unsympathetic judiciary and a brutally prejudiced executive.” (Herald, January 2002, p 130 ‘In their own right’) The women’s movement in Pakistan rallied, agitating openly against the state-sponsored brutalisation of women under this regime. They took to the streets, vigorously opposing the legalisation of violence against women. The core issues that sparked the rebellion against General Zia and led to mass agitation remain very much the same today, however it appears the struggle for women’s rights has been diluted and lost its focus.

Violent acts being perpetrated against women in Pakistan have roots in cultural norms, extreme patriarchal formations in society, socio-economic strictures, religious ideologies, laws that allow such violence to be perpetuated, and a state that is hostage to fundamentalist philosophies and ideologies. Violence has been increasing, despite a growth in the number of women’s NGOs seeking to work at a grassroots level to instigate real change. 

Framing the challenge

Creating momentum for change demands the challenge be articulated in symbols and actions that capture the imagination of others, calling them to join the movement towards a reimagined future. Events must be interpreted and given meaning in a way that calls into being a collective identity and invites belonging. The difficulties and challenges must be framed so as to identify the injustices and propose solutions.

When Malala Yousafzai began challenging discrimination against girls in education, she identified the burden that girls were forced to carry when they were excluded from education. Focusing on educational opportunities for girls through girls became a stimulus to broader activism that many, including global companies got involved in.

As I watched the Mukhtar Mai incident evolve when living in Pakistan, she developed a narrative for change by focussing on education for girls and boys. This is how she spoke about it: ‘When I began this journey into the legal system, a path from which there is no turning back, I’m hampered by my illiteracy and my status as a woman. Aside from my family, I have only one strength to call upon: my outrage.’ The government sort to silence her with money but she continued to frame the problem: ‘I don’t need a cheque … I need a school … a school for girls in my village. We don’t have one. If you really want to give me something then let me say this: I don’t need a cheque, but I do need a girls’ school for our village.’[1]

Framing challenges must plot the intersecting issues and the way women navigate them in their everyday. ‘Women are neither uni-dimensional – defined only by gender or religious identity – nor silent and passive victims. Therefore women’s strategic responses to the complex web of influences that modulate their lives are as diverse as their realities. Strategies range from theological interpretations to a radical rejection of religion, from individual strategies of personal assertion and career development to formal lobbying and – sometimes – armed struggle. Some put primacy on class struggle, others on other factors. Many women identify with the larger global women’s movement that, itself, consists of multiple strands and tendencies; others reject such integration.’[2]

Strategic choices give meaning to the issues and challenges, and become tools for mobilisation and action.


[1] Mai, M. (2006). In the Name of Honour. Great Britain: Virago Press. p. 30 & 56

[2] Shaheed, F. (2001c). Asian Women in Muslim Societies: Perspectives and Struggles. Asia-Pacific NGO Forum on B+10, Bangkok. p. 7

Reimaging the future through formative experiences

‘Dreaming of an alternative reality is not merely a matter of inspiration. To even conceive of different realities, women must first question the given parameters of their current lives by, among other things, unravelling the composite strands of the current identity being imposed on them as an integral whole.[1]

Moments of crisis can be a spark to turn dreams into action. When we explore the history of women’s activism in Pakistan, it was the crisis that engulfed women with the Islamisation of laws that sparked the collective response that saw the formation of the Women’s 

Action Forum (WAF). Crises that impact women can take individual journeys and bring them together in a collective struggle. The WAF became a platform to unite the individual voices of women and organisations for collective action. Women’s individual stories became part of a bigger story of women acting together to negotiate change in gender relations. 

Looking back on women’s activism Mukhtar Mai in Pakistan, Banaz Mahmod in the UK/Khurdish Iraq, Malala Yousafzia in Pakistan, Djamila Bouhired and Louisette Ighilahriz in Algeria, Tarana Burke and the #MeToo Movement, Rosa Parks in America, and the many, many other women from around the world, each of these women questioned the boundaries of their lives and dreamed of a different future.

In Kishwar Naheed’s poem, We Sinful Women, there is this profound movement from subjectivity to resistance. It captures the constraints and opportunities that attend the life of women in the pursuit of change 

It is we sinful women
who are not awed by the grandeur of those who wear gowns who don’t sell our lives
who don’t bow our heads
who don’t fold our hands together.

It is we sinful women
while those who sell the harvest of our bodies become exalted
become distinguished
become the just princes of the material world. 

It is we sinful women
who come out raising the banner of truth
against barricades of lies on the highways
who find stories of persecution piled on each threshold
who find the tongues which could not speak have been severed. 

It is we sinful women.
Now, even if the night gives chase
these eyes shall not be put out.
For the walls which have been razed
don’t insist now on raising again.[2]

Women foreground agency in resistance when formative experiences become the grist of change. 


[1] Shaheed, F. (2004). Constructing Identities: Culture, Women, Agency and the Muslim World (Vol. July). Lahore: Shirkat Gah. p. 11

[2] Naheed, K. (2004). The Distance of a Shout. Karachi: Oxford University Press. Translated by Rukhsana Ahmad.

Women’s rights at the intersection of politics and religion

In a fascinating book called Women in Place Nazanin Shahrokhni[1] has done a wonderful exploration of what happens when women’s rights are caught at the intersection of politics and religion. In this ethnographic study of women’s spaces in Iran, buses, parks and a football stadium, she highlights the pulls and pushes women rights face in the changing relationship between politics and religion. Her study goes further though, it demonstrates the agentic power of women when their rights are caught in these crosswinds.

Whereas the leaders of the Iranian revolution sought to control women by excluding them to private spaces, they were forced to renegotiate what that meant when economic, social and political pressures demanded these spaces be reconfigured. The language of control changed from that of religious and moral necessity to the state as protector and provider. Whatever the language, control of women through boundary making underpinned it all.

At the same time women were able to use that language to blur the edges of these constructued boundaries and call for greater freedoms. Places of contestation at this intersection of politics and religion became sites of negotiation and change.

Could we say that these spaces of contestation become liminal spaces for women’s renegotiating place, identity and belonging?

Expanding educational, work, leisure and economic opportunities along with shifts in political, social and economic imperatives continually rupture constructions of gender and rights. They bring new insights into the liminality of the space at the intersection of politics and religion that is inhabited by women, throwing open, albeit semi-controlled, spaces for transition and change.

Richard Rohr has described liminality as ‘where we are betwixt and between the familiar and the completely unknown. There alone is our old world left behind, while we are not yet sure of the new existence. That’s a good space where genuine newness can begin…[2]

In a changing world, where economic and political pressures, globalisation, social change, education and technology are creating ever-changing waves of pressure women’s rights can appear to be blown away and lost in the midst of it all. Where we can see these intersections and contestations as liminal spaces, we see women’s agency rewriting their future in the shadows of these power tussles.


[1] Shahrokni, Nazanin. Women in Place: The Politics of Gender Segregation in Iran, University of California Press, Oakland, 2020.

[2] Quoted in https://inaliminalspace.org/about-us/what-is-a-liminal-space/. Accessed 25.01.2022

Fighting over women’s rights

There was chaos in the Jordanian parliament at the end of 2021 when some members opposed proposed changes to the constitution around women’s rights. It was reported that punches were thrown, threats and insults exchanged amidst angry outbursts.

What could have caused such an undignified ruckus among lawmakers? It seems a review committee had wanted to address an issue of language, to include feminine as well as masculine in the way it addresses citizens.

It seems language matters. Through language that is always masculine we establish male as the default key to the structure of society and management of life. Even gender-neutral terms are assumed to be masculine. What about engineer, doctor, pilot, president. ‘… the masculine form speaks for all genders: for example, in India’s legal system, documents are written in the masculine, which is considered to include women unless otherwise specified’ (https://www.bbc.com/culture/article/20201006-are-some-languages-more-sexist-than-others).

I often got myself into trouble when learning Urdu because of the masculine and feminine forms and how I was expected to address men and women differently. I think, and probably I still don’t understand this enough, I am meant to speak more formally and respectfully to men.

Arabic is one of the most highly gendered language, so the discussion in the Jordanian parliament is addressing a very contentious issue. More than language it is addressing social structures that are embedded in the forms of language.

The way a language encodes gender is reflective of gender equality, or not, in a society. The efforts of the Jordanian constitutional review committee was seen to challenge issues of gender equality. The fight in parliament brought up issues of the impact a language change could have on inheritance and citizenship laws.

Salma Nims, secretary-general of the Jordanian National Commission for Women, said ‘Every time the women’s movement gets closer to achieving something, closer to living in dignity in this country there is a fear coming from the patriarchal system that this will mean a change in the power relations within society’ (https://edition.cnn.com/2021/12/29/middleeast/jordan-parliament-fight-intl/index.html).

What does hope for change in women’s rights look like when those responsible for the laws fear that change and fight to stop it?

Featured image: https://www.9news.com.au/world/jordan-parliament-brawl-over-womens-rights-debate/ef5d094b-9c62-48fc-8c0b-3407db9f862b

Are human rights Western?

When cultural traditions come under pressure women appear to face greater demands to be the bearers of ‘cultural authenticity’.  While discourses of feminism and Human Rights can become wedges of opportunity for women to raise demands and negotiate for change in gender relations, women’s organizations and activists embracing them are open to charges of succumbing to the seductions of the West and its cultural imperialism.

Many Muslim women activists seek some kind of accommodation with religious belief because of its critical role in local culture.  Shaheen Sardar Ali, in her book ‘Gender and Human Rights in Islam and International Law: Equal before Allah, Unequal before Men?’ articulates a perspective for understanding the rights of Muslim women within Islamic tradition.  She locates Muslim women within the “concentric rings of religion, class, law, and society that form the multiple layers of her identity and encompass her from the moment she is born”[1].

In such a culture, where feminism and cultural authenticity are deemed mutually exclusive categories, what framework can women’s activists and organizations use to negotiate for change? There is a need to search for a more culturally authentic genealogy of women’s right.

Western human rights discourse emphasises an individual construct of self that does not resonate in many Muslim countries where the construct of selfhood is relational and specific connections with others privileges access to rights. Talal Asad, in his work on human rights, argues that the language of human rights that is based on notions of redemptive emancipation is not only unhelpful, but provides a frame for its use for imperialistic purposes[2].

A culture with a relational notion of national identity and a relational notion of rights requires an alternate approach to ethical dilemmas. The feminist ‘ethic of care’ complements ethical theories that extol justice and autonomy as the ultimate goal.  It informs a moral endeavour to ‘alleviate the real and recognizable trouble in the world’ through interpersonal connections.   Rather than demanding rights and rules for all, it champions avoidance of harm for all, advocating responsibility in relationship.  It celebrates difference, contrasting the inherent demand for universalism within the impersonal justice and autonomy models.

Given the ongoing challenge to addressing gender violence, is it time to consider a new narrative of human rights?


[1] Sardar Ali, S. (2000). Gender and Human Rights in Islam and International Law: Equal Before Allah, Unequal Before Men. The Hague: Kluwer Law International. p. 89

[2] Asad, T. (2000). What Do Human Rights Do?  An Anthropological Enquiry. Theory and Event, 4(4).

Can we redefine ‘honour killings’?

There is a Punjabi proverb that says ‘one does not share the bread, but one shares the shame’.  And yet, honour and shame, while attributed to individual acts are not about the individual, but about the family. The honour of the family, in particular its male members, is located in the bodies of women.

Unni Wikan argues that it is not clear that honour and shame are binary opposites[1]. Drawing on studies conducted in Cairo and Oman, she argues that the location of these concepts in the everyday life of the community, and not just in select discourses, is essential. She shows that honour and shame relate differently to behaviour: that shame arises from an identifiable act, whereas honour is an attribute of the whole person[2].

But the debate continues. How else can honour and shame be seen? Whereas Nafisa Shah argues they are ‘two parallel states, honour is masculine, shame is feminine. Just as men have honour, women have shame. A woman’s shame summarises her public reputation and social position in much the same manner as honour does for men’[3], Tahira Khan suggests they are ‘dialectical states’: shame is the opposite of honour and both are male attributes, men possess honour and suffer shame[4].

Honour and shame are intrinsically linked in everyday discourses that shape women’s behaviour and the control of it. Purna Sen suggests that ‘codes of honour serve to construct … what it means to be a woman’[5]. Others link it to patriarchy and possession. Fatima Mernissi in her book ‘Beyond the Veil’, also makes a connection between honour and possessions. She argues that there is a strong link between money and female sexuality on the one hand, and the social construction of honour and purity on the other. Her point is that although honour is linked to material wealth, its location is firmly fixed in the body of women[6]. The woman’s body and her sexuality are the idioms of honour and shame. 

Is it possible then to redefine honour killings? The popular shorthand referring to killing women because an alleged shame besmirching the family honour as ‘honour killing’ becomes a tool for the defamation of women. What stops us simply calling it murder? In every other instance of killing it is called murder, and yet the killing a woman because someone alleges she has shamed them is not called murder.

Honour killings are murder, whatever the reasons attached.


[1] Wikan, U. (1984). “Shame and Honour: A Contestable Pair.” Man, New Series 19(4): 635 – 652. p 636

[2] Ibid. p638

[3] Shah, N. (1999). Women in revolt. Dawn. Karachi.

[4] Khan, T. S. (2006). Beyond Honour. Karachi: Oxford University Press. p 46

[5] Sen, P. (2005). ‘Crimes of Honour’, value and meaning. In L. Welchman & S. Hossain (Eds.), ‘Honour’: Crimes, Paradigms, and Violence Against Women. London and New York: Zed Books. p 48

[6] Mernissi, F. (1987). Beyond the Veil: Male-Female Dynamics in Modern Muslim Society (Revised Edition ed.). Bloomington: Indiana University Press. p 46-64

Don’t use me and then throw me away

Talking with a friend recently, we were discussing the challenges of women being included as equal participants, whether in political, social or religious spheres, until things became institutionalised. Once the goal of change was achieved, women were expected to go back to the margins.

In Algeria, in the fight for independence, women played a key role alongside men to remove the French colonial rule. They imagined that this meant a new day of freedom was dawning. But, once independence was gained women were excluded from the ongoing development of the state, pushed back to the margins where they were controlled and restricted.

During the years of Martial law and the Islamisation of Pakistan’s political and legal spaces, women became tools in the play for legitimacy. On the one hand moves made by the regime took control of women, their bodies and social spaces, claiming to restore their honour and dignity. At the same time, these changes burdened them with the role of protecting cultural norms, values and identity. Their voice was delegitimised and marginalised.

These are not only challenges in nation states. This challenge of making women what someone else wants them to be, of delegitimising their contribution, is found in work and organisational spaces as well.

In 1910, just under half of the registered Christian mission boards in the USA were women’s boards. They were told that they were dividing resources and so needed to join the general (read male dominated) organisations. There were promises that they would be given voice in leadership, strategic direction and planning. What actually happened was that women’s voices were marginalised and delegitimised.

Bible women in Korea carried the gospel from house to house, playing a leading role in establishing the church in that nation. When the church became institutionalised it was masculinised and women were made invisible. There work was harvested by male leadership, while they were pushed to the margins.

Women have been leaders, pioneers who have forged the way, opened doors for the greater good of the community, only to find themselves marginalised when the battle is won, progress attained. So, what is it about the institutionalising of structures and organisation that leads to their masculinisation and the concurrent marginalisation of women?

Let me simply offer some words for us to ponder.

Power
Control.
Authority.
Identity.
Belonging.
Patriarchy.
Bias.
Discrimination.
Inequality.
Injustice.
… what words would you add?