Education, an essential for change

Recent events on Afghanistan have highlighted the challenges and fears that exist around women’s education. Despite many promises, the Taliban did a huge U-turn on March 23rd when it told girls who arrived for school that they had to go home. Girls over 11 years of age appear to have been refused the option of returning to school after the Taliban took over government.

The narrative is confused. Uniform debates and lack of teachers were among the issues that the Taliban said had forced this closure of schools. Not everyone agrees. Some suggest the issue is about internal divisions within the Taliban, while others make a nonsense of the issue of uniforms, stating uniforms for girls are already very conservative.

The higher education of girls is seen as a pointer to development. Many point to the increase in girls education after the earlier fall of the Taliban. UNESCO reported an increase in the number of girls in higher education from 5,000 in 2001 to 90,000 in 2018.

While access to education is one issue highlighted by these recent events, is it the only challenge for women and girls with respect to education? Education is more than completing a course, although enabling girls to complete education cycles remains a challenge in many contexts. Poverty, early marriage, gendered roles, lack of female teachers are just some of the issues that challenge inclusion of girls in education.

Another challenge is that girls are often not equally empowered through education. When I worked in a large South Asian educational institution for girls, many were allowed to complete their education in order to ensure they would get a better class of marriage. This demeaning of education and its outcomes haunts some girls whose education has a purpose other than empowering and enabling her.

Education needs to be part of coherent strategies that address social inequalities in order for girls to really enjoy its benefits.  Education also needs to give attention to the challenges girls face and include strategies that not only enable participation but also promote gender equal opportunities in the classroom.

That education of girls has wide-ranging benefits for societies is well documented, however the barriers to achieving equality in education remain high.

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?

Civil society: alternative definitions

Civil society is a contested and ambiguous term that can accommodate a wide spectrum of views.  The state can use the notion of civil society when it wants to promote projects of mobilization and modernization, non-state actors use it as an angle for a legal share of public space while independent activists and intellectuals use it to expand the boundaries of individual liberty.

It has been conceptualised variously as civil institutions, as human networks that exist independently of the state, as a realm differentiated from the economy and state, and as a place of social life independent of the state that cannot be swallowed up by the state.  Saad Eddin Ibrahim, an Egyptian political sociologist describes civil society in terms of the link it creates between ‘democracy, development and a peaceful management of conflict domestically and regionally’ (Ibrahim, 1995).

A number of authors argue that civil society is a Western construct and there are problems in applying it uncritically to the Third World as a measure of modernity and progress. Serif Mardin is categorical in asserting that civil society cannot be unquestioningly translated into Islamic terms.  He bases this assertion on his argument that civility and civil society are not interchangeable terms and therefore the presence of civility does not automatically translate into a presence of civil society (Mardin, 1995).  Deniz Kandiyoti suggests an alternative way of conceptualizing the interface of engagement between state and society.  She refers to it as the site of a ‘new political society’ that does not necessarily conform to the norms of civil society but facilitates mobilization that channels popular demands in the emerging state (Kandiyoti, 2001).  Alternatively there is literature that seeks to redefine Islam’s internal structures, groupings and associations as demonstrable evidences of civil society from its earliest beginnings (Esposito, 2000:, Esposito and Burgat, 2003:, Chambers and Kymlicka, 2002:, Hanafi, 2002).

An alternative to civil society as framed by Western theory is needed to understand where engagement for negotiation occurs in non-Western societies.  The basic premise of Western civic culture is that sovereignty lies with the will of the people whereas Islam is based on the ultimate authority of God’s Word.  Therefore, how can the interface that allows for negotiation, where women’s organizations and activists can engage with state and society be conceptualized? 

Saad Eddin Ibrahim defines the concept of civil society by linking it to the concept of public space or the public sphere.  (Ibrahim, 1995)  The concept of the public space is variously used to identify that place where discourse and interaction between players of society happens and where society can interact with the state.  Nancy Fraser refers to it as mediation between state and society with society ‘holding the state accountable’ as she explores Habermas’ use of the concept (Fraser, 1992).  

However, where the concept of civil society contrasts public and private space, there are limitations in its usefulness as a framework for understanding negotiation for change for women. Concepts of public and private spheres are foundational to Islam’s designation of male and female space and roles.  It can be argued that these designations serve to maintain the inequalities and reinforce the power structures that are part of the problem for women living under Islam.  Talal Asad conceptualizes this when he argues the inherent and unquestionable link between the public sphere and articulations of power (Asad, 2003). Bari and Khattack observe that civil society is intrinsically linked with masculine interpretations of the state (Bari and Khattack, 2001).  Suad Joseph and Susan Slymovics further this idea, arguing that definitions of what constitutes civil society are based on a gendered distinction between the public and private (Joseph and Slyomovics, 2001).  The public domain is an arena from which women are largely excluded in strict Muslim definitions of space. 

Joseph and Slyomovics speak to this perspective when they assert that central to public, private and domestic spheres in Arab-Islamic societies is the patriarchal family, which they view as a construct of power in society.  They elucidate their argument by describing kinship and community as central organizers of social life; that state institutions and civil society do not operate independently of kin-based and communal relations (Joseph and Slyomovics, 2001).

Shahnaz Khan, in an article ‘Muslim Women: Negotiations in the Third Space” offers an alternative space, one that is neither traditionally differentiated public and private but what she designates ‘political space’ (Khan, 1998). This is a place for ‘supplementary sites of resistance and negotiation’ formed when the original symbols and signifiers that have been translated through the discourses of Islam and colonialism, are re-appropriated, re-historicised and reread.  Nancy Fraser’s work on a ‘multiplicity of competing publics’ suggesting that ‘subaltern counterpublics … function as spaces of withdrawal and regroupment … [and] … as bases and training grounds for agitational activities directed towards wider publics” (Fraser, 1992:124) may be helpful in developing an understanding of this.

How do women in different societies negotiate and translate these discourses that regulate their lives into a ‘politics of everyday living’? 

Toxic Misogyny: what should be done?

A July 2021 article described the issues underlying a women’s alleged murder by family members as a result of toxic misogyny[1]. The article laid the blame on the government and its failure to protect women, citing a culture of impunity, patriarchal attitudes, victim blaming, the power given by certain religious teachings, or even the influence of western values and thinking. Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Imran Khan, has blamed women themselves for the violence perpetrated against them.

Perhaps part of the problem is in the generic use of the term, toxic misogyny. When all attitudes and behaviours are caught up under one label, nothing is clearly identifiable in order to be dealt with. The Atlantic, in describing the dilemma, said: ‘the concept offers an appealingly simple diagnosis for gendered violence and masculine failure…[2]’.

The problems that lead to gendered violence are multiple. They are not simply dealt with by a fierce description. Human rights lawyer, Hina Jilani told me once that she could not fight violence without laws. But we don’t just need laws, we need the enforcement of laws. The women’s movement in Pakistan has recognised over its decades of work that it cannot tackle gendered violence without using the language of religion, otherwise it is heard. Patriarchal structures that embed attitudes that make women less than equal have been show to be at the centre of the issue also. Institutional structures that deny women a voice and control them perpetuate the problem. The valorisation of cultural norms that place family honour and well-being in a woman’s body accentuate the burden women must bear and are used to legitimise violence and abuse.

We must be careful not to assume that the causes, and practices, of this toxic misogyny are the same everywhere. While lessons can be learned and learning should be shared, there is simply no single solution. And there are times when we feel like all the progress that has been made is wiped away with a simply stroke of the pen, comment of a leader, or failure of a legal system.

Toxic misogyny, what can be done? Let’s not give up calling for laws, demanding their implementation, addressing the abuses of religious belief, working for rights, challenging structures, creating spaces where women come together to work in multiple ways for the dignity and inclusion of all.


[1] https://www.dw.com/en/noor-mukadams-murder-exposes-toxic-misogyny-in-pakistan/a-58645017

[2] https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2019/02/toxic-masculinity-history/583411/

Unintended consequences

In an article on Citizenship and Gender in Middle East Suad Joseph talks of the ‘pervasiveness of patriarchy’ and its over-arching influence in shaping notions of propriety and umpiring behaviour. Khawar Mumtaz and Fareeda Shaheed, in their book ‘Women of Pakistan, Two Steps Forward, One Step Back’, describe the enmeshing of patriarchy into the structures of feudalism, tribalism and capitalism as symbiotic; creating an interdependent relationship between these structures. While theoretically distinct, opposition to one immediately implies opposition to the other.

Emancipatory measures have in fact been adopted by the State in many instances, though they often seem more cosmetic than genuine actions for change. They are often enmeshed in the patriarchal structures of society, binding women ever more deeply to those structures. Deniz Kandiyote charges that such measures are never intended to lead to renegotiation of men’s existing privileges, but are simply an endowment upon women of additional capabilities and responsibilities. Women are dependent on these pronouncements to procure any advancement.

However, limited though these emancipatory measures introduced by governments may be, they have seen the rise of women who are today’s advocates for change in gender relations. A body of highly-skilled, professional women who are concerned to change the ‘gendered balance of power, has been born. Pakistan is one example, where such women are to be found now as activists and leaders of women’s organizations.

Laws that deal with male violence, family law, female exclusion from education, health provisions for women, are all dependent on men acting to provide for women. Women activists have leveraged these small scraps to challenge the state and society on more structural and institutional levels. Governments never intended that their offerings would become the catalyst for more, and yet there is significant evidence that women are using these small openings as major opportunities to engage in negotiations for change.

Facing Culture and Religion – the case of Samia Sarwar

The broad-daylight, cold-blooded murder, in April 1999, of Samia Sarwar by her family in the office and presence of her lawyer Hina Jilani, a leading human right’s lawyer and activist and UN Special Representative to the Secretary General on Human Rights Defenders, shocked and stunned many in Pakistan. That her family would so boldly shoot her dead was seen as indicative of their belief that they would not face prosecution or even condemnation for the deed. There was a storm of protest with human rights activists storming the Civil Secretariat the following day demanding justice.

But the country was divided. In a Special Bulletin, ‘The Dark Side of Honour’, by Shirkat Gah (part of the international network ‘Women Living Under Muslim Law’) Rabia Ali writes that members of the Senate refused to pass a resolution condemning the murder, arguing that honour killings were part of their ‘cultural traditions’ (Ali, 2001). The NWFP Chamber of Commerce and religious organizations added their voice, declaring her killing ‘in keeping with tribal laws’ (Ali, 2001). The Ulema went so far as to declare Asma Jehangir, one of Pakistan’s leading human rights lawyers and a founding member of the Women’s Action Forum (WAF), and Hina Jilani infidels deserving to be killed because they were misleading Pakistan’s women and contributing to the country’s bad image abroad. Public support for the honour killing was said to be overwhelming in the NWFP because it was deemed to be in accordance with tradition and therefore not a crime.

Government inaction on honour killings was publicly exposed by this event. Honour killings were placed firmly on the public agenda and women’s organizations and activists were able to publicly engage on the issue. It was a local flashpoint with international ramifications. The Centre for Islamic and Middle Eastern Law at SOAS and the International Centre for Legal Protection of Human Rights convened a conference in November 1999 to look at the question of honour killings. In the summary report produced from this ‘Roundtable on strategies to address ‘crimes of honour’’ they state explicitly that “the project was initiated in response to the murders of Samia Sarwar in Pakistan and Rukhsana Naz in the UK in early 1999 and the explicit articulation of an ‘honour’-based defence by the alleged perpetrators in each case.” (Welchman, 2000)

WAF, Shirkat Gah and other human rights bodies issued press releases condemning the murder and calling for action. Asma Jehangir filed an FIR (First Incident Report) and demanded a Government enquiry into 300 cases of honour killings for the previous year. There was no response. Women were confronted with the realities of cultural norms given religious weight in condoning crimes against them. In October 2004 the government rejected legislation introduced into parliament by Sherry Rehman, an opposition MNA, seeking to articulate clearly the criminal nature of honour killings. Kashmala Tariq, an MNA belonging the then ruling party, put up a private members bill in March 2005 seeking to prevent those accused of honour killings from winning impunity through the provision of diyat, or blood money, but this too was dismissed by the National Assembly. Culture and tradition are not willing to give up their right to sanctioned violence against women.

The process of negotiation is fraught with difficulties but the Samia Sarwar incident showed how culture and religion, when they become intertwined, are a toxic mix for women.

Encouraging education

Obviously those who want to keep women marginalised fear education. They shot Malala Yousafzai, a young girl who is an advocate for girls education in an area where women live with marginalisation. The Taliban was clear that it shot her for advocating female education. When more than 150 girls fell ill from drinking poisoned water in Afghanistan, they blamed those opposed to women’s education. One of Pakistan’s senior educationists, a woman, Dr Bernadette Dean, decided to leave the country after receiving death threats.

What do they fear? What is the power unleashed by education that these elements fear?

A young Afghani girl said ‘literacy and education is as light, it also gives you power’[1]. Studies on the benefits of education for girls have shown that this is the single most effective strategy to ensure the well-being of the next generation, and for the long-term sustainable development of communities and economies. Educating Girls Matters[2] says there are profound benefits for women that include:

  • Reduction of child and maternal mortality
  • Improvement of child nutrition and health
  • Lower birth rates
  • Enhancement of women’s domestic role and their political participation

Is this what they fear? I think their fear is more deep-rooted. Social change will certainly challenge their position, their power, their control over women and the community. But the roots are deeper. Freedom. Education opens the door to choice, enhancing identity and empowering to dream and seek to fulfill those dreams. It brings girls and women together, creates community, breaks isolation.

Quality education and equal opportunity to access it has the potential to bring radical change. However else we tackle women’s marginalization, the fear of education speaks to its power to transform.

[1] Agenda.weforum.org, How educating girls can transform communities, Accessed 21.05.2015

[2] http://www.educatinggirlsmatters.org/challenge.html

The Limits of Human Rights

Violence in the home was for many years seen as a private family matter, and there are still contexts where that is at least the cultural and social norm. Both legal and religious systems, across cultural contexts, sanctioned male domination and control of their women. It was during the second feminist movement in the United States that a paradigm shift began. Domestic violence began to be viewed as a political and social issue.

This led to a language of intervention, one that has shifted the focus to the need for a societal response. Framing domestic violence as a human rights issue came from the work of activists to heighten understanding that domestic violence was a serious problem.

The language of human rights has a weakness however. Elizabeth Gerhardt has argued in her book, ‘The Cross and Gendercide[1], that viewing violence against women as a human rights issue presents it in a more wholistic perspective because it takes into account a wide range of related issues. She argues that the language of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights provides whole life frame of reference from which to respond.

As a description of the problem, this may be correct, to a point. However, the all-encompassing nature of the categories of the declaration, fails to wrestle with the nuances of women’s lives, the multiple layers that cannot be consumed under singular categories. Lila Abu-Lughod asserts in her book, ‘Do Muslim Women Need Saving?[2]’, that the layers of women’s lives are ignored in discourses that homogenise their issues. She argues that women are constantly negotiating the terrain of their lives in ways that belie the categorisation of their issues under the common categories used by those who want to enact change for women.

Human rights has given focus to the challenges that women face, and provided a language that the world understands. What it fails to do is provide links into women’s every day lived experience, to their realities. There is a dissonance for women whose lives must be lived by negotiating daily their experiences and the contingencies with which they live.

[1] Gerhardt, Elizabeth, The cross and Gendercide: A Theological Response to Global Violence Against Women and Girls, Downers Grove, Intervarsity Academic, 2014

[2] Abu-Lughod, Lila, Do Muslim Women Need Saving, Cambridge, Havard University Press, 2013

Untying the hard knots …

Is it possible to ‘untie the hard knot’ of women’s subjugation? Pakistan’s great philosopher poet, Muhammad Iqbal, appeared not to think so. He wrote in one of his poems:

Man’s greatness emanates by itself without others’ aid, While woman’s quality is always mediated by the other. I too am very sad over women’s helplessness But it is not possible to untie the hard knot of her subjugation[1].

But it is possible! It cannot be imposed from the outside. As a justification for war and other outside and political interventions, releasing women from their oppression has failed miserably. CEDAW, Millenium Development Goals that focus on the uplift of women, and countless projects and programmes have tried to mediate change. They have all acted to bring the solution to women. And yet one thing has been forgotten. Farida Shaheed understood it when she wrote:

[We know] that women suffer all manner of oppressions in the name of identity. But [we] believe that the single worst form of oppression we suffer is not the silence imposed on us or the silence that we impose on ourselves for fear of betraying our community; it is not even the violence to which we are subjected. Though all this happens. The most debilitating oppression we suffer is not being able to even dream of an alternative reality to the one imposed; to the one we know. So we encourage women to dream. By our very existence and by the choices we formulate for ourselves in our personal and collective sphere, networkers provide alternative reference points for women in Muslim contexts who live and think and act differently. We are living proof that alternative realities can and do exist[2].

We don’t agree with Iqbal. The ‘hard knots’ of subjugation can be undone. Change will be mediated in different ways through the layers of women’s lives, but change is possible. The change that women want will be different. It cannot be imposed upon them, or they will simply be tied with new knots of subjugation. The day to day reality of women’s lives is not the end. We join together to dream of new realities. [1] Hussain, F., Ed. (1984). Muslim Women. London, Croom Helm. [2] Shaheed, F. (2004). Asian Women in Muslim Societies: Perspectives and Struggles. Asia-Pacific NGO FOrum on B-10. Bangkok.