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 …

Was Muhammad Iqbal right when he said the situation for women could not change, that they were subject to the desires and control of others? NO! The ‘hard knot of their subjugation can be changed.

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.