What will others say?

A number of years ago, in a letter to the editor of Dawn newspaper, Uzma Aslam Khan wrote: “Every girl in Pakistan grows up hearing: what will others say? Her reputation is the currency that measures her worth in her community, her country, and … to herself so that, it is hoped, she becomes her own prisoner.”

The combination of economic dependence, little or no education, lack of resources and access confined to the private sphere are the framework in which this question is often asked. Cultural norms and traditional practices, patriarchy and religious interpretations are a potent force brought to bear in formulating the answer. Defining identity in terms of reputation, and a reputation that is dependent on the control exerted by this social context, provides a double bind for many women.

Where custom and tradition are the gatekeepers of patriarchy, a woman’s behaviour is monitored not just by the males of her family, but also by the whole of her community and society. ‘What will others say?’ becomes a manipulative tool of control, and results in women internalizing the notion of the fragility and importance of their own behaviour and the insecurity of their status. Consumed by the notion that she carries the honour of the whole family in her body, as Khan wrote, ‘she becomes her own prisoner.

These issues need increased levels of discourse at every level of society, community, the nation, region and internationally. The opportunities created by information technology, social media, advances in communication, communities on the world-wide-web, and the global trade of values provides new resources for affecting change where static religious laws, traditions and cultural norms have been politically institutionalised.

At the same time, women who are daily negotiating the currency of her reputation need support and tools to cut the bars of this prison. Too many women feel that they are locked in solitary confinement. Creating communities, both face-to-face and virtual that even those who are isolated can access is an essential step in breaking through these barriers.

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

Do Muslim Women Need Saving?

No! Not when ‘saving’ them is the justification for military and political interventions that disempower women and reduce them to a project, statistic or show piece for a cause. Laura Bush so famously, or is that infamously, said: ‘The fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women’.

No! Not when, as Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, the Indian literary theorist and philosopher, wrote it is about ‘white men saving brown women from brown men’[1]. History is replete with examples of interventions being used to justify rules that oppress, marginalise, and bring other forms of abuse. We can look at colonial history in India and other parts of South Asia, at the interventions of Lord Cromer in Egypt, just for a start. And what about today? Sadly the ‘liberation’ of those whose lives are challenged by conservative, fundamental and even extreme interpretations of Islam have seen one form of tyranny supplanted by a different one.

There are challenges. There are issues of marginalisation through violence, laws, political structures, social structures, culture, traditions and religion that disempower women. There are fundamental health, education, and economic issues that leave women vulnerable to premature death, exploitation and poverty that they must be supported to challenge. They must be empowered so that in their daily negotiation of these challenges they are able to express their identity as women with dignity and life.

They are empowered when we acknowledge and affirm their dignity and identity as they work it out in the every day negotiations of their daily lives, when they are allowed to make their choices for change in the context of their reality.

Do Muslim women need saving? I wonder what they would say?

The title comes from the book: Abu-Lughod, Lila, Do Muslim Women Need Saving, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 2013

[1] Spivak, G. C., ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’, in Colonial Discourse and Post-Colonial Theory: A Reader, eds. Patrick Williams and Laura Chrisman (Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1994), pp. 90-105

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.