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.

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.