It’s not quite so simple

Problematising the challenges for gender equality is fraught because too much research takes a unidimensional approach to the issues. Some state ‘the problem is religion’, with both Christianity and Islam labelled as patriarchal constructs that hinder women’s development and equality. Of course if you belong to one of those religions you may argue otherwise. There are women within both of these faith traditions who argue cogently for the emancipatory nature of their faith. So yes, the problem is complex.

Too often simplistic articulation of the problem denies the agentic nature of women’s engagement with and through their faith tradition. Everything about women and how they negotiate their everyday is subsumed under a rubric of their passive socialisation within religion to oppose gender equality.

However, the question that is not answered is how do men and women live their faith differently? What are the negotiations they engage in everyday that enable them to navigate the complexities of the religious and social dynamics that mediate their lives? How do they bargain with their faith, its institutions and traditions, its beliefs and practices, to challenge the barriers they face?

Working in a women’s college in South Asia, I was struck by the different ways women’s education enabled them to negotiate with socially and religiously embedded structures. As an outsider looking in I could only see structures that appeared antithetical to gender equality. As I spent time living in the community, and in some small way began to see how women lived intentionally and purposefully rewriting the rules of those structures, their agency became evident.

I had heard outsiders describe education for these women as simply a ticket to a better marriage, dismissing the education they engaged in as largely meaningless. What I began to see, however, was the ability education gave these women to negotiate who they married, what they brought to the marriage and how the marriage was navigated. Yes, education enabled them to negotiate in their marriage and that was a meaningful was of challenging old norms that would otherwise dominate their lives.

It is too easy for us to disregard the acts of agency of other women because they are not as we imagine their world should be. The path of change can only be defined by those who must pioneer it. Simplistic articulations of problems can blind us to the change that is happening in women’s everyday negotiations and navigations.

Gender Stereotyping

I once heard from a colleague who had someone attack her stating that her only problem was that she was a woman and she was Asian. Collapsed into those categories, it seems, were a whole host of negative characteristics, behaviours, ways of being. The person making this unbelievable statement felt it unnecessary to speak to the things that upset him. He simply caught up his problems or frustrations, or whatever it was, and threw muck widely, indiscriminately and in broad generalisations.

The blatant racism in his labelling her according to her ethnicity shut her down on the basis of however he stereotyped Asians. Neither she nor I had the answers to what that was. What was clear is that he had a negative stereotype and threw it with full force at her. She was a leader in his community, and I can make a guess he did not like her leadership style. Rather than talk about the specific issues, he made a broad sweeping stereotypical statement that said nothing.

Being a woman was another problem. The label itself was, it seems in his view, more than enough to define the problem. To be a woman, was a category of denigration. What it was we don’t know, simply being a woman was enough.

Stereotyping is an easy way to dismiss not just an individual, but a whole category of people. Which woman was this person speaking of? Women are not a homogeneous group. There are multiple diversities, and no one single description encapsulates all women. And yet, when we stereotype we usually focus on branding with a set of negatives, catching a whole group up in our own frustration and negativity.

Gender stereotyping defines women based on generalisations about who they are, how they behave, what roles they should have and how to manage them. While stereotypes have an adaptive function that enables easy categorisation, they are so often full of faulty assessments. Gender stereotyping limits agency, often denying, or seeking to deny, women’s creative agentic engagement with their world.

Some typical stereotypes around women include
• Victims of intimate partner violence are weak because they stay in the relationship
• There is something wrong with a woman who doesn’t want children
• Assertive women are unfeminine and are “bossy,” “bitches” or “whores”
• Women are natural nurturers; men are natural leaders
• Women don’t need equal pay because they are supported by their husbands
• Women who appear less feminine or reject advances from men are lesbians
• Women with children are less devoted to their jobs
(https://www.genderequalitylaw.org/examples-of-gender-stereotypes)

Gender stereotyping is a barrier to gender justice and equality. They result from and are the cause of deeply held negative attitudes, values, norms and prejudices about women. They are fed by perceptions rather than actual realities and facts, and so often they are self-perpetuating.

As part of the work needed for gender justice and equality we must counter gender stereotypes with narratives of truth, offered without judgment and calling out labelling that diminish in its broad generalisations.

Am I being set up to fail?

Finally, a moment of opportunity was opening up as I was being invited to take on a new leadership role in the organisation I was working in. There was not great clarity about it. The Executive Director did not want to make major changes to the leadership structure but was seeking to slide a new role into the existing one. I should have known. I should have seen what lay ahead.

Without clarity about how relationships in the leadership structure would work, without the work of thinking through and seeking to embed new ways of functioning, it failed.

I don’t think my colleagues were deliberate with bypassing the new structure. The new structure was not clear. I don’t think the Executive Director wanted it to fail, though maybe his motives were not as pure as I imagined them to be. He could say he tried to include more women in leadership but she left.

We had struggled as an organisation to get women into leadership. I was at that time, and continue to be, a voice for greater inclusion of women in leadership. This seemed like a way of creating some momentum for change. I bought into the narrative new things were happening and as I had been pushing for change it seemed I should accept the invitation.

I was set up to fail. I don’t know if it was a traditional glass cliff, but I certainly took on a new role that had no way of succeeding. There was an underlying antagonism among some colleagues that there was a hierarchy being formed in leadership. The changes had not been widely discussed in the leadership team. The Executive Director didn’t change his way of relating to any of the team, even though he had created a new structure, so I found male colleagues preferred to work with him because he ‘understood them and how they worked’. My line management responsibilities were compromised. When they disagreed with a discussion with me they simply went to the Executive Director who made no attempt to talk to me about what had been discussed.

I failed. I learned a lot, but it was a painful failing. We never did name the issues, I simply left quietly, naming some other reasons for moving on.

I failed my female colleagues because what I agreed and took on, with its subsequent failure, probably set back growth in women in leadership by some years. It clearly didn’t work. After I left the role was redefined. A male colleague took on a very different role under the same name and was given great freedom to run in a very different direction. The Executive Director backed away from a remodelled structures that created task distinctions in leadership and management. For the next several years there were few women on the leadership team.

What questions should I have ask that would have uncovered the weaknesses in what was being offered and uncovered how I was set up to fail? What does it mean to advocate for change and then face something that will lead to failure and not to change?

These invisible barriers challenge the narrative that there are no women for roles in leadership, that they always say no. They expose the blindness in organisations that hinders practices of equality. Glass cliffs and glass ceilings need to be shattered, but women will need to do it together.

Featured Image: With thanks Pixabay

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.

Politics – the case of Zainab Noor

Benazir Bhutto’s rise to power at the end of the 1980s was greeted with cautious optimism by women in Pakistan who thought that they would have a Prime Minister who was sympathetic to their cause and committed to working to improve the status of women in the country. In 1994 the case of Zainab Noor brought the issue of domestic violence starkly into focus and Benazir Bhutto was forced to turn her attention to women and their problems, something she had drifted away from as she struggled for political survival. Zainab Noor had run away from her husband and his beatings. When she was returned he punished her by tying her to a bed, inserting hot metal rods in her vagina and passing an electric current through them. This did not kill her outright, but she was terribly wounded. As activists and women’s organizations protested this case, and the many incidents of domestic violence that usually went unreported, Ms Bhutto committed the Government to providing medical costs for Zainab Noor’s treatment abroad and setting up a special cell to investigate cases of domestic violence, particularly burnings.

Activist and Director of the Progressive Women’s Association (PWA), Shahnaz Bokhari, says that visiting the victim in hospital was a pivotal moment in her life and the emergence of the PWA. Since March 1994 the PWA has documented more than 6500 victims of domestic violence, mainly burns victims, from just 3 hospitals in the twin cities of Islamabad and Rawalpindi. It was the case of Zainab Noor that brought the issue of domestic violence to the media’s attention. Along with the particular intersection of women and politicians at the time this enabled women to maintain a visible profile in seeking to negotiate for change in gender relations.

The fall of the Bhutto government however demonstrated the dilemma in Pakistan as instability in governments, and their rise and fall, saw issues fall between the cracks. This is probably most true when it comes to women’s issues. There was a window of opportunity for negotiation when this incident and the political milieu at the time paved the way for documentation, acknowledgment and debate on the problem of domestic violence. This case highlighted the particular impact of a sympathetic state, or at least sympathetic politicians, and leads to questions about whether their involvement opens negotiations or is purely reactive. It highlights too, women’s perception of state involvement in the processes of negotiation. The impact of government instability on the ability of women to negotiate when they do forge opportunities out of situations was brought into focus.