I am not that woman!

I am not that woman

selling you socks and shoes!

Remember me, I am the one you hid

in your walls of stone, while you roamed

free as a breeze, not knowing

that my voice cannot be smothered by stones.

 

I am the one you crushed

with the weight of custom and tradition

not knowing

that light cannot be hidden in darkness.

Remember me,

I am the one in whose lap

you picked flowers

and planted thorns and embers

not knowing

chains cannot smother my fragrance

 

I am the woman

whom you bought and sold

in the name of my own chastity

not knowing

that I can walk on water

when I am drowning.

 

I am the one you married off

to get rid of the burden

not knowing

that a nation of captive minds

cannot be free.

 

I am the commodity you traded in,

my chastity, my motherhood, my loyalty.

Now it is time for me to flower free.

The woman on that poster.

half naked, selling socks and shoes –

No, no, I am not that woman!

(Kishwar Naheed, Translated by Farrukhi, A., Ed. (2004). The Distance of a Shout. Karachi, Oxford University Press.)

Women do not constitute a homogeneous category. They are located in different places, belong to different social spheres, are members of different ethnic groups, and adherents of different religious groups. Their lives are mediated by their differing locations, and the ways they engage from these with dominating structures. At the same time, there is much that women share: their incorporation as women into the state and nation; their incorporation into dominant discourses that mediate social relationships, citizenship, religion and law; and definitions of gender by the institutionalised structures of state and society.

While the debates about women who call for change rage, their privilege of class or education, political influence or dominant ethnicity, women are bound together by these structural definitions. The issues of marginalization, violence, commodification, identity, and value affect all women. The voices for change use the space of their ‘privilege’ to advocate for change for all women.

The barrier to change is not that someone with privilege in one area engages in the struggle for change for all women, the barrier is that others tell us that this is wrong. While women experience the boundaries differently, structural definitions are just that, structural boundaries that all women experience.

As women we must continue explore together the tensions at the intersection of diverse constructions that mediate our lives. Together we will understand the mediating influences and how they shape our identity as we traverse the contours of these discourses that inform and shape our daily experiences. Together we will shout to those who want to give boundaries to our being, ‘ we are not that woman!’

Burnt Alive!

News report from Pakistan say that 25 year old Shabana Bibi was doused in gasoline and set alight by her husband and his father, after she left the home without her husband’s permission. She was not running away. She did not defame him. She simply went out for a visit without taking permission. Shabana Bibi died after suffering burns to 80% of her body.

Some are calling the murder of Shabana Bibi an honour crime, but that is too simplistic. By calling it an honour crime are we simply affirming the notion that a woman carries in her body the honour of all her family? Are we agreeing that at the root of this crime are issues to do with honour? Have we sold the reality of this crime out to notions of honour and shame? Are we doing women a disservice by allowing murder committed against them when they act independently of male approval, to be referred to as honour crimes?

Family members often act in this way because of perceptions that something done by the woman has brought shame to them. But what do they mean by that? What shame did Shabana Bibi’s action bring on her husband and his father? Certainly they did not have the tight control of her that they may have wanted the community to believe they had. Shabana Bibi did not submit to their controls unquestioningly. Their power over her life was not absolute.

That’s where shame and honour are a strange paradigm to describe what necessitates such violence. Honour crimes are predicated on women being made commodities, when they are simply objects to be delivered from one man’s home (their father’s) to another man’s home (their husband’s). Their only value is calculated in terms of their power of reproduction and as an object of sexual satisfaction. The value of this ‘commodity’ then must be protected. This means men restrict women’s space in the family, their mobility, their behaviour and their activities.

Where gender is an organisational principle of a society, and patriarchal values are enmeshed with tradition and culture to predetermine the social value of gender, women are burdened with the rules of honour and shame. And so it is that honour crimes are the publicly articulated justification of that social order and its concomitant rules. This is a social order that requires the preservation of ‘honour’, an honour that is vested in male control over women, and specifically women’s sexual conduct – whether that is actual, suspected or potential.

Maybe we have to begin to tackle these so called ‘honour’ crimes by addressing gender as an organisational principle of society. The value of a woman is not her reproductive ability or sexual purity. And we can stop calling the murder of a woman because she has rejected this social ordering an ‘honour crime’.

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.

Child Marriage

A prized rite that every girl must undergo at a young age, the result of poverty, destiny, life’s role … too many young girls are forced to marry too young.

The International Centre for Research on Women gives the following statistics:

  • One third of girls in the developing world are married before the age of 18 and 1 in 9 are married before the age of 15.
  • In 2010, 67 million women 20-24 around the world had been married before the age of 18.
  • If present trends continue, 142 million girls will be married before their 18th birthday over the next decade. That’s an average of 14.2 million girls each year.
  • While countries with the highest prevalence of child marriage are concentrated in Western and Sub-Saharan Africa, due to population size, the largest number of child brides reside in South Asia.[1]

Research indicates that economics plays a significant role in the early marriage with girls from poorer households more than twice as likely to marry young than girls from higher income families. Girls with higher education are also less likely to marry at a younger age. The impact of women’s marginalisation economically and in education has consequences for generations.

For girls who are married young the consequences can be devastating. Girls younger than fifteen are five times more likely to die in childbirth, with pregnancy being the leading cause of their early death. Violence seems to stalk girls who are married young, with those who marry before eighteen more likely to experience domestic violence than their peers who marry later. Girls who have been married young show symptoms of sexual abuse and stress that is associated with marital life.

It is not just a question of alleviating poverty, though that is an essential step, nor of increasing educational opportunities for girls, though girls should be given access to education; underlying these issues are questions about attitudes to women. Whereas Ban Ki Moon has urged recognition of child marriages as a key indicator in female empowerment, tackling the roots of female marginalisation is necessary alongside measures to protect young girls who are most vulnerable.

[1] http://www.icrw.org/child-marriage-facts-and-figures

Watch this Video on Child Marriage

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

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