Women and the cost of poverty

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In a United Nations report, Transforming economies, realising rights, survey results showed that women aged 20 – 59 were more likely than men to live in a poor household, in 6 out of 8 Middle East and North Africa countries. The majority of the world’s absolute poor are females.

Too often women bear the burden of poverty. This has impact on a range of areas of their lives. Poverty is particularly destructive to women’s health, especially their reproductive and sexual health. Women and girls are often the last to eat and their health problems are considered secondary to other family priorities.

Maternal mortality rates soar where poverty is rampant. In part, this is because of the link between poverty and early marriage. More than half of Yemeni women are married before they are 18. The average age of marriage for a girl in Yemen is just 14 years. Early marriage is one of the main causes of high maternal mortality. A United Nations Development Programme report on Yemen suggested that every day 8 women die during childbirth and for every 100,000 live births, 366 women die. It said that approximately 19% of maternal deaths occur in women aged 15 – 19.

Early marriage feminizes poverty. Girls do not complete education, trapping them in cumulative cycles of deprivation, powerlessness, insecurity and poverty. The gender values that permeate all aspects of life and affect all social groups are intrinsic to a woman’s access to life and services.

The United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) identified 4 key indicators of the feminization of poverty.

  1. The temporal dimension. Women are often primarily responsible for childcare and household duties—tasks for which they receive no pay. Women living in developing nations may also be relied upon to participate in exhausting physical and/or agricultural labor to help support the livelihoods of their families and villages. Having so many other responsibilities, these women have less time to devote to paid employment, and consequently earn a smaller income, even though they are effectively doing more work than their male counterparts.
  2. The spatial dimension. When employment is sare, women may have to migrate to other areas to find work temporarily. If a woman has children, however, she may be unable to pursue a job that takes her far from her family.
  3. The employment segmentation dimension.Being naturally classified as caretakers, women have often been corralled into specific lines of work, such as teaching, caring for children and the elderly, domestic servitude, and factory work such as textile production. These kinds of jobs lack stability, security and a higher income.
  4. The valuation dimension.In the same vein, the unpaid labor that women perform in taking care of family members and other household chores is considered of far less worth (at least economically) than positions that require formal education or training.

https://www.mtholyoke.edu/~abbat22l/classweb/feminizationofpoverty/causes.html

There is a negatively-geared symbiotic relationship between poverty, which most affects women, and the gender disparities that marginalise women. The rigidity of socially prescribed gender roles in communities exacerbates the burden of poverty that women bear.

This burden is part of the daily cycle of life that many women must negotiate for their own survival, as one Egyptian woman described: “When our father died we suddenly found ourselves cast upon the waters like a ‘band of cripples’ … We would have to struggle from this time forward to keep ourselves alive … I recall my mother crying and saying, ‘O poor one, are you not like a creature drowning now. Where do I go now? To whom have you left me? I have neither brother or sister to lean on and no shore on which to rest. In whose hands have you commended my fate, O lost one? … early we learned to work not only in our own fields but as field hands picking sweet potatoes for others at seven or eight paisters a day” (Om Naeema in Khul Khall).

Untying the hard knots of women’s subjugation is essential to tackle other social issues that burden our world, one of which is poverty.

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.

Identity: Women are not schizophrenic

Women have multiple identities, raising the question as to when these different identities are articulated. The family is where definitions of gender are most immediately experienced, identity defined in part in the tasks she is assigned. Society and state articulate her gender within a framework of cultural symbolism, as the bearer of cultural authenticity. Farida Shaheed argues this is particularly so in Muslims states which have lacked a coherent ideology concerning their independence. Men rely on Islam and therefore require women as the markers of their cultural identity. The legacy of colonial domination has been a crisis of identity that has trapped women in struggles over culture.

Identity has a material shape embodying beliefs and behavioural patterns that order society. As identity is translated into tangible norms and customs, pre-existing social structures and power relations are pivotal in determining social customs and religions practices. Whereas it can be argued identity is a means of autonomous self-expression its manipulation is a means of control. Manderson and Bennett say “hegemonic constructions of gender are pivotal in the formation of women’s and men’s social identities, their personal subjectivities, their status and the power dynamics of female/male relations.” (Bennet and Manderson, 2003:11) Social control is exercised through notions of what is respectable and what is not. As repositories of their family honour it is family interpretations of religious and social values that are central determinants for the lives of women.

The inter-relationship of religion, class, law and society forms multiple layers of identity for a Muslim woman within an Islamic framework. Culture, customs, religion and law define the space available for self-definition and are the strands woven into 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 becomes 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.

Challenging the law: the case of Safia Bibi

The Hudood Ordinances were the first laws introduced in Pakistan by General Zia ul-Haq in 1979 as part of his programme of Islamization. They are a collection of 5 criminal laws dealing with theft and armed robbery; Zina or rape, abduction, adultery, and fornication; Qazf or false accusation in respect of Zina; prohibition of alcohol and narcotics and public whipping. Most of these were already offences in Pakistan when the Hudood Ordinances were promulgated, but these new Ordinances introduced forms of punishment recognized by Muslim jurists. Asma Jehangir and Hina Jilani, in their book ‘The Hudood Ordinances: A Divine Sanction?’ described the promulgation of the Hudood Ordinances as ‘transparent political opportunism’. (Jahangir and Jilani, 2003) Their framing and implementation has been described as ‘slipshod’ at best and lending no credibility to the notion of Islamisation. However, once a religious label has been attached to a law it becomes an extremely sensitive issue and any criticism is perceived as heresy.

While there was widespread consternation at the promulgation of the laws they were brought sharply into focus in 1983 with the case of Safia Bibi. Raped by her landlord and his son Safia Bibi became pregnant. Her father filed a complaint of rape when her pregnancy was revealed and the case went to court. Because she was blind and therefore unable to visually identify her alleged attackers they were set free. Her resultant pregnancy though was seen as admission of zina, adultery, and she was convicted and sentenced to 3 years imprisonment, public flogging and a fine. These laws caught Safia Bibi in their web. Under them she, the victim, had become the accused.

Women’s activists and supporters of human rights were outraged and for the first time the Women’s Action Forum (WAF), formed in 1980, went out onto the streets to protest this punishment and demand changes to the laws. Pressure was mounted as journalists wrote articles to highlight the issue and women lawyers agitated in their Bar Association. While many had opposed the promulgation of the laws this incident gave a focus to concerted agitation and attempts to negotiate for their change. It was a defining moment in the life of emerging women’s organisations, and that original protest is still celebrated each year by women’s groups around the country. It continues to provide opportunity for raising issues that concern gender violence. When the Federal Shari’a court acquitted Safia Bibi on a technical ground it made clear in its ruling that national and international pressure had played no small part in this decision.

While there was success in seeing the particular decision overturned, much of those Hudood Ordinances remain in force today. The question must be asked; was this an individual revolution or have women’s organisations and activists been able to use this as an opportunity to engage and negotiate?

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!’

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.

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