When there is insecurity…

Islamisation of the law and society in Pakistan, under the rule of General Zia ul Haq, initially created new opportunities for women to negotiate change. Opponents of the General’s Islamisation of his rule and civil society actors were harassed, imprisoned or chose to leave the country. Civil space was empty in the face of the insecurity unleashed by the processes of Islamisation.

Enter women activists. For a significant period of time the insecurity created by the rapidly changing political, social and religious conditions gave women open doors to pursue change. Women demonstrated publicly, confronted the General’s rule, and challenged religious leaders. They were vociferous in their demands for equality for women under the law and in the constitution.

Scholarship in the Western academia has laregely focussed on how insecurity threatens men and their masculinity, arguing that this leads to exaggerated displays of masculinity. Those who do not display this sort of masculinity are then mistreated as part of this hyper-masculine behaviour.

But, is this always true? In the case of Pakistan insecurity saw space for women open up in new ways, opportunities created and grasped, and gender norms renegotiated. Women’s activism in Pakistan has continued as public advocacy with the government, society and religious authorities. Patriarchal norms were reinforced through the religious framing of the laws, but at the same time women reimagined the challenge to those norms. ‘… [R]esearch on masculinity in various parts of the world suggests that during times of social, political, and economic instability, women may be treated more equally or gain opportunities they did not have during more stable times.’ (Kucinskas and van der Dos, Gender Ideals in Turbulent Times: An Examination of Insecurity, Islam, and Muslim Men’s Gender Attitudes during the Arab Spring, Comparative Sociology 16, 2017.)

There is significant evidence that demonstrates how when men feel threatened they can resort to hyper-masculine behaviour which often involves violence against women. The increased rates of violence experienced by women during Covid bear witness to this. UN Women presented data that described violence against women as the unseen pandemic during that time. (https://www.unwomen.org/en/news/in-focus/in-focus-gender-equality-in-covid-19-response/violence-against-women-during-covid-19) France was just one country where there was a reported 32% increase in reports of domestic violence.

I am not wanting to deny this reality, that insecurity often sees increased violence against women. There is, however, another side to the story.

Research into several MENA region countries concluded that men who live with economic and political insecurity are often more open to gender egalitarianism, suggesting that this is because these men are dependent on women when under such pressure. Their research went on to indicate there is a strong relationship between political Islam and patriarchal gender attitudes. (Kucinskas and van der Dos, Gender Ideals in Turbulent Times: An Examination of Insecurity, Islam, and Muslim Men’s Gender Attitudes during the Arab Spring, Comparative Sociology 16, 2017.)

What happens when there is insecurity? Much greater attention must be given to context in examining and extrapolating outcomes. Complex dynamics at play between politics, religion, social organisation and patriarchy means the results vary significantly.

Using social customs and religion to perpetuate injustice against women

Sustainable development goal V aims at “achieving gender equality and empowering all women and girls”. (https://www.ohchr.org/en/faith-for-rights/faith4rights-toolkit/module-5-women-girls-and-gender-equality).

Two recommendations from CEDAW address some of the areas of concern with respect to this:

Recommendation No 35: “One of the primary challenges in the elimination of harmful practices relates to the lack of awareness or capacity of relevant professionals, including front-line professionals, to adequately understand, identify and respond to incidents or the risks of harmful practices. A comprehensive, holistic and effective approach to capacity-building should aim to engage influential leaders, such as traditional and religious leaders”.

Recommendation No 36 acknowledges that “the discriminatory and harmful practices of child and/or forced marriage, associated with religious or cultural practices in some societies, negatively impacts the right to education.” 

Women’s oppression is often justified on the basis of cultural norms and/or religious beliefs, even though at times these two are at odds with each other. Religious ideologies about creation, religiously sanctioned practices like polygamy, cultural beliefs around education, violence, forced marriages, women and property ownership, as well as cultural practices such as circumcision have informed cultural and religious decisions to justify the oppressive injustices experienced by women in many places. 

In a story attributed to Joan Chittister, we see how such injustice and inequality has many faces. ‘A merchant in the Middle East went from bazaar to bazaar buying rugs to export. One day he passed a stall where an elderly woman sat on a tiny rug before a very large hand-woven rug. He asked the old lady whether the rug behind her was for sale. Without looking up she answered that it is for sale. He asked her how much she wanted for the rug on which she replied: ‘One hundred rupees, sir. One hundred rupees’. Again he asked her to confirm the price on which she replied: ‘One hundred rupees. Not a single rupee less’. He looked at her and said: ‘Old lady, I have never seen a rug that beautiful’. She nodded and said: ‘I know that, sir. That’s why I’m selling it for One hundred rupees and not a single rupee less’. The merchant then said: ‘In the name of Allah, old lady, if you realize how beautiful your rug is, why would you ever sell it for only one hundred rupees?’ Shocked at this question the old lady looked up for the first time, and after a moment of silence she answered: ‘Because, sir, until this very moment, I never knew that there were any numbers above 100’.’ (http://www.scielo.org.za/scielo.php?script=sci_arttext&pid=S0259-94222019000100009)

Where governments, religious institutions or civil society organisations seek to address social reforms that impact people’s private lives they face immediate backlash. To challenge traditions like polygamy, genital mutilation, inheritance rules or males’ authority over women requires a deep commitment to justice. I recall so many of the women activists in Pakistan who paid a heavy price in seeking to address the injustices perpetrated by these practices.

Where institutions and individuals seek to address the injustices written in religious laws, they face an even greater backlash. Governments fall, organisations and individuals are slandered, attacked and threatened, some even killed for seeking to ‘break the code of God’. That which is considered sacred is immutable. That God who is just could perpetuate injustice seems lost on those who feel they must protect God.

While we may want to think religion addresses issues of justice, religious laws and social norms make a lethal cocktail used to deny justice and equality to many women. Not only do women need those who will fight on their behalf, they need those who will enable women to raise their voices. But it will come at a cost.

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

Education, an essential for change

Recent events on Afghanistan have highlighted the challenges and fears that exist around women’s education. Despite many promises, the Taliban did a huge U-turn on March 23rd when it told girls who arrived for school that they had to go home. Girls over 11 years of age appear to have been refused the option of returning to school after the Taliban took over government.

The narrative is confused. Uniform debates and lack of teachers were among the issues that the Taliban said had forced this closure of schools. Not everyone agrees. Some suggest the issue is about internal divisions within the Taliban, while others make a nonsense of the issue of uniforms, stating uniforms for girls are already very conservative.

The higher education of girls is seen as a pointer to development. Many point to the increase in girls education after the earlier fall of the Taliban. UNESCO reported an increase in the number of girls in higher education from 5,000 in 2001 to 90,000 in 2018.

While access to education is one issue highlighted by these recent events, is it the only challenge for women and girls with respect to education? Education is more than completing a course, although enabling girls to complete education cycles remains a challenge in many contexts. Poverty, early marriage, gendered roles, lack of female teachers are just some of the issues that challenge inclusion of girls in education.

Another challenge is that girls are often not equally empowered through education. When I worked in a large South Asian educational institution for girls, many were allowed to complete their education in order to ensure they would get a better class of marriage. This demeaning of education and its outcomes haunts some girls whose education has a purpose other than empowering and enabling her.

Education needs to be part of coherent strategies that address social inequalities in order for girls to really enjoy its benefits.  Education also needs to give attention to the challenges girls face and include strategies that not only enable participation but also promote gender equal opportunities in the classroom.

That education of girls has wide-ranging benefits for societies is well documented, however the barriers to achieving equality in education remain high.

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.

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

Women’s rights at the intersection of politics and religion

In a fascinating book called Women in Place Nazanin Shahrokhni[1] has done a wonderful exploration of what happens when women’s rights are caught at the intersection of politics and religion. In this ethnographic study of women’s spaces in Iran, buses, parks and a football stadium, she highlights the pulls and pushes women rights face in the changing relationship between politics and religion. Her study goes further though, it demonstrates the agentic power of women when their rights are caught in these crosswinds.

Whereas the leaders of the Iranian revolution sought to control women by excluding them to private spaces, they were forced to renegotiate what that meant when economic, social and political pressures demanded these spaces be reconfigured. The language of control changed from that of religious and moral necessity to the state as protector and provider. Whatever the language, control of women through boundary making underpinned it all.

At the same time women were able to use that language to blur the edges of these constructued boundaries and call for greater freedoms. Places of contestation at this intersection of politics and religion became sites of negotiation and change.

Could we say that these spaces of contestation become liminal spaces for women’s renegotiating place, identity and belonging?

Expanding educational, work, leisure and economic opportunities along with shifts in political, social and economic imperatives continually rupture constructions of gender and rights. They bring new insights into the liminality of the space at the intersection of politics and religion that is inhabited by women, throwing open, albeit semi-controlled, spaces for transition and change.

Richard Rohr has described liminality as ‘where we are betwixt and between the familiar and the completely unknown. There alone is our old world left behind, while we are not yet sure of the new existence. That’s a good space where genuine newness can begin…[2]

In a changing world, where economic and political pressures, globalisation, social change, education and technology are creating ever-changing waves of pressure women’s rights can appear to be blown away and lost in the midst of it all. Where we can see these intersections and contestations as liminal spaces, we see women’s agency rewriting their future in the shadows of these power tussles.


[1] Shahrokni, Nazanin. Women in Place: The Politics of Gender Segregation in Iran, University of California Press, Oakland, 2020.

[2] Quoted in https://inaliminalspace.org/about-us/what-is-a-liminal-space/. Accessed 25.01.2022

Toxic Misogyny: what should be done?

A July 2021 article described the issues underlying a women’s alleged murder by family members as a result of toxic misogyny[1]. The article laid the blame on the government and its failure to protect women, citing a culture of impunity, patriarchal attitudes, victim blaming, the power given by certain religious teachings, or even the influence of western values and thinking. Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Imran Khan, has blamed women themselves for the violence perpetrated against them.

Perhaps part of the problem is in the generic use of the term, toxic misogyny. When all attitudes and behaviours are caught up under one label, nothing is clearly identifiable in order to be dealt with. The Atlantic, in describing the dilemma, said: ‘the concept offers an appealingly simple diagnosis for gendered violence and masculine failure…[2]’.

The problems that lead to gendered violence are multiple. They are not simply dealt with by a fierce description. Human rights lawyer, Hina Jilani told me once that she could not fight violence without laws. But we don’t just need laws, we need the enforcement of laws. The women’s movement in Pakistan has recognised over its decades of work that it cannot tackle gendered violence without using the language of religion, otherwise it is heard. Patriarchal structures that embed attitudes that make women less than equal have been show to be at the centre of the issue also. Institutional structures that deny women a voice and control them perpetuate the problem. The valorisation of cultural norms that place family honour and well-being in a woman’s body accentuate the burden women must bear and are used to legitimise violence and abuse.

We must be careful not to assume that the causes, and practices, of this toxic misogyny are the same everywhere. While lessons can be learned and learning should be shared, there is simply no single solution. And there are times when we feel like all the progress that has been made is wiped away with a simply stroke of the pen, comment of a leader, or failure of a legal system.

Toxic misogyny, what can be done? Let’s not give up calling for laws, demanding their implementation, addressing the abuses of religious belief, working for rights, challenging structures, creating spaces where women come together to work in multiple ways for the dignity and inclusion of all.


[1] https://www.dw.com/en/noor-mukadams-murder-exposes-toxic-misogyny-in-pakistan/a-58645017

[2] https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2019/02/toxic-masculinity-history/583411/

Does Internationalisation of local issues help women’s rights?

When Muktar Mai was gang-raped on June 22, 2002 at the behest of the tribal jirga, or panchayat, the incident should have finished there. Many women before her have suffered such a fate and out of honour/shame have committed suicide soon after. Mukhtar Mai did not accept her fate and fought back. Her story brought a range of issues pertaining to women, the government’s lack of will in addressing them, and the clash between cultural and religious norms and women’s rights, into the public arena where they were and are debated, discussed and written about. It also provoked increased discussion on what ‘civil society’ might mean for Pakistan as activists confronted what they term ‘barbaric tribal customs’.

The issue has become an international flashpoint for the government and embroiled the President, General Pervaiz Musharraf, in an ongoing international debate on rights versus image. Sept 13, 2005, in an interview with the Washington Post, President Musharraf said the talk around Islamabad was that women get themselves raped to get a visa for abroad and make large sums of money. President Musharraf continually sought to defend his handling of the Mukhtar Mai case, claiming its internationalization has tarnished Pakistan’s image abroad and, he has attempted to scapegoat women’s organizations and activists by publicly accusing them of seeking to harm Pakistan in their demand for reform or the way they articulate it. The spotlight has been put squarely on laws and customs that adversely affect women.

The Government then initiated an international conference in Islamabad on Violence against Women, a direct response to the national and international outrage over its inaction on this issue as highlighted by the Mukhtar Mai case. The internationalization of a local incident highlighting rights’ abuse created almost unprecedented opportunities for women to negotiate forcefully for change.

How women engage with the State, society and other power brokers are telling in terms of the changes they are able to achieve. Internationalization of issues becomes a double-edged sword, and one on which women’s negotiations for change rise or fall. At times, governments react with cosmetic measures that appease foreign powers putting pressure on them. At other times they resist and restrict the activities and work of local initiatives for change.

When international attention is brought to bear we need to be careful to work in service of local initiatives, understanding the broader picture, while not forgetting the need for justice for every women and her story.

Featured image: https://www.latimes.com/entertainment/arts/la-et-cm-muktar-mai-thumbprint-opera-20170616-story.html

Covid exacerbates disparities for women

The Global Gender Gap Report of 2021 says that another generation are going to have to wait for gender parity. One of the reasons for this, they say, is the impact of Covid.

Women have been ‘locked down’ with abusers. UN Women referred to violence against women as the shadow pandemic during Covid. All types of violence against women, but particularly domestic violence, has increased over the last 18 months. Domestic violence helplines in many nations have seen an upsurge in calls during the pandemic, while at the same time many women’s help and support organisations have lost resources as these are diverted.

Economic challenges have seen many lose employment, with women bearing the greater burden of that. A Mckinsey report suggested women were 1.8 times more vulnerable to job loss than men, accounting for 54% of job losses during the pandemic even though they make up just 39% of the world population. Lack of financial stability for women, particularly in poorer countries, means the effects of Covid-related economic impacts for women is greater.

A UN briefing paper said that ‘the pandemic is deepening pre-existing inequalities, exposing vulnerabilities in social, political and economic systems which are in turn amplifying the impacts of the pandemic’ . Reallocation of resources has adversely affected women, particularly in the area of reproduction and sexual health. The majority of health care workers are women, exposing them disproportionally to the virus, while the must also bear a greater burden for care of others at home during lockdowns associated with the pandemic.

Governments and legal bodies now have a reason, or is it an excuse, to put aside the needs of women. The long term consequences for women are being ignored. The Gender Gap report suggests that closing the gender gap has increased by that generation, from 99.5 years to 135.6.

Do we simply sit back and accept this? We too will be culpable before our daughters grand-daughters and great grand-daughters. While we can’t ignore the pandemic, we should not accept as inevitable its consequences for women.