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.

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.