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.

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.

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

Fighting over women’s rights

There was chaos in the Jordanian parliament at the end of 2021 when some members opposed proposed changes to the constitution around women’s rights. It was reported that punches were thrown, threats and insults exchanged amidst angry outbursts.

What could have caused such an undignified ruckus among lawmakers? It seems a review committee had wanted to address an issue of language, to include feminine as well as masculine in the way it addresses citizens.

It seems language matters. Through language that is always masculine we establish male as the default key to the structure of society and management of life. Even gender-neutral terms are assumed to be masculine. What about engineer, doctor, pilot, president. ‘… the masculine form speaks for all genders: for example, in India’s legal system, documents are written in the masculine, which is considered to include women unless otherwise specified’ (https://www.bbc.com/culture/article/20201006-are-some-languages-more-sexist-than-others).

I often got myself into trouble when learning Urdu because of the masculine and feminine forms and how I was expected to address men and women differently. I think, and probably I still don’t understand this enough, I am meant to speak more formally and respectfully to men.

Arabic is one of the most highly gendered language, so the discussion in the Jordanian parliament is addressing a very contentious issue. More than language it is addressing social structures that are embedded in the forms of language.

The way a language encodes gender is reflective of gender equality, or not, in a society. The efforts of the Jordanian constitutional review committee was seen to challenge issues of gender equality. The fight in parliament brought up issues of the impact a language change could have on inheritance and citizenship laws.

Salma Nims, secretary-general of the Jordanian National Commission for Women, said ‘Every time the women’s movement gets closer to achieving something, closer to living in dignity in this country there is a fear coming from the patriarchal system that this will mean a change in the power relations within society’ (https://edition.cnn.com/2021/12/29/middleeast/jordan-parliament-fight-intl/index.html).

What does hope for change in women’s rights look like when those responsible for the laws fear that change and fight to stop it?

Featured image: https://www.9news.com.au/world/jordan-parliament-brawl-over-womens-rights-debate/ef5d094b-9c62-48fc-8c0b-3407db9f862b

Are human rights Western?

When cultural traditions come under pressure women appear to face greater demands to be the bearers of ‘cultural authenticity’.  While discourses of feminism and Human Rights can become wedges of opportunity for women to raise demands and negotiate for change in gender relations, women’s organizations and activists embracing them are open to charges of succumbing to the seductions of the West and its cultural imperialism.

Many Muslim women activists seek some kind of accommodation with religious belief because of its critical role in local culture.  Shaheen Sardar Ali, in her book ‘Gender and Human Rights in Islam and International Law: Equal before Allah, Unequal before Men?’ articulates a perspective for understanding the rights of Muslim women within Islamic tradition.  She locates Muslim women within the “concentric rings of religion, class, law, and society that form the multiple layers of her identity and encompass her from the moment she is born”[1].

In such a culture, where feminism and cultural authenticity are deemed mutually exclusive categories, what framework can women’s activists and organizations use to negotiate for change? There is a need to search for a more culturally authentic genealogy of women’s right.

Western human rights discourse emphasises an individual construct of self that does not resonate in many Muslim countries where the construct of selfhood is relational and specific connections with others privileges access to rights. Talal Asad, in his work on human rights, argues that the language of human rights that is based on notions of redemptive emancipation is not only unhelpful, but provides a frame for its use for imperialistic purposes[2].

A culture with a relational notion of national identity and a relational notion of rights requires an alternate approach to ethical dilemmas. The feminist ‘ethic of care’ complements ethical theories that extol justice and autonomy as the ultimate goal.  It informs a moral endeavour to ‘alleviate the real and recognizable trouble in the world’ through interpersonal connections.   Rather than demanding rights and rules for all, it champions avoidance of harm for all, advocating responsibility in relationship.  It celebrates difference, contrasting the inherent demand for universalism within the impersonal justice and autonomy models.

Given the ongoing challenge to addressing gender violence, is it time to consider a new narrative of human rights?


[1] Sardar Ali, S. (2000). Gender and Human Rights in Islam and International Law: Equal Before Allah, Unequal Before Men. The Hague: Kluwer Law International. p. 89

[2] Asad, T. (2000). What Do Human Rights Do?  An Anthropological Enquiry. Theory and Event, 4(4).

Can we redefine ‘honour killings’?

There is a Punjabi proverb that says ‘one does not share the bread, but one shares the shame’.  And yet, honour and shame, while attributed to individual acts are not about the individual, but about the family. The honour of the family, in particular its male members, is located in the bodies of women.

Unni Wikan argues that it is not clear that honour and shame are binary opposites[1]. Drawing on studies conducted in Cairo and Oman, she argues that the location of these concepts in the everyday life of the community, and not just in select discourses, is essential. She shows that honour and shame relate differently to behaviour: that shame arises from an identifiable act, whereas honour is an attribute of the whole person[2].

But the debate continues. How else can honour and shame be seen? Whereas Nafisa Shah argues they are ‘two parallel states, honour is masculine, shame is feminine. Just as men have honour, women have shame. A woman’s shame summarises her public reputation and social position in much the same manner as honour does for men’[3], Tahira Khan suggests they are ‘dialectical states’: shame is the opposite of honour and both are male attributes, men possess honour and suffer shame[4].

Honour and shame are intrinsically linked in everyday discourses that shape women’s behaviour and the control of it. Purna Sen suggests that ‘codes of honour serve to construct … what it means to be a woman’[5]. Others link it to patriarchy and possession. Fatima Mernissi in her book ‘Beyond the Veil’, also makes a connection between honour and possessions. She argues that there is a strong link between money and female sexuality on the one hand, and the social construction of honour and purity on the other. Her point is that although honour is linked to material wealth, its location is firmly fixed in the body of women[6]. The woman’s body and her sexuality are the idioms of honour and shame. 

Is it possible then to redefine honour killings? The popular shorthand referring to killing women because an alleged shame besmirching the family honour as ‘honour killing’ becomes a tool for the defamation of women. What stops us simply calling it murder? In every other instance of killing it is called murder, and yet the killing a woman because someone alleges she has shamed them is not called murder.

Honour killings are murder, whatever the reasons attached.


[1] Wikan, U. (1984). “Shame and Honour: A Contestable Pair.” Man, New Series 19(4): 635 – 652. p 636

[2] Ibid. p638

[3] Shah, N. (1999). Women in revolt. Dawn. Karachi.

[4] Khan, T. S. (2006). Beyond Honour. Karachi: Oxford University Press. p 46

[5] Sen, P. (2005). ‘Crimes of Honour’, value and meaning. In L. Welchman & S. Hossain (Eds.), ‘Honour’: Crimes, Paradigms, and Violence Against Women. London and New York: Zed Books. p 48

[6] Mernissi, F. (1987). Beyond the Veil: Male-Female Dynamics in Modern Muslim Society (Revised Edition ed.). Bloomington: Indiana University Press. p 46-64

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

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.

We cannot remain silent

A recent World health Organisation study showed that globally, 38% of all women murdered are killed by their intimate partners. The report included some key findings on the health impact of domestic violence:

  • Death and injury– The study found that globally, 38% of all women who were murdered were murdered by their intimate partners, and 42% of women who have experienced physical or sexual violence at the hands of a partner had experienced injuries as a result.
  • Depression– Partner violence is a major contributor to women’s mental health problems, with women who have experienced partner violence being almost twice as likely to experience depression compared to women who have not experienced any violence.
  • Alcohol use problems – Women experiencing intimate partner violence are almost twice as likely as other women to have alcohol-use problems.
  • Sexually transmitted infections – Women who experience physical and/or sexual partner violence are 1.5 times more likely to acquire syphilis infection, chlamydia, or gonorrhoea. In some regions (including sub-Saharan Africa), they are 1.5 times more likely to acquire HIV.
  • Unwanted pregnancy and abortion– Both partner violence and non-partner sexual violence are associated with unwanted pregnancy; the report found that women experiencing physical and/or sexual partner violence are twice as likely to have an abortion than women who do not experience this violence.
  • Low birth-weight babies– Women who experience partner violence have a 16% greater chance of having a low birth-weight baby.

(http://www.who.int/mediacentre/news/releases/2013/violence_against_women_20130620/en/)

View the associated infographic here: http://www.who.int/reproductivehealth/publications/violence/VAW_infographic.pdf

Fear and shame keep victims of violence silent and isolated. But there are small glimmers of hope. It has been found that communities form and activism is sparked when victims are supported to speak up.

Pakistan has shown the way in this over many years. Women’s activism took on the government, legal system, constitution and laws after the draconian Hudood Ordinances punished victims for the violence perpetrated against them. Wave after wave of activism has confronted violence against women, pressing the government for change and calling society to action. Laws have been changed. The rate of change is slow, but with relentless pressure from activists changes have been made.

The rape of a young women on a bus in India, led to outrage and calls for action that gave other victims support and courage to speak up. Following the reporting of this one incident several others were immediately reported, raising questions about what was happening to women in the country.

The media must be encouraged to speak with clarity, not for the sake of a story but for justice, to prevent victims being hidden by the community because of shame, to challenge laws, policies, social conscience and the status quo that accepts such violence as the norm.

But more is needed. Perhaps the case of Pakistan shows that hand in hand with activism support structures are needed for victims. The structures need to empower women to make choices, enabling them to find their identity and not become stuck as victims. Activists must enable the voice of victims to be heard, even as they take up the cause.

Challenging violence that marginalises women needs the voices of all.

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?