Category: Gender Issues


Mona’s recent article “Why Do They Hate Us” in Foreign Policy (complete with a picture of a nude woman painted in black paint representing niqab. Nice way of tackling already over riped stereotypes of Muslim women) has caused much furore and debate.

One of the major issues I have with the article is the often used argument of the Muslim women needing to be rescued by Western powers because they are just, upholders of law and virtue and generally more concerned with human welfare. Campaigns which encouraged and eventually led to to the Arab spring were effective because they were internally driven, not brought in guns blazing by the US or UK (who provided reluctant cheering as they most probably have their own agenda’s to toppling the despots – they remain silent where they have no vested interests e.g. Bahrain) and the same principles can apply to changing discriminatory laws. It’s this which should be emphasised, not pandering to the Western sentiments, already exhausted Orientalist notions and stereotypes of Arab women. Lauding a them vs us dichotomy can never be any good, regardless of the reasons behind it.

Much of the misogyny in the Arab world is also seen across other nations, such as South Asia – women from Muslim, Sikh, Hindu and other faith groups experience much of the same in terms of treatment and attitudes. This points to a patriarchial stronghold which prevent progressive laws – and its these patriarchial hierarchies within the various fields of law, health, social welfare and others which need to be eradicated. If the Arab people came together to topple their despot leaders, they can also work together to change the lives of their people for the better.

Sadly all Mona did in her article was flog a dead horse.

Interesting rebuttals to her article can be found here, here and here

I applaud this woman for taking the initiative in securing not only a job for herself, but also doing so successfully in the face of all of the obstacles she may have faced (as a Pashtun widow in Pakistan).

Zahida Kazmi has been hailed as Pakistan’s first female taxi driver. She has driven from the crowded markets of Islamabad to the remote tribal country in the north. Here she tells Nosheen Abbas about her two decades in a male-dominated world.

In 1992 at the age of 33, newly widowed Zahida Kazmi decided to take her fate in her own hands and become a taxi driver.

Born into a conservative and patriarchal Pakistani family, she flew in the face of her family’s wishes but with six children to support, she felt she had no choice.

She took advantage of a government scheme in which anybody could buy a brand new taxi in affordable instalments. She bought herself a yellow cab and drove to Islamabad airport every morning to pick up passengers.

In a perilous and unpredictable world, Zahida at first kept a gun in the car for her own protection and she even started off by driving her passengers around wearing a burqa, a garment that covers the entire body.

Her initial fears soon dissipated.

“I realised that I would scare passengers away,” she said. “So then I only wore a hijab [head covering]. Eventually I stopped covering my head because I got older and was well-established by then.”

Exposing herself to the hot, bustling city streets of Islamabad and by driving to the rocky and remote districts adjoining Pakistan’s tribal areas, Zahida says she learned a lot about the country she lived in and its people.

Rest the rest of the article here:

Patterns of suicide and attempted suicide among Asian women in Britain do not reflect those in the wider community. A recent report published by Southall Black Sisters stated women, aged between 18 and 35, from the Asian community are 3x more likely to commit suicide compared to women of any other ethnic backgrounds. Venna Soni, an epidemiologist and a leading expert on Asian suicides, reported that 1,979 women of all races between the ages of 15 and 34 years killed themselves between 1988 and 1992 in England and Wales, 85 of whom were Asian. This rate is nearly double their proportion of the population. Other reports and research also point to the high rate of self-harm amongst Asian women. What is it about their ethnicity that makes them more vulnerable to self harm and suicide?

There are a few cultural concepts specific to the Asian community which may contribute to this. One is the issue relating to society and the impression that others will have if family problems are made public. These occur in 3 tiers – firstly the impression made of the individual, then the effect of this issue on this individuals immediate family, which includes her own family and her in-laws and on a larger scale the potential negative effect on her parents and siblings. All are interlinked and have an almost domino effect – nothing occurs is in isolation.

In the Asian patriarchal culture reputation, status and honour are very important in propagating the desirable social image and facade families display amongst their own kind. These three aspects are pertinent to the overall functioning of the family not only within their own relatives, their peers, acquaintances but also the larger Asian community (Bengali, Pakistani, and Indian) and one that families work hard to assert, maintain and propagate. Women are seen as the bastions of honour and reputation of families, therefore placing their behaviours and actions under greater scrutiny and judgement by others.

There is also an unspoken code of honour which relates to keeping family affairs, troubles and problems within the four walls of their home. Keeping problems within the family attempts to prevent shame and tainting of the reputation of the family within the Asian community, which being tight knit makes this a real possibility. The clustering of Asian communities in areas where other Asian’s have settled and made their nests nearby primarily for this reason further adds to this palpable tension and fear of problems escaping the cocoon of their houses.

The hardships inflicted on women in their homes may take many forms. Commonly it is assumed that if a woman is staying in an abusive marriage/home, then it is because perhaps her issue is confounded by her not being able to speak English, fearing her family back home may suffer or being unfamiliar with support services available to her. But these suicide cases do not only include those who have been brought to the UK from desi-lands, nor were they all forced into marriage or married strangers. Some of these women are born and bred in the UK, have their families living 10mins away and married someone of their choosing. This gives more weight to the statistics which infer ethnic background alone to be the greatest factor in the suicide rates amongst Asian women.

A lot of these married women may be being mistreated by their in-laws, including their husband. Issues such as domestic violence, removing her autonomy, imprisoning her in the home, taunting her, treating her as their slave,  subjecting her to emotional and mental distress and even resorting to physical harm are not unknown. However because the notions of honour and shame are so powerful, most women feel they will be judged by society if they leave or expose the issues occurring in the home.  Accusations normally point to the woman: “what did you/she do?” . Ultimately the issues and problems occurring in her personal life are her fault, and she is the problem.

Often these women may even present at gatherings at places of worship, and discreetly ask for help but people wishing not to interfere in what essentially is viewed to be a private matter simply walk away. This includes women acquaintances and peers who may be sympathetic to their suffering, but do not want to meddle and gain the reputation of someone who breaks up families. Watching from the sidelines, sticking their head in the sand and brushing problems (that are almost epidemic in the community) under the carpet are common.

Sadly sometimes the woman’s own family wish not to intervene as it may “ruin” things for them and their family if she exposes the problems or divorces. Women are encouraged to stay in abusive relationships out of this possibility that she may ruin and bring shame on everyone including herself.  There is an ironic element in this – most Asian cultures are inherently patriarchal and it has been known that the men would defend the honour of their family if it was stained, even resorting to murdering the female relative – honour killings. However, when it comes to preserving the value, worth and integrity of their female relatives who have been married into another family there is at best meek support by way of advising her to “stick it out”. Owing to this lack of support, the only way out of the desperation these women experience and to save face by keeping the family honour intact is seen to be suicide.

Alienation, isolation and ostracisation from the family and community are real consequences for women who choose to expose and break free from the oppressive relationships they find themselves in.  The key factor in allowing these women to feel they have the absolute option and autonomy to leave in order to protect themselves is the unwavering support of her family and friends. If these families valued their women more on the basis of humanity, love and kinship and less so on the societal impression and opinion of them, the patriarchal concepts of shame, honour and reputation which dictate expected decorums of women, many of their sisters would feel there is a way out apart from suicide.

Last month Lauren Booth, ex-PM Tony Blair’s sister in law, declared her conversion to Islam following a spiritual experience in Iran. Ever since this news was broadcast, there have been articles in most mainstream newspapers (tabloids and broadsheets) poking fun at her, making snide comments about rolling around on the floor at a holy shrine and even commenting on her mental stability – as though to convert to Islam one either has to be a) intimately involved with a Muslim; b) experiencing some life trauma, and so are vulnerable enough to convert and c) just be plain loopy.

Most of the negative vibes come as a result of the stereotypes banded around in the media of Muslims; wife beaters, deluded, extremist, detached from society, regressive and psychotic – some exaggerated stereotypes, but some add fuel to the fire and are pandered to by some Muslims themselves. Lauren acknowledges the bad press Islam and Muslims receive – but comments on the root causes of the state of Muslim women in the Muslim world:

So let’s all just take a deep breath and I’ll give you a glimpse into the other world of Islam in the 21st century. Of course, we cannot discount the appalling way women are mistreated by men in many cities and cultures, both with and without an Islamic population. Women who are being abused by male relatives are being abused by men, not God. Much of the practices and laws in “Islamic” countries have deviated from (or are totally unrelated) to the origins of Islam. Instead practices are based on cultural or traditional (and yes, male-orientated) customs that have been injected into these societies. For example, in Saudi Arabia, women are not allowed to drive by law. This rule is an invention of the Saudi monarchy, our government’s close ally in the arms and oil trade. The fight for women’s rights must sadly adjust to our own government’s needs.

Of course as with most religions, Islam has patriarchial roots which seep into most of the practices, ideas and mindsets that Muslims have regarding how Muslim women should look, behave, speak and carry herself. Those who do not conform to these idea’s are often touted to be “modernist” or pitied as being “misguided” and in need of a huge guiding nudge in the right direction. Too often these assumptions are a result of having perceptions at a grandoise level regarding to how “knowledgable” they are – and of course these patrons are often men who’s duty it is to “save their sisters”.

Lauren as part of addressing the negativity surrounding her conversion comments on how emotionally dead non-Muslims now seem to her:

How hard and callous non-Muslim friends and colleagues began to seem. Why can’t we cry in public, hug one another more, say “I love you” to a new friend, without facing suspicion or ridicule? I would watch emotions being shared in households along with trays of honeyed sweets and wondered, if Allah’s law is simply based on fear why did the friends I loved and respected not turn their backs on their practices and start to drink, to have real “fun” as we in the west do? And we do, don’t we? Don’t we?

I couldnt help but think the lack of love-sharing in some households is not solely a non-Muslim issue – it involves factors beyond and above this; about family, character and personality dynamics and less about faith and religiousity. And the concept of personal space is a very British one – we don’t particularly like people sitting or standing too close to us if we can help it (especially the times when using public transport) be they strangers or even close loved ones. In certain cultures touching is more common, so people will greet one another with a kiss, say some words of affection and be very vocal about their feelings. Some of us want nothing more than a handshake. These are cultural not religious differences.

You can read the rest of Lauren’s article here

Recently France has been the centre of media attention what with it banning hijaab, followed closely by the outright ban of niqab in public spaces. In a form of protest against the dictatorship style role of the state, 2 French women (ethnicity of whom has remained largely unknown and refer to themselves as “NiqaBitch”) have taken to the streets in protest.  They, as with many others largely focus on clothing. But there is a twist.

They don a niqaab but bare their legs by wearing a miniskirt and sashay heels. The video is very tongue in cheek with the girls walking around Paris, posing outside buildings like the Ministry of Defence whilst wishing everyone peace – V hand gesture. Some people walk by pretending not to look, some praise them for their effort and others ask for them to pose and click away with their camera’s!

The statement these two ladies are making with regards to a piece of clothing that is considered repressive (niqaab) and the other which some would equate to as being immodest (miniskirt – lots of flesh on show) blends both the “sacred” and the “profane”.

Some may find the video distasteful, mocking the “sanctity” of niqaab (a piece of clothing cannot be sacred – the niqaab and to a certain level hijaab may for some encompass values, idea’s and beliefs which they believe manifest in it and may demonstrate a certain ideal but that ideal is a symbolic intepretation, one cannot apply those ideals to a piece of fabric!) but I feel it is an attempt to ridicule the French ban purely because their appearance is contradictory  and seems to be sending the popular message of “I am oppressed – niqaab” and I am a liberated, free woman “bare legs.

It is pertinent to note in the video that the passerby’s responses are generally of a good natured one primarily due to being aware that these girls are not donning the niqaab for religious reasons, that it is a stunt, a joke – all of which gives more weight to the islamphobic nature of the niqaab/hijaab ban. There is also the “orientialist fetish” aspect to the two ladies appearance – the veiling of the face, but the bare skin eliciting the notion of a sexual being who is “unreachable”, a mysterious being – much of which has been pandered about for a long time (and is hard to avoid it seems!)