Are transwomen real women?

The remarks of Nigerian writer Chimimanda Ngozi Adiche have created some controversy this week, as she appeared to state that trans women (where someone born biologically male identifies with a female gender identity and lives life as a woman), on account of biology, cannot be considered “women.”

“When people talk about, ‘are trans women women’ my feeling is that trans women are trans women,” Adichie shared with Channel 4. “If you’ve lived in the world as a man with the privileges that the world accords to men, and then sort of changed, switched gender, it’s difficult for me to accept that then we can equate your experience with the experience of a woman who has lived from the beginning in the world as a woman, and who has not been accorded those privileges that men are.”

Feminists who take this side in the debate are sometimes known as TERF – trans exclusionary radical feminist. They believe that transgender women should not be considered the same as biologically born, or cisgender, women. Some merely state this as a position while others speak out against or actively work against the inclusion of transwomen in women- or female-centric activities, health services, communities, etc. The most famous example of this is Germaine Greer, who said that trans women can’t be “real” women and that they are “ghastly parodies” with “too much eyeshadow.”

My perspective on transgender people, and transgender women, has been shaped by my life and experience in Pakistan. The situation for trans folk in Pakistan is very well summed up by Mahwish Akhtar’s excellent report for CityNews Pakistan here. Everything she writes about is true, from the attitudes towards trans women as freaks and objects of ridicule, to the difficulties of finding education and employments, to the government’s allowing trans people to identify as “third gender” officially — which hasn’t translated to changes in attitude or anything concrete in their lives.

I urge you to take a minute to read her report, as it explains everything very clearly. Transgender people in Pakistan today are marginalized and often brutalized. They are one of the most vulnerable populations in Pakistan today, perhaps even more so than women born biologically female. Their numbers are very small; only perhaps 2% of the population. Transgender people have always been a part of Pakistani culture, but we have yet to actually respect them as valuable members of our society.

The good thing is that thanks to intersectional feminism, transgender people in Pakistan are starting to find their voice, and to organize, and advocate for their rights. Thanks to global links with trans organizations and advocates all over the world, they are beginning to gain courage and believe that they deserve more than they get in this country. Respect and safety – not too much to ask for, is it? And education and employment, so they don’t have to spend their lives dancing and clapping on the street?

The recent killing of two Pakistani transgender women in Saudi Arabia upset me a great deal, especially the manner of their death – violently, in police custody, alone and terrified. There will be no inquiry, no diplomat summoned to the Foreign Office and asked to explain why two Pakistani citizens were killed on foreign soil.

The question of whether transwomen are “real” women is also a disturbing one. It’s one that offends me, actually. It’s the same thing when someone asks you if you’re a “real” American just because you’re an immigrant. Certainly you didn’t grow up American, your experiences are different and not comparable to a born American, but does that make your passion or your love for the country any less? Did you dream of being an American all your life and go through tremendous sacrifices to get there? Doesn’t that count for anything? Should foreign-born Americans be excluded from all the rights and opportunities of those born on American soil?

Perhaps it isn’t a valid allegory, but it’s how I feel about trans women. Of course they weren’t born with a vagina or uterus, don’t have their periods, didn’t experience life as biologically born women. But their commitment to the idea of being a woman is sky-high. They’re willing to risk their lives for it. A biologically born woman is subjected to violence against women by default. Trans women undergo it because they can’t live their lives out of alignment with how they feel inside themselves.

If we as feminists don’t believe that possessing a penis should give you automatic privilege and status over women, then should we believe that possessing a vagina and ovaries and breasts gives us privilege and status over transgender women?

Is transgenderism a genetic issue, or a psychological one? Nature or nurture? Is it about sexual organs and hormones, or is it about soul and heart? There are certain biological facts that are inescapable: to deny them is foolish. But when transwomen transition from male to female, they are undergoing a spiritual as much as a physical transformation: we need to recognize that and respect it. To split hairs about their bodies seems unnecessarily cruel to me. And I come from a country where we’re downright cruel to transgender women.

I can’t do that to other women. It’s not part of my feminism.

The Purdah in Our Minds

This is the edited text of a keynote speech I gave last night at the inaugural seminar organized by Circle2020 and the Alliance Francaise de Karachi.

Circle2020 is an organization whose mission is to develop, support, build the #entrepreneurial & #leadership capacity of #women & #youth in Pakistan to bring about #socialchange.

With the Alliance Francaise, Circle2020 is holding a series of seminars, panels, and round-tables on this subject. Last night’s event, “Where are the Women,” kicked off the series. We had amazing panelists: Ziad Bashir of Gul Ahmed, Dr. Aneela Darbar, Pakistan’s only female US-trained neurosurgeon, Dr. Severine Minot of Habib University, famed journalist Mubasher Zaidi, Sadaffe Abid, the founder of Circle2020, moderated, while I gave the keynote speech.

To find out more about all of Circle2020’s activities, which include promoting women experts for media panels, conferences, seminars, and getting Pakistani companies to pledge to have more women on their panels, conferences, and boards, go to http://circlewomen.org.

Hope to see you at the next session, which will be on March 8th to commemorate International Women’s Day!


The Purdah in our Minds

Thanks for coming to our event this evening. This is the first in a series of seminars, lectures and activities by CIRCLE and the Alliance Francaise dedicated to women’s visibility in the workforce and other areas of public life. As the President of the Alliance Francaise, I want to welcome you all to this event, which is very much in line with our principles of the equality of women and men.  As a woman and a feminist, I’m very glad to see Sadaffe Abid taking this issue on because it affects not just women in Pakistan, but women all over the world. This is a problem we need to talk about because it’s hampering our growth as a nation. The first step towards tackling any problem is making people aware there is a problem, and that’s what we’re here to do tonight.

I want to talk about something not related to business or the economy as a way of making you understand what the problem is.  You must have heard of the cultural practice of “purdah.” In South Asia’s Muslim communities, this is the system of female seclusion from the rest of society. The practice of purdah actually originated with the ancient Persians and was adopted by Muslims during the Arab conquest of Iraq in the 7th century. In turn, the Muslim domination of northern India led to this practice being adopted by high-class Hindus as well.

So what exactly is purdah in the physical realm? The word “purdah” means curtain. It is defined as “the seclusion of women from public observation by means of concealing clothing (including the veil) and by the use of high-walled enclosures, screens, and curtains within the home.” The practice has strong religious overtones: there is a verse in the Quran that whenever men were to speak to the wives of the Prophet, peace be upon him, they must do so from behind a curtain. Thereafter, this was seen as the most honorable way to live for all pious Muslim women. It is still practiced by some landowning families and now we see its resurgence in urban middle-class families as well, in Pakistan today.

Being Sindhi Sayed, I grew up in a family where the women of my father’s family observed the purdah system. What does this mean? The women were meant to stay in the home. They were not allowed to go to school. They traveled in a car with curtains on it. They had to be heavily veiled with a chador and would not travel in a car with any man other than their family members. If they walked in the streets of the village, the men would turn their backs to the women and not look at them. There was a front house, the autaq, where the men would go, conduct their business and receive visitors. In the evening they would come back to the house where the women lived, the haveli. The women’s world was so small, so narrow, all they could do was busy themselves with the lives of their children and husbands and the problems of the household.

When we lived in our house in Hyderabad, I had always been able to play freely, roaming around between the inside house and the outside house, which were separated by a wall and a door. Even at a very young age, I knew there was something very wrong with this system, most probably because my mother came from an urban family that did not practice purdah. I was aware of the fact that the women were being denied opportunities that they should have had – to move around freely in the world, as freely as a man.

Then, when I approached adolescence, I was told one day that I was not allowed to go through that door that separated the inside house from the outside one. I couldn’t understand why. “Because you are a girl, and you’re growing up” was the only explanation I was given. I watched as my younger sister and cousins, still prepubescent, romped and played and went in and out of the door freely. I couldn’t understand why I was not allowed anymore. My body felt heavy as a ton of bricks when before I had been light and free. It wasn’t just a physical restriction, it was a mental restriction. And it truly hurt. The only saving grace was that this wasn’t my everyday life. When I came back to Karachi, I was relatively freer. When I went to America, I was completely free.

Things are changing these days; even in my family, the girls today aren’t observing purdah as strictly as their mothers and grandmothers, but it still exists.

In my opinion, the purdah system and that door in the wall symbolizes all the lost opportunities that women are denied in our society because of our mental attitudes, which influence our rigidly-held beliefs abou gender roles. Not all of us practice the purdah system. We think of ourselves, especially in this setting, with all of our education and open attitudes, as far advanced from its inequality and absolute unfairness. Yet we carry the purdah system in our hearts and minds and we take them into our worlds – school, university, the workplace. There is a belief in the back of our minds, originating in this idea that women’s rightful place is in the home with the family.

Our social and cultural taboos and norms that impede women’s active participation in national economic activity are the biggest factors that prevent Pakistani women from reaching their full potential. They stop us from going to school so that we can learn. They stop us from being educated enough to know our rights. They stop us from being given jobs that we are fully qualified for, or for being paid the same amount for those jobs as our male counterparts. They stop us from reaching the upper echelons of business and of power, and they guarantee that we will always be unequal in theory and in practice.

What other explanation can there be for the disgraceful inequalities that women face still in the Pakistani workplace, in schools and universities? Why else are women turned away from jobs, or discouraged from working in the first place? Why else are 80% of medical students women, yet only 30% of graduates go on to practice medicine afterwards? Why do our television dramas portray working women as immoral and deplorable, while women who stay at home are angels? We are still sustaining the purdah system through our attitudes, which translate into reality for Pakistan’s 90 million women. They affect each and every one of us, no matter how educated or liberated individual women may be.

And this is just the tip of the iceberg. There are four major categories of employment: employers, self-employed individuals, and unpaid family helpers and employees. In 2013 there were only 12 million women in the Pakistani workforce. You can guess where the majority of Pakistan’s women work – as unpaid family helpers and employees, as farmworkers, where their husbands negotiate their wages.

What we see in Karachi: women administrators, businesswomen, entrepreneurs, gives us the illusion of women’s visibility, numbers, strength and leadership. Most of these women are backed by companies or organizations that are largely run and owned by men. The truth is that women in the Pakistani workforce are largely invisible. 78% of KSE 100 companies do not have a single woman on their board. In business conferences held in Pakistan in 2016, only 14% of the speakers were women. Only 22.8% of all national parliamentarians were women as of June 2016. 20% of the world’s landowners are women, but in Pakistan we don’t even have the numbers for how many women own land. 

But we know that if we can increase the visibility of women in public arenas, and if we can increase women’s representation at the very top, things will change for all of Pakistan’s women. The invisibility of women from arenas including conferences, streets, C-Suite, boards, politics, newspapers needs to change. There is an immediate and urgent need for role models for young women. Diversity of gender is so good for business, so we need male allies to help institute systemic change. But first, we need to remove the purdah from our minds before we can make any of this a reality. 

Broken Promises: The Punjab Women’s Protection Act

It’s a shame, but not much of a surprise, that eight months after the passage of the Punjab government’s Protection of Women Act, it has not yet been implemented. Unfortunately this is illustrative of the fact that when it comes to women’s empowerment, the government talks a good talk, but tangible and measurable follow through is hard to find.

The Act was to base its foundations in a system of Violence Against Women Centers, or VAWCs for short. The VAWCs were envisioned as a one-stop shop where women who suffered domestic violence, rape, or any other kind of assault could come and be treated like humans and survivors instead of animals and criminals. Women could find shelter close to their homes rather than having to go to a bigger city, as VAWCs would be set up in every district in Punjab.

Poor women victims of violence do not have the funds or the freedom to run here and there to get their complaints redressed, their medical and psychological needs attended to, and the legal process streamlined and made easy for them. The VAWCs would provide medical services and on the spot first aid for victims. They could file FIRs and medico-legal statements at an on-site police desk. They could obtain hard-to-find legal and psychological counseling services. A toll-free number provided for complaints and investigation services were also planned to be housed under the VAWC’s roof.

Yet the Bill, passed in February, is still to be “notified” for implementation, whatever that means in the strange language of Pakistan’s bureaucrats and government offices.  Foreign diplomats and the heads of international aid agencies were invited to the groundbreaking ceremony of the first Violence Against Women Center, but today, based on Imran Gabol’s report, we find that the inaugural VAWC, for which Rs. 40 billion were allocated, has yet to be completed, with a projected completion date of December 2016 at the earliest.

Last November, I was in the Hague for a global conference on Women’s Shelters, and I was fortunate enough to interview the renowned lawyer and women’s rights activist Hina Jilani (Asma Jehangir’s sister). We spoke about the VAWC, and she told me she hadn’t even been invited to its inauguration, despite her decades of work in establishing women’s shelters and advocating for the survivors of domestic violence.

She didn’t express much optimism in the government’s ability to actually implement and successfully run a program of this scale. Her doubts seem to have been borne out today, in light of Resident Director of the Aurat (Women) Foundation Mumtaz Mughal’s observations that the Bill can’t truly be implemented until and unless the first VAWC is actually completed. Furthermore, she said the government didn’t have enough funds to establish such costly centers in every district, and that the currently existing Darul Aman shelters were being “upgraded” to fulfill the government’s promise.

This is the problem in Pakistan when it comes to the “uplift” of women. The government promises a lot, but delivers nearly nothing. Even the laws that have been passed for women’s protection come with catches, loopholes, and frankly a lack of willpower to make them strong and active. And the idea of a Protection For Women’s act still remains nascent in the face of the overwhelming belief in Pakistani society that women can and should be beaten and abused in order to keep them in line, in order to maintain a man’s authority, and more than often enough, just because a man feels like it.

This is why in Pakistan we need much independent research on the actual effectiveness of these bills, these acts, these organizations. We cannot trust that the government is doing anything more than floating big ideas that it has no true intention of making reality.

This holds true even in the case of BISP, the Benazir Income Support Program, run by the very capable and hardworking Marvi Memon (a personal childhood friend of mine), which is by all accounts proving successful in giving income support to the poorest women of Pakistan. BISP’s transparency and credibility will be strengthened if there is independent research and assessment conducted by a variety of groups: gender researchers, economic thinktanks, donor agencies, and independent journalists.

For every promise, there needs to be accountability, otherwise we can relegate the Punjab Women’s Protection Act to that stuck drawer where all the other protections promised to Pakistan’s women lie and gather dust.

Book Review: Women in the Quran

Asma Lamrabet
translated from the French by Myriam Francois-Cerrah
Kube Publishing June 2016

Do you bring Islam to your feminism, or do you bring feminism to your Islam? Must we bend Islam to fit our modern sensibilities of women’s rights, humanism and justice towards both gender, or must we make compromises in our feminism to fit the classical interpretations of Islam that have always been skewed in favor of men?

In Asma Lamrabet’s Women in the Quran: An Emancipatory Reading (translated from the French by Myriam Francois-Cerrah), the author answers this question by declaring passionately and confidently that Islam has always considered women as equals to men. It is ‘certain biased readings, bolstered by patriarchal customs, which have rather legitimated these… inequalities.’

Lamrabet, a Moroccan pathologist and activist, blames ‘subjective human interpretation’ made by classicist, traditionalist and patriarchal interpreters, scholars, and translators for obfuscating the Quran’s essential humanist spirit. Islam in its original form, argues Lamrabet, doesn’t make distinctions according to gender, and certainly does not assign women a weaker spiritual status than men. Lamrabet distinguishes between an Islam that has been codified in centuries-old texts and a living Islam which women are struggling to re-negotiate in the light of a greater awareness of their rights as human beings to live in equality and peace with men.

Lamrabet goes further than the work of previous Islamic feminists by drawing upon the women in the Quran and deftly identifying archetypes such as: The Mother, The Governor, The Passionate Woman, The Spiritual, and The Sacrificial. Lamrabet’s classifications are especially compelling when discussing the excellent governing skills of Baklis, Queen of Sheba, or the insane passion of Zulaykha for Prophet Yusuf (peace be upon him) and her subsequent repentance for her wrongdoing.

There’s a refreshing refusal to dwell on women first and foremost as mothers, which male classical Islamic scholars tend to do. Lamrabet interprets the roles of Umm Musa and Asiah as parables to understand God’s tenderness towards women, and the value of piety and exemplary faith (Asiah disobeys her husband, the Pharaoh, in believing in Allah rather than following her husband’s religion), rather than focusing solely on their functions as mothers of the Prophet Musa (peace be upon him). Lamrabet draws the reader’s attention not to Maryam’s motherhood but to her “highly privileged spiritual station”, noting that God chose a woman rather than a man to be a symbolic link between Christians and Muslims.

Similarly, Lamrabet compellingly chronicles the lives of early Muslim women who stood up for their faith, and connects their resistance to political struggle. She writes of early Muslim muhajiratun (political refugees) Summaya, Zainab, Umm Sharik and Umm Kulthum noting their bravery, refusal to compromise, and willingness to even sacrifice their lives for their principles. This is in complete opposition to the modern portrayal of the Muslim woman as an oppressed victim unable to even raise her own voice.

A good case is made for women’s political participation through various examples from early Islamic history. In Surah Imran, the challenge from Muslims to Christians to participate in a theological debate called themubahalah asked for both men and women to take part. Similarly, women took part in mubayi’at, which included conversion, proselytzing, attending allegiance ceremonies, lectures at the mosque, and even being present in battle.

Lamrabet interprets mubayi’at as a political act, noting that the women took part in these activities of their own free will and independent agency. She argues against reductionism: the Prophet did not shake women’s hands during an allegiance ceremony. Classical scholars have used this as an excuse to invalidate the entire experience of women’s bayah, which Lamrabet castigates soundly in her discussion.

Lamrabet writes with verve and spirit, a tone which Francois-Cerrah captures well in her translation. Yet sometimes the style meanders and goes off into tangents where Lamrabet allows her imagination to supersede her arguments. Furthermore, some of Lamrabet’s circular arguments are stretched too far, diminished by her eagerness to make everything fit a modern feminist mold.

This is most apparent when Lamrabet deals with some of the contentions with verses such as 4:34 (it doesn’t permit wife-beating, but advises separation), 4:29 (making polygamy discouraged, but permissible in certain contexts), and other verses concerning inheritance, women’s testimony and the like. Lamrabet’s arguments will shore up those who already believe in Islam’s fairness towards women but will not convince those who are already certain that the religion is inherently misogynist.

Yet her writing is at its sharpest when Lamrabet excoriates modern Muslim governments and countries for obfuscating the revolutionary egalitarian spirit of Islam. She expresses justifiable anger in noting reform has taken 1500 years to come in countries like Morocco and Saudi Arabia: a willful theft of women’s rights for which adequate reparations have not yet been made. Her phrase ‘an aborted women’s revolution’ captures the essence of the conflict: a patriarchal backlash against the freedom and equality given to early Muslim women under the Prophet’s guidance.

Unusually, Kube Publishing have taken the step of distancing themselves from some of Lamrabet’s more radical positions. In a detailed introduction they say they do not necessarily endorse all the ideas in this work, but are publishing it ‘with a view to providing access to some trends in contemporary Muslim thinking.’ The note that the author’s interpretations are daring and ‘will no doubt be seen as problematic’ and remark on her ‘disregard for the hadith corpus.’ Her ‘sweeping judgments regarding ‘traditionalist’ understanding of Islam, by which she seems to be referring to the scholastic tradition of the past 1400 years, are unfortunately not substantiated in her work.’  The publishers have, ‘in an attempt to remedy this to some degree… included some end notes’ which refute some of Larambet’s points and correct others.

Whether the publishers fear Larambret’s book displeasing their conservative reader consumer base, or are trying to cover their legal bases, the caveat and endnotes detract from the overall reading experience. Still, perhaps this is a working compromise that guaranteed the text being published in its entirety. Whatever the case, it illustrates quite literally how contentious is the idea of women’s freedom and independence even within an Islamic framework, and how carefully women still have to tread in asserting their viewpoint on matters of theology, even when it is fully their Islamic right to do so.

This book review was first published in Sister-Hood magazine

On “Lightly Beating” Your Wife

Yesterday the Council of Islamic Ideology, an advisory committee on all matters Islamic to the Pakistani Government (which was only meant to be formed for ten years but has never been disbanded), came up with its own “Women’s Protection Bill”. This 136-page treatise is in response to the laudatory Punjab Government’s Women’s Protection Bill, which introduced mechanisms for protecting women from domestic violence.

The CII and other religious groups had protested vociferously against this bill (even though similar bills that go further than the Punjab bill and actually criminalize domestic violence have already been passed in Sindh and Balochistan). They promised to present their own version which was based on Islam and the teachings of the Quran. It’s important to note that the government is under no obligation to listen to any of their recommendations, and even within the CII there was opposition to many items in the bill. The CII’s token female member was not present on the day the bill was agreed upon in the Council.

What they came up with yesterday was in fact a group of very strange recommendations, the most outrageous of which was the idea that a man can “lightly beat” his wife if she disobeys him, doesn’t wash after sexual intercourse, doesn’t let him have sexual intercourse when he wants it, doesn’t wear a hijab. It also recommends that coeducational education not be allowed in primary school. And on and on.

It boggles the mind that anyone could find any of these recommendations sensible, but they don’t come out of nowhere. The vast majority of Pakistani men do believe that it’s their divine right to discipline women and keep women under control. And they confound masculinity with violence: therefore, the masculine thing to do is to keep your women under control by using violence. They know no other language: not the language of warmth, or kindness, verbal and non-verbal, which is actually prescribed in Islam.

Indeed, the Prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him) never raised his hand against a woman, neither his wives nor his daughters nor any of the women in the Muslim community. We can point to verses in the Quran which have been translated to prescribe “beatings” (translated and interpreted by men, of course, reflecting their own patriarchal values). But the spirit of Islam and the actions of the Prophet go in the opposite direction. In the Prophet’s last sermon, he instructed Muslims to treat their wives with kindness, because they are “your partners.”

For a breakdown that looks at the rights of Pakistani women as citizens of this country, a conversation on GEO with human rights activist and lawyer Asma Jehangir shines a clear light on this entire episode.

What do you think of these recommendations given by the CII?
Asma Jehangir: It’s an insult to me to even discuss these recommendations. The scholars who give these recommendations should think carefully about what they’ve said. Those who recommend that Pakistani women should be beaten need to realize that Pakistani girls and women are not here to be beaten. The rest of the recommendations are so bizarre that I think these scholars need to think about the effect this would have on the next generation’s way of thinking: do they really think a husband should monitor when his wife bathes and when she wakes up, what she’ll wear? Has a man married a wife or a concubine? Where is the sense in any of this?

These scholars are part of a state institution. Have they forgotten that a woman is as much a Pakistani citizen as they are? If our Parliament has any shame, they will appoint scholars who want to protect and take care of our vulnerable and innocent girls and women. Our girls have won Nobel Peace Prizes and played international cricket – what have these scholars done for our country besides promote violence and war and advocated the beating of women?

Do you think these recommendations are an attempt to make women into second class citizens?
Asma Jehangir: The whole world’s mullahs can get together but they cannot implement these laws. Pakistani women know how to protect ourselves, and we want to live in dignity.

There is a recent saying that has become popular with the #BlackLivesMatter campaign: “When you are accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.” It is clear that the men of the CII and this cockamamie bill they’ve come up with reflects the fears of men in Pakistan that their superior status as males is being threatened by the emancipation and empowerment of women in this country. This bill is part of the ongoing backlash against the women’s movement in Pakistan. Men are starting to feel oppressed by women standing up for their rights.

The best thing women can do in this case is to not back down, refuse to treat this bill as anything to be even considered seriously. In a country with such severe problems of domestic violence and violence against women, this is a mere distraction, a smokescreen to cover up the real problems we face as women and citizens of Pakistan. Those of you who are our allies will continue to fight the realities of what it means to be a woman in Pakistan.

The rest of you can line up with the CII and get ready to go the way of the dinosaurs.

NOTE: Here is an excellent explanation of verse 4:34 in the Quran which most classical scholars and today’s misogynists take to mean the Quran sanctions wife-beating. You’ll see that there is another, more logical meaning to this verse if you follow the link.

PS: Here are some of the recommendations the CII missed out on, according to the Khabaristan Times

The Afghan Woman is Not A Project

This essay is the original version of the essay that appeared in the New York Times on Afghan Women.

One of the major objectives of the US-led invasion of Afghanistan had always been to liberate Afghanistan’s women from the tyranny of the Taliban. Fifteen years later, instead of progress in the field of women’s rights, a series of shocking images of beaten and battered young Afghan women is paraded in the media to mock that once lofty objective.

The latest of these: Reza Gul, whose husband cut off her nose when she objected to his taking a 7 year old niece as a second wife. Gul waits to be flown to Turkey for reconstructive surgery, unaware that she’s the newest face of failed Western promises to elevate the status of Afghan women.

Afghan women’s rights activists and international feminists harbor a bitter belief that Western feminists willfully misrepresented the plight of the Afghan woman, portraying her as the “silent and passive victims of their culture, their men, and their politics,” as Spogmai Akseer writes in “Afghan Women: Identity and Invasion.” This supplied the West with a moral reason to invade the country and “rescue” the women, an imperialist invasion disguised as a humanitarian rescue mission, instead of empowering Afghan women on their own terms.

When you base your entire project to free women on an untruth, is there any surprise when it fails? Today, as Afghan women struggle as mightily for their rights as they historically always have, they remain victims not just of gender-based violence but of a cross-cultural dissonance that has produced ill-informed stereotypes which continue to resonate today. This continued portrayal of Afghan women as victims marginalizes them from Afghanistan’s beleaguered peace process, and ensures that project will fail as well.

Gender-based violence specialist and aid worker Lina Abirafeh spent five years from 2001-2006 working in Afghanistan. In her research and humanitarian work with Afghan women and men, she discovered that aid programs had been implemented without any gender analysis aimed at an understanding of how women-centered aid programs might affect the political situation of women’s rights on the ground. 

She also found that there was a huge gap between what Westerners understood about the experience of Afghan womanhood, and how Afghan women saw themselves. Feminism has always existed in Afghanistan, Abirafeh asserts, but with long-established internal mechanisms working for women’s rights: informal and formal women’s groups, social safety nets, community organizers. Many of these groups documented the Taliban’s worst abuses, hiding cameras under burkas and documenting public executions. 

Enfranchised in the 1964 Afghan constitution and given equal rights in 1977,  the self-image of Afghan women doesn’t match the victimhood awarded them by Western aid workers; they see themselves as brave, capable, and strong. Islam is important to them, and so is their honor. They want to be active participants in their own liberation, but they want to set the pace of their struggle, instead of submitting to a Western-driven agenda that understands neither their contexts nor their character. 

Although they have always been conscious of their suffering, Afghan women did not think of themselves as weak or in need of being saved by outside forces, says Abirafeh. In fact, they resent greatly the idea that foreigners need to intervene on their behalf. The violence against them comes in great part as a backlash against the speeded-up process forced upon them by “outsiders”, whom Afghans have historically always resented. One of Afghanistan’s greatest heroines is Malalai of Maiwind, who urged her compatriots to rise up against the British and was killed at the Battle of Maiwind in 1880 (Malala Yousufzai is named after her).

In 2013, I traveled to Konya, Turkey, for a conference on the poetry and life of the great Sufi poet and mystic Rumi. Amongst our delegation were two young Afghan women (who I will not name in order to protect their security). The first, gentle and reserved, was the director of a cultural house in northern Afghanistan and the editor of its monthly magazine. She was studying Dari literature at university, and had done extensive research on Rumi, and compiled youth poetry written in the Dari language.  The second woman was a fiery and outspoken poet who wrote for a feminist newspaper and also managed a radio station.

These two women were no victims, no poster children for invasion, even though they’d come to Konya through a foreign grant, and their projects at home were being funded by international organizations. They were young women just like I had been in my 20s; studying, working, building a life for themselves. They both kept their hair covered at all times; the first woman with a light scarf, the second with colorful turbans and headwraps. But they argued and debated, laughed and sang with the rest of us as we made our way from Konya to Cappadocia. Last year the fiery poet was elected to her provincial council.

Dr. Sahraa Karimi, a renowned Afghan filmmaker recently spoke at a planning session for a women’s festival in Karachi. She made no pretense of the fact that Afghan women are still suffering greatly. “To be an Afghan woman is very very painful, whether you are ordinary or rich or well-educated. But just because it’s painful doesn’t mean we do nothing.”

According to Karimi, Afghan women are still seen either as victims or as a project – neither attitude leading to true progress. In Afghanistan, development workers and selected Afghan women — Western success stories, as Abirafeh calls them — grow rich on “Women’s Empowerment Projects” and “Minority Interest Projects.” Meanwhile, high numbers of Afghan women intellectuals leave the country in a debilitating brain drain because of their dangerous working conditions and suffocating social environments in the ordinary areas of Afghanistan outside the fortified Western compounds.

Karimi’s outlook is hopeful and positive: Afghan women are now able to raise their voices for justice, with the help of international organizations that are supporting their efforts. Even in the midst of ongoing attacks and violence against women, workshops, trainings, have enabled Afghan women to speak up for themselves to tell their own stories of their suffering, instead of Westerners speaking on their behalf.

Yet Afghan women have to be chiefly responsible for their own uplift, instead of succumbing to the victimhood thrust upon them by the media and the aid machine. As Karimi says, “Peace in Afghanistan is impossible without women. The terrible situation in Afghanistan is because of the absence of women, of respect and acceptance for them.  If they gave even a 10% opportunity to women to be part of the change and decision-making, Afghanistan would see peace.” 

Such a peace can only come when the West abandons the long-cherished idea of Afghan women as victims, or a problem or project to be fixed, and instead continue to support them in their own struggles, giving them the agency they already know is theirs by right. 

Patriarchy, the world’s most popular religion

I’ve been exchanging notes with a novelist in America, Carolyn Cohagan, who has written a very interesting Young Adult novel called Time Zero. In a New York Times article for Women in the World, she describes her book as a dystopian novel for girls, inspired by homegrown fundamentalism. In an email, she asked me, “Do you think people in Pakistan realize that the US has fundamentalist communities with polygamy, forced marriages, and restricted rights for women? What do you think their reaction would be?”

Cohagan was inspired by the Taliban’s draconian rules for girls and women during their rule in Afghanistan. In her novel, Cohagan writes about an America taken over by fundamentalists, and her protagonist is a 15 year old girl, Mina Clark. But in her NYT article, Cohagan refers to not just Muslim communities in the US, but Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish, and fundamentalist Christian communities such as evangelical and Mormon ones, immigrant and non-immigrant families. These are where American girls are subject to many of the same rules and practices you might see under the Taliban, or authoritarian regimes or extremist societies in the developing world.

Cohagan’s work (and this is why it’s so important that we talk to each other, especially when we’re from different sides of the world, to see what’s common and experienced universally) reaffirms my own explorations of these subjects. I’ve come to the conclusion that patriarchy is a powerful religion in its own right. Powerful because it is able to subsume so many of our established religions, whether Abrahamic or polytheistic, or non-theistic, and to subvert the roles of women to its own agenda, which is to establish a world order in which women are a type of slave class in servitude to men.

Patriarchy is also intricately linked to capitalism, which requires the servitude of women, minorities, people from developing nations, and ranks them as inferior to a ruling class made up mostly of men. There’s no surprise in the fact that men own most of the property on the planet, most of the land, lead most of the companies and the means of production.

This paragraph in Cohagan’s essay stood out for me.

As the world moves forward with technology and communication, one might assume that social progress is inevitable within these conservative communities. On the contrary, according to the religious scholar Karen Armstrong, fundamentalism thrives in times of technological leaps forward. “All fundamentalists feel that in a secular society, God has been relegated to the margin, to the periphery and they are all in different ways seeking to drag him out of that peripheral position, back to center stage.”

These days, Muslim women are struggling mightily for empowerment in their lives and in their countries and communities.  But their work, in their own contexts and on their own terms, runs the risk of being hijacked by those with other agendas. I’m not talking about ex-Muslims, who have their own struggle and many valuable things to say about the state of affairs in the rotten Denmarks we live in,  both in the Muslim countries and elsewhere. Nor am I talking about secularists and humanists, who have been invaluable in pushing the agenda of human rights and of tolerance of all people, regardless of faith (This is why I very much respect Taslima Nasreen, for example, because she’s been through it all and her perspective is important, even if her atheism is in direct opposition to my practice).

I’m talking about the male “allies” who think they’re freeing Muslim women, when all they’re really doing is replacing the patriarchy of religion, and the religion of patriarchy, with the religion of the future: technology, science, and the self – which can be as oppressive to women as religion can, when all three fields are dominated by men. (Take a look at this article from NatGeo which tells us that most of the world’s secularists are white men). Women, and especially women of color, have no seat at any of these tables.

These “allies” claim to care for the plight of Muslim women, and they firmly believe that without their help, Muslim women will never be “free”. They’re the ones that continue to insist Muslim women cannot free themselves without male stewardship. They show their care by “by bombing their countries, demonizing the religion, and supporting patriarchal structures” as grad student Hari Prasad put it:

I honestly adore how atheists, secularists and neo-cons are so concerned for the plight of Muslim women. It’s heart-warming.

@BinaShah they care so much for Muslim women, by bombing their countries, demonizing the religion, and supporting patriarchal structures

Less violently, but no less insidiously, they choose who can and can’t speak for Muslim women. They lionize certain spokespeople while demonizing others. They decide what Muslim women should and shouldn’t wear.  When Muslim women protest, or insist that they should be the ones with choice, these “allies” declare Muslim women brainwashed, terrorists, apologists, sympathizers, and slaves.

Witness how Mona Eltahawy was pilloried on Twitter when she said (and she doesn’t mince her words) that if you aren’t a Muslim woman, or non-white, you need to “shut up” and “listen”, instead of attempting to call the shots in this movement. The howls of anger were loudest from “allies” who couldn’t believe they were being told they couldn’t take the lead in this revolution. She went on to say “I don’t care about Western feminists. This is a fight for us, Muslim feminists, to have.” (And then she called everyone “fuckboys” which really made the fur fly)

Non-Muslims can certainly be allies to Muslim women in their struggle for empowerment, freedom, and equality. Western feminists, too, can be allies to Muslim women. But they need to take the back seat in this revolution. They need to listen to Muslim women talk about what they want for themselves. As Malik Ali tweeted, “Even the privileged (within Pakistan), unless they’re active or have ground experience can’t fully relate to the struggles of the oppressed. So it’s challenging for those ten thousand miles away, whether they’re expats, ex-Muslims, etc. If you’re sincere, research local activists and social workers, listen to what they say and support them.” (You are wise indeed, and a full ally of this movement)

The moment “allies” impose themselves on this struggle, dictating to Muslim women what’s good and bad for them, and decide what the end result of that struggle looks like (“Give up Islam!” is the biggest refrain which certainly doesn’t help anyone), they cease to become allies. And when men do this, whether Muslim or non-Muslim, eastern or western, they are simply continuing the tradition of patriarchy – only under different rulers.

There’s a great term for these allies, which comes from grammar: “false friends”. They are words “in two languages (or letters in two alphabets) that look or sound similar, but differ significantly in meaning.” In this case, these “allies” of Muslim women are actually false friends who want you to choose them and their way of life over the one that you want for yourself. They want to convince you that you don’t actually know what’s best for you because you’ve been so brainwashed or intimidated or oppressed by the men of your community.  Their agenda is to prove that their way of life is superior to yours, and they need to hold your hand and lead you to it.

Don’t fall for it.

Do Muslim Women Need Feminism?

That was the name of a laughable seminar organized by God knows who at the International Islamic University of Malaysia. The laughable part was the two speakers involved, as you’ll see from the event poster below:

Now, there’s nothing wrong with organizing a seminar on whether or not Muslim women need feminism, but what’s truly hilarious is getting two men to sit on a stage and tell Muslim women whether they need feminism or not.

Seriously, could this university not find any Muslim women to talk on the subject? I’m not even sure these two men were Malaysian, so I have my doubts as to whether or not they could even speak on the context of Malaysian Muslim women’s lives.

Anyway, after the seminar, an audience member posted on Facebook that it was every bit the car wreck you’d expect such a condescending event to be. The two men sat on stage and lectured the audience on how women are inferior physically, mentally and emotionally. They used outdated science, tired arguments, and bankrupt philosophy to ultimately conclude that Muslim women did not need feminism. From all accounts it sounds like they did everything except say that feminism is a Western plot invented by Shaitan to lead Muslim women astray.

It’s certainly possible to deny women their rights and use Islam as justification for doing so, look to misogynist jurists, scholars, and translators for evidence that women are inferior to men. But it is intellectually dishonest to do so.

Enough scholarship exists to prove that this is one the biggest scams in the Muslim world: the revolutionary spirit of the early years in Islam — where strong women were lauded, where equality was enshrined in the Quran, when the mechanisms for guaranteeing women their economic independence and their dignity were put in place — was trampled upon by men who could not bear to give up their privilege They misinterpreted, mistranslated, and twisted everything in order to come up with the same scrambled patriarchy enjoyed by their forefathers.

For many Muslim women who identify as feminists, and for many feminists who identify as Muslim women, here’s what the answer to the question looks like:

God, through Islam, gave me equal rights. Muslim men conspired to take them away. Feminism helped me to stand up and reclaim them.