I heard Patti Digh say once that we give up our power to the very people who took it away from us in the first place.
Who has the authority to grant permission? That depends on your culture and your perception of who’s in charge. Mostly in the West, when it comes to kids, parent(s) or the legal guardian has that power and right to justly care, manage and supervise another person in a fair and humane way, where rights are pretty much protected. Yet, in some Eastern cultures where men are traditionally in positions of power and authority have this right, not only over children but also over adult women. I don’t believe this is an equitable distribution of power, nor is it a helpful attitude in developing nations where many factors already put women and children at a disadvantage.
Never Judge a Book by Its Cover
Yes, I was born into an Eastern family, but culturally I was raised American, with a values orientation that points West. It’s a mindset that favors free will, openness, practicality, self-reliance, directness and healthy competition. No one, I repeat, no one, has the authority to lord over me and treat me like their property. I am not chattel. No one owns me. Not my father. Not my dear husband and certainly not my brothers. I may look “Arab” but that’s just skin color and facial features, but that’s the “evident culture” that sits above the water line. Deep below, you will find my true colors are “all-American,” and that’s where the hidden dimensions of culture lie. This is what makes me tick. While we are a composite of personality, country of origin and ethnicity, in a flat world, we don’t realize that it’s what you can’t see: our values, attitudes, perceptions, deep cultural tendencies and expectations — that are not only taken for granted, they are hugely misunderstood and at the root of misperceptions, bias and outright conflict.
In Pakistan, although women’s rights are largely defined (and derived) by religious and tribal customs, I think tribal customs or traditional practices are to blame for women’s inequality. It’s no secret according to the actual Islamic principles, not the ones interpreted by power-hungry men, that women have equal rights, but we will never be able to take advantage of those rights unless they are enforced social, politically and economically from the top down. What’s behind this power is the notion of the notion of namus (face/honor) is the single most important underlying factor driving their national behavior. It’s central to understanding what makes these men tick. They don’t want to risk making a bad choice, or looking bad, or being ridiculed for an unmanageable wife and family publicly.
Baby, You Can Drive My Car (and Other Drivers)
Girls are raised according to these dimensions of culture with the expectation of a life that can seem like nothing more than a series of compromises. Yet, like many women around the world, while I’m personally comfortable with assuming the role of family caregiver, I also presume the rights and responsibilities that come with this position: Namely, the right to a just and humane existence along with personal sovereignty and dignity. Being a wife and mother should not be mutually exclusive of human rights.
The roots of this power play between men and women in Pakistan, especially in rural areas, goes back centuries. Women continue to be segregated from men (as in many Eastern cultures). They live in purdah, which means “curtain” in Urdu — completely separate from men. The only contact they have with men is with members of the immediate family. In these areas, everyday tasks which involve leaving the house, like shopping, are carried out by men. Women’s work involves staying behind to clean, cook and raise children. However, many Pakistani women go out to work these days and are increasingly experiencing more levels of equality with men. Life varies dramatically between regions of Pakistan. A more liberal middle class plays an important role in the big cities, where conditions differ greatly from those in rural areas, which are far more traditional. The area in the northwest, bordering Afghanistan, dominated by tribal customs, is extremely conservative and very traditional with a self-styled strict adherence to Islam favored by the Taliban.
In the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, although women were previously forbidden from voting or being elected to political office, King Abdullah declared that women will be able to vote and run in the local elections and be appointed to the Consultative Assembly come 2015. Yet, the most recent act of rebellion came by car. Manal al-Sharif, a women’s rights activist from Saudi Arabia helped start a women’s right to drive campaign in 2011 because Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world that prohibits women from driving. Enabling mobility can only empower women who make up nearly 20 percent of the country’s workforce. The World Economic Forum 2009 Global Gender Gap Report ranked Saudi Arabia 130th out of 134 countries for gender parity. It was the only country to score a zero in the category of political empowerment.
The ongoing battle of the sexes is being played out in different stages in different cultures. Each one is working through deeply held-notions of who is in charge and why, by whose authority and at what price. It’s not so much the notion of independence (of women) that seems to be at issue with traditional cultures so much as the loss of face (by men) when the power shift happens. Santosh Kalwar said, “a strong gives forgiveness but weak gives permission.” My advice to the men who uphold traditional misogynistic practices that were created by and for them is to seek to be advisors, not grantors of permission. Therein lays your power.
It’s the kind of power reflected in the upcoming documentary, Sweet Dreams Rwanda. The women depicted are so resilient and powerful. It seems they can deal with the worst situations often without an education or resources, and yet they are able to stand up for themselves to improve their lives and the lives of others — thus improving the overall health, welfare and economy of their nation. It’s a lesson we can learn from for a more just and peaceful world.
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