Earlier this week it was International Women’s Day and like all other days – Mother’s day, Father’s day, Independence day – it was difficult to acknowledge the day let alone engage in any discussions.
You see, my problem isn’t with the day nor with those who celebrate it, my problem is with the fight. Commemorative days are one out of 365 days, but the fight…well, the fight is relentless. The fight doesn’t take a break on any of those days. The fight means that even when women are encouraged to take a day off to raise awareness about their plight, so many simply can’t afford to. I feel perpetually exhausted by repetitive rhetoric but this won’t stop me from writing about it – so here goes.
In 1990, Peggy McIntosh wrote an essay called Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack in which she compiled a list of all the invisible privileges white people are granted. She argued these privileges brand racism as ‘individual acts of meanness’ rather than what racism really is: invisible scaffolds underpinning society and passing off as the norm. Of course male privilege exists in the same way.
Whilst writing my auto-ethnography, I was forced to scrutinise my life. I was trying to put into words some of the issues surrounding the enculturalization of good girls, issues which I’d later discover are direct results of growing up in a hybrid diaspora. Anyway, I began to imagine – if McIntosh has been like me: Muslim, third-generation British Kashmiri, what would she have wrote? Actually, what if she was all of those things and male? What would those privileges look like?
1. The lives of my family members, irrespective of how many daughters exist, will never truly begin until I – the much awaited son – am born.
2. I can expect to have all domestic chores completed for me by my mother or sister(s).
3. I can venture outdoors at any time of the day or night and my character will not be questioned as a result of my active social life.
4. I can sleep in on weekends knowing my need for rest will not cause me shame and will not be viewed as a direct correlation with my future inability to be a good spouse.
5. I can be pretty sure neighbours and the wider community won’t use my clothes or appearance as a reason to slander or defame me.
6. I can grow into adulthood without the need to develop skills like cooking, cleaning, or doing the laundry and ironing.
7. My inability to do any of the above will not have an impact on potential suitors for my hand in marriage.
8. My decision to delay or refuse marriage will not provoke anger, tears, or the chance of being disowned and homeless.
9. I will always have a choice in who I marry.
10. I will never hear the phrase: ‘You’re not allowed to do that because you’re a boy.’
11. I can go to university without hearing taunts that I will ruin the family honour.
12 Further education and career aspirations will be expected of me as opposed to withheld from me.
13. My body is not the symbol of family honour and my virginity will never be anyone else’s business but mine.
14. I can be pretty sure I won’t be bartered off as someone’s ticket to a red passport.
15. I will never hear the words: ‘Your true home is with your in-laws.’
16. The elderly women in my family won’t resort to soothsayers and priests to cure me if I ever display signs of illness, disease, disobedience or the desire to make my own choices.
17. The chances of me being physically or sexually abused by a spouse I never wanted to marry in the first place are next to zero.
18. I can be sexually promiscuous outside of marriage yet demand a virgin spouse and expect to never be questioned about my past affairs.
I can go on for days…
Are you wondering what any of this has to do with the title of this piece? Okay. My last post was featured on Discover and I’m still recovering from the kind words everyone left in the comments (thank you all). Alongside requests for more information about a largely taboo topic, I’ve had my fair share of spammers and abuse too. I refuse to provide a platform for these comments yet there is one particular comment I need to respond to, it was along the lines of: religion and culture are the same, they will always oppress you.
I know how easy it is to blame culture but when we say culture oppresses women of colour, are we suggesting white people have no culture? When we use this word, are we saying culture as in ‘the one your forefathers migrated with and continue to carry forth till this day?’ Perhaps I didn’t make it clear last time, but when I talk about culture I am also talking about Western, modern and secular culture. And many will agree with me when I say this culture, just like the tribal cultures our families carry with them, has absolutely nothing in common with Islam.
Second, I am tired of people with zero experience of being Muslim or female, telling the world how they think Islam oppresses women. Muslim women do not lack voices nor the capacity to recognise and verbalise oppression as they see it.
What lessened my oppression? It was not the freedoms nor privileges afforded to me as a British national nor was it being a third-generation Kashmiri. In fact, both of these contributed to my oppression for over two decades of my life. Hell, I went to a severely deprived secondary school in one of the most racially-tense and deprived towns in England. I grew up in perpetual fear of what families – our loved ones – can do to daughters who are not good girls, daughters who don’t toe the line. I grew up watching white politicians (more men with even more privileges) telling us all about what Muslim women need, each new agenda victimised us as voiceless things. As much as I love being a teacher, my first 21 years in education taught me nothing of use until I searched for it myself. And despite all the graft and struggle, I never did make it out from the shadow of my male sibling.
In the bleakest years of my life, I was forever angry. I could see my life spiralling down a different route. I could have justified it you know? I could’ve easily blamed factors out of my control: family, socioeconomic poverty, peer pressure, lack of role models, lack of funding for education… What saved me? Islam. Learning about my religion softened my heart because I finally learned how loved, fortunate and valuable I was. Waris Shah (r.a) said it best:
Waris sab duniya daghebaaz hai jee, rakk Rabb di taraf tyaan Mian.
The whole world is treacherous, focus your attention on the Beloved instead…
1400 years ago Islam stopped us from burying daughters alive but today, under the guise of culture, honour, male privilege, we continue burying our women. Islam does not oppress us – culture does. God is not unkind to us – people are.
When upheld correctly, Islam makes sure every single day of the year is women’s day.
When paradise is said to lie beneath the feet of the mother, it is women’s day.
When looking at one’s wife with love evokes the Mercy of Allah, it is women’s day.
When fulfilling all the rights of one’s daughter opens gates in paradise, it is women’s day.
And when they tell you ‘The walls of a house rejoice at the birth of a girl,’ and when we believe this to be true for the right reasons, only then will every day be women’s day.