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Can I just say I am fascinated with America’s version of pomp and circumstance? At today’s Naturalization ceremony, where fifty new citizens took their oaths (I was the fiftieth to receive my certificate), our judge took the opportunity to cheerily induct us into American informality – “darn well,” “we want you to enjoy the moment,” “relax.” As someone who has walked woodenly during British convocations and sat with head bent for ages during high school assembly in Pakistan, this laid-back joke-studded ‘ceremony’ truly sums up everything that I find lovable and hilarious about America.
It’s significant that I spent much of my time in sympathetic whispered conversation with a younger Pakistani woman whose marriage, it seemed, was on the rocks. And as we placed our hands on our hearts, this woman’s predicament reminded me of some of the factors that prompted my immigration – my own struggles with my gendered status, and my sister’s awful breakup and divorce and struggle for custody of her children. Back in the early 1990s, in Rawalpindi, after her husband beat her, I took my sister to see a lawyer one afternoon. We returned to her (husband’s) house to find her in-laws arrayed against us, demanding to know why we had dared to leave the house. We were their women and their “responsibility” and we were completely helpless. That day I decided that I would never be in a state of such disempowerment and victimhood.
There’s no doubt about it: I could not find a man I could respect who could respect me in turn. Of course this is not to say that there were no men who could respect me. The problem was that I couldn’t find these men; I was (along with my diminutive stature and my very middle-class, frugal family background) being vetted by prospective mothers-in-law with powerful eugenicist motives and class aspirations. I was too studious to be a pretty, stylish, and sugghad (domestic and industrious) daughter-in-law and wife. My family was not wealthy enough, and was definitely not showy enough for fervently upwardly mobile suitors. My father’s eccentric temper drove people away unless they were willing to look beyond his beetle-browed and pugilistic appearance. And as for suitors who showed up bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, well, they couldn’t understand me and how my dreams went beyond marriage, children, and keeping a tidy home. After some years of futile rishta-hopping, and a couple of kinda-engagements, my parents knew that I was a commodity whose value was not current in the marriage market. So when I applied for scholarships and study abroad, they sadly and pensively agreed to support me.
The woman I met at the ceremony was surprised when I told her I had arrived in the US as an unmarried student. It was quite unusual in the 90s, she said, for unmarried women to travel to the US to study. “My parents are very conservative,” she said. “Oh, mine are too,” I assured her, “but I was even more conservative than them, so they thought I’d be safe. Of course, a few years later, I brought a white guy to Lahore to them, so that didn’t quite work out, did it?”
She told me about how her husband told her she should dress, how he was jealous of men who looked at her, and how he resented her work and her achievements. And even as I am fiercely loyal to the land of my childhood, and the home of my culture, I find myself sadly relieved that I am today a citizen here in this low-context individualistic culture, where – at least in theory – I, despite my relative lack of wealth, can enjoy many of the fruits of freedom and equality.
We held up our right hands and said something about foreign princes and potentates, sang something about bombs and flags. My neighbor told me she’d told her interviewer that she was not willing to bear arms but she’d be happy to serve in a civilian capacity. “Because I don’t want to bear arms, you know,” she said, and I chuckled because anyone I bear arms for is in a lot of trouble, owing to my lack of fine physical coordination.
The judge told us that today, it was like we were planting trees. Maybe we ourselves would not get to enjoy our trees so very much, but our grandchildren some day would say, “Gee [I hope they say ai-hai] I’m glad grandma decided to immigrate to the United States.” And, softie that I am, tears welled up in my eyes at the idea of how being an American shapes Raihana’s life chances and opportunities, and the lives of her children, and their children – and how some day, they will look at a picture of great-nanijan who, once upon a time got on a plane in her abayah and hijab, nervous at the thought of sitting next to a white man, and flew off, leaving tears in her aging parents’ eyes. I glanced over immigrants from twenty-six nations, including Albania, Bosnia, Cameroon, China, the Congo, Ghana, and Jordan, thinking of the travails that these immigrants had all gone through to become part of this collective, and cried some more. You can’t have a naturalization ceremony without a little crying. Some crying for the girl I used to be and for the woman I thought I’d be. Some tears for the dreams I learned to dream as a girl, and for the dreams that became nightmares. Some tears for the new dreams that I learned to dream in America, and the struggles to realize those dreams. Some crying for what you’re letting go of, and some crying for what you’ve gained.
A mother in California, sick of Disney representation of girls and women, came up with a new cast of characters – the Guardian Princesses. This is a hopeful sign, but Setsu Shigematsu cannot do it alone. Disney with its enormous, hegemonic power – cultural as well as financial – is too big for one person to battle alone. I hope Shigematsu finds allies and backing in her work because I am one of those many, many parents (and others) who are sick to death of the Disney/Pixar girl image problem. I would really like girls to have a narrative that is not centered around the climactic appearance of romance and a man, but most entertainment products for children appear to follow the dominant romance narrative. This is more than a feminist issue. The narrative is reductive. It centers the life-story around the identification of that Other Person who will make life meaningful. That expectation is often a destructive and depressing force which can detract from a person’s strength and aims.
May I a little spitefully hope that someone other than the big corporations picks up where they failed. Why should they get to make money off all the consumers, feminist and nonfeminist alike? When Merida belches and doesn’t care for fancy outfits, this is good, and the change in body representation is helpful, but for me, the plot is the key issue. When everything in the plot revolves around a man/romance/marriage, any degree of proud, strong, assertive, feminist female character only succeeds in showing that that, too, can be domesticated into patriarchy. The feminist representation becomes harmful because it’s just a way to nab a wider audience. The Guardian Princesses will be a change from the Disney norm if the plot is not man-driven.
Objectification theory posits that girls and women are sexually objectified on a daily basis. Not only are they evaluated and stared at, they are routinely regarded as material for the consumption of the gaze. Worse, girls and women internalize the objectification to which they are constantly subjected, pushing themselves harder and harder to provide a more enjoyable experience for the gaze. Countless hours are spent on this project, and girls and women are psychologically “doubled” as a consequence of this objectification. Clothing the body results in immeasurable anxiety and frustration, as most women’s bodies are not the bodies that are constantly “sold” as the ideal. Adolescence is a time of extreme anxiety for girls, as bodies become sexualized and objectified. Conversely, Frederickson and Roberts argue that middle age – which is often thought of as the ‘end’ – should be a time when women can escape the objectification, as long as they can escape the internalized objectifying gaze. When we think of middle aged women, some people think of Helen Mirren and Diane Lane, and congratulate themselves on being politically correct for admiring these older women, though their very selectiveness betrays the internalized objectifying gaze.
“To the extent that middle-aged women are willing and able to step out of the objectification limelight, they should experience (a) less self-conscious body monitoring because of diminished needs for anticipating observers’ evaluations of their bodies; (b) improved subjective experiences, including less shame and anxiety, more peak motivational states, and a potential to reconnect to internal bodily states …” (Barbara Frederickson and Tomi-Ann Roberts, 1997, 195).
So, on the bright side, my young female readers, all you have to do is wait.
While interviewing Pakistani women academics in 2012, I learned how technological advances offer freedoms as well as snares for women. My research participant “Tahira” told me how some Pakistani young women are lured by secret lovers into making amateur “sex films,” but these men then proceed to share these films publicly on the internet. Reputations, lives, and families are ruined in the process.
There are, however, relatively innocent films that are posted publicly and cause similar devastation in conservative families.
I know that for many, the solution is for young women to do absolutely nothing that might bring shame upon their families. Perhaps, indeed, young women must wear chadors at all times and never get caught in a private moment where they appear erotic or attractive. I am, of course, being sarcastic.
In the unregulated jungles of the internet, there does not appear to be any available strategy that might protect people from the damage of being caught by strangers engaged in fun that does no one (else) any harm.
But perhaps, in our families, schools, colleges, and madrassahs, young men can be educated to think and speak of women with respect, as agents and not as objects, as persons who can speak and act, and not as things that can only be seen and spoken of. Muslim religiosity and conservative cultural norms certainly contain the seeds of compassion, humility, and understanding of human sexuality, complexity, and diversity. It’s time those seeds bear fruit.
This weekend, after some conversations with my daughter’s schoolteachers, I felt the need to sit her down and tell her that she was the most important thing in my life. She looked at me earnestly, a little surprised. “Even more than work?”
Those four words have me reeling. My 6-year old girl believes that I am more attached to my work than to her. Meantime, in the academic recession more than ever, higher education is under the impression that it should be in full possession of its employees’ lives, and that to be a scholar is to be naught else.
As a still-untenured faculty member, I find myself struggling with the promise I have just made to my daughter: “I promise I will try harder to spend more time with you” (note the lengthy sentence construction). I find myself planning ahead, contemplating the international teaching trip in the summer, scheming for new publications once the book is finished, and filling up boxes in my planner.
Those are the boxes which also say, “Sorry, honey, I have to finish this;” “honey, please can you go and play in your room?” and “Raihana, I need to focus.”
I should have predicted it, but it was a surprise to me. I was not quite done being overwhelmed by my emotional reaction to the shooting by Taliban of the 15-year old activist for girls’ education Malala Yousufzai.
And then I found a meme circulating on Facebook that pitted Malala against the victims of US drone attacks. The argument ran thus: Why is there such a unanimous outcry against the shooting of this one girl, when numerous girls have been crippled and killed by American drones in Afghanistan? Why are the lives of drone victims so cheap, but the life of Malala so significant?
As the argument progressed, I heard such phrases as “the BBC blogger,” which portrayed Malala Yousufzai as something of a Western plant. If she was fighting for girls’ education against Taliban (who were against the US military presence), surely she was in favor of the US/West. The images of little Afghan girls in wheelchairs (victims of US drones) and the radiant face of Malala Yousufzai swiftly became pitted against each other in a nauseating battle of pawns.
The meme reads: “Do you know this girl? Have you seen her story on CNN or the BBC? Have you seen any breaking news about her on Geo, Dunya and Express? Have you updated your Facebook status to mention her? Have you seen any tweets about her? Have you ever heard that she was transported to hospital in an army helicopter? No, right? Yes, never – because she was wounded in a drone attack.”
I understand the reaction, on some level. In a college classroom, while discussing the injustice of the French headscarf ban, I heard someone challenge my focus on Western secularism by reminding me of the Taliban attack on Malala. I had been heartbroken over the attack, but suddenly, I found that I was being asked to perform my outrage, to prove that I wasn’t just opposed to secular, Western oppression of young girls but that I was similarly (or more) angered by sexist Muslims opposed to the education of girls.
It is true, of course, that there are plentiful spaces in Western discourse for anti-Muslim fundamentalist outrage. There is reason for suspicion of the ideological machinery that constantly attacks Muslims as sexist and opposed to girls’ education. The Western imperialist project continues to use girls and women as pawns against the Islamic threat.It is likewise true that the victims of drone attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan are invisible, treated as collateral damage, yet embarrassing enough to be brushed under the carpet. Now we have virtual memes that actually shrug off such cases as that of Malala and challenge the so-called obsession of pro-Western discourse with gender equality.
Of course there are ideological spaces where such groups as the Pakistani Taliban proclaim their opposition to Malala and the “secularism” and “enlightened moderation” that she allegedly preaches. If she blogs against the Taliban role, the argument runs, she is (quite successfully!) whipping up people’s emotions against the mujahideen, so she is against Shariah and a legitimate target for said mujahideen. Apparently, in this argument, Taliban=mujahideen=Shariah=Islam.
In such a climate of constant ideological tussle, the task of upholding equality and opposing oppression becomes charged with unintended meanings. American military and political agendas infect the framing of all postcolonial struggles and debates. And within postcolonial contexts, anti-imperialist agendas constantly hijack the struggles of girls, women, minorities, and the poor. If you are outraged about the treatment of Christians in Pakistan, you must be pro-American; if you are suspicious of gender activism, you must be pro-fundamentalist. Activism for girls’ education or anti-imperialist political activism? Which memes will you post at your Facebook page? Which will you choose?
Meantime, people in Afghanistan and tribal areas of Pakistan struggle to make lives of meaning and dignity. Between American drones and Taliban guns, forced to choose sides, they find themselves to be mere pawns – mere objects, mere jpegs in a Facebook meme.
Gender equity, as I pointed out rather incoherently in my last post, does not occur in a vacuum. The conditioning of boys and men as caregivers and as domestic engineers is an integral part of this endeavor. But the domestic sphere is seamlessly connected with the workplace and with public policy. The conditioning of men and women occurs within the context of legal, political and cultural climates.
If men can’t get paternity leave, for instance, women who are mothers will rarely make it to the corridors of power. In that case, a man’s willingness to care for his baby full-time is moot. So if the possibilities of domesticity and full(er)-time parenting are closed to men, or are accompanied by financial risks and a workplace inhospitable to men more involved in parenting, then bringing women within sight of the boardroom, or tenure, or a sports career, or even the Kroger checkout counter, is pointless.
While men and women bear responsibility for the construction of egalitarian and whole lives, te responsibility is shared by politicians, the designers and implementers of public policy, intellectual workers, social analysts and critics, cultural agents such as people in the media, and by those who wield the power of Big Money.
But gender equity is also an integral part of human wholeness and integrity. We seek equity that human beings may be whole, that they may not feel like they are being drawn and quartered to fit the demands of their lives.
This also means that the freezing up of professional roles must give way to a fluidity that permits shifts, so that individuals may respond to life-changes and seek wholeness in their intellectual and work lives, without risking their livelihood and the integrity of work profiles. A professor or physician should be able to work in the Congo without losing currency; she should be able to care for aging parents without losing her livelihood; she should be able to bear and raise children while she is of child-bearing age without appearing to be “not competitive.” None of this is new. Yet this remains a dream, and in our worsening economic climate, it seems more out of reach than it has been recently.