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Monthly Archives: April 2018

‘Real’ women weigh in

As a woman what would you like to hear — “You look amazing” or “You are amazing”?

http://tns.thenews.com.pk/real-women-weigh/#.WtxBBohubIV

‘Real’ women weigh in
The catwalk is where you see ‘beautiful’ women. Thin, young, unblemished, unwrinkled women. Because that is our criteria of beauty. The fashion arena has no place for cellulite and scars, nor does it welcome aging.

But a recent fashion show by designer Cheena Chhapra in Pakistan Fashion Week (PFW) in Karachi was clearly thinking outside the box. These were, what the designer called in her Instagram post, “real women”. There were white-haired women and over-sized women and women of all ages and sizes… including pregnant women. They were real alright. But were they beautiful?

50 is the new…?

The pressure on women is immense. ‘Kill me but make me young’ is the silent but definite mantra. The compliment a woman is conditioned to receive as the biggest compliment is this: “Oh my God, you look so young, I thought your daughter was your sister!” It started with ‘40 is the new 30’. You had to look a decade younger. Now it’s 60 is the new 40’, and the yawning gap that women must cover up has reached about 20 years.

Even the most honest of women who don’t lie about anything else will be found sneakily hiding a few years from their age. The white hair near the forehead are not welcome for a woman; neither is the frizz or the thinning of hair in the front of the crown. It is a much tougher deal for a woman if, because of any reasons, chemotherapy for example, she loses hair.

But men are ok even if they are bald, and in fact are considered more “distinguished looking” if they have gray or silver hair.

These judgments are not just coming from men. They are coming from women against other women too. Our remarks, attitudes and body language end up impacting other women in terms of how they look at themselves. Thus the increased emphasis on invasive procedures to make lips look plumper, skin look more stretched, the nose look less droopy, and the face look unwrinkled. There are even more invasive procedures for many body parts, better left unsaid.

Sized up

Each one of us, at some stage in life, has heard comments about our weight and size and body type. “You look too thin; are you ill?” if you have lost weight, interspersed with unasked for suggestions to put on thora sa (a little bit). Or “You’ve put on haven’t you? I know a great Zumba instructor”. When women go looking for girls for their sons or brothers, they want the “slim, fair” variety. It is as if society measures you up in kilogrammes instead of talents and values. Fat shaming is not always verbal or direct. It can be done in a subtle manner, making the other person feel lesser because of the extra weight.

While fitness is important, both in terms of health as well as well-being, we are born with certain genetic dispositions when it comes to our body types — the pear shape, the apple shape, the hour glass shape. We don’t really have a choice in that.

Women’s bodies undergo multiple changes over time due to hormonal ups and downs, childbirth, or simply age. You cannot and will not have a body of a 25 year old if you are 45, but you can be fit and healthy if you work at it.

It started with ‘40 is the new 30’. You had to look a decade younger. Now it’s 60 is the new 40’, and the yawning gap that women must cover up has reached about 20 years.

We, the objects

The problem lies in women being reduced to “objects” of beauty, of desire, and of attraction. This is done not just by men, nor just by women, but by societies as a whole. We almost see women in inanimate terms. This era of hyper-sexualisation leaves women of no age — little girls, young women, middle-aged women or even elderly women. It seems we took Keats’ “A thing of beauty is a joy forever” quite literally, often seeing this timeless line of poetry as an implication towards women being a ‘thing’ of beauty. As women, don’t we recognise that this objectification dehumanises us somewhere? But we are as much a part of the problem as men.

Big women on the small catwalk

Why initiatives such as Chappra’s show are important is because they can go a long way in modifying, if not completely altering, perceptions about what comprises a beautiful woman. But such initiatives do not go down well with everyone. The show got mixed feedback. Some appreciated it as a game-changer, while others said these big women on the small catwalk did not belong there.

For women, it is important to take stock of themselves and ask themselves the question, “What is it that defines me?” If it is what you look like, and if that is the source of the highs and lows of your self-esteem, then clearly there is a problem. It is also important to honestly ask ourselves how we look at other women — do we value them on the basis of how they weigh, dress and look, or on the basis of who they are and what they do.

Change trickles in slowly, and it takes forever to change mindsets. But unless we, as women, start the change from within, we cannot expect society to change from without. So the next time you compliment a woman, let it be about more than “You look amazing”, and move it to “You are amazing”.

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Me and my Hashimoto’s – Living with an Autoimmune condition

 http://tns.thenews.com.pk/hashimotos/#.WtmSb4hubIU

If a person has one autoimmune disorder, there are chances that he or she is susceptible to getting another one

Me and my Hashimoto’s

I am a journalist, and there is this thing with journalists – they have this insatiable need to inform others about what they learn. Journalists are people who relay information, even if it is information about an autoimmune disorder they are suffering from.

I have been wanting to write about an autoimmune disorder that I have been suffering from. In turn, I wanted to write about autoimmune disorders – a wretched group of diseases that very many people suffer from, but often do not know what it actually is that is making them feel unwell.

I started asking people who I knew had different autoimmune disorders. Many of them agreed to speak to me for the write-up but requested anonymity. Others refused to speak about their disorder. It is understandable as it is not easy to announce to the world that you have something that makes you feel unwell so often.

But autoimmune disorders need to be spoken about and written about because they are more common than we realise. We also need to speak about what we go through because it is a means of helping those who are going through something similar. Suffering from a disease or a disorder is not something that should embarrass or demean us. It is what it is. All we need to do is manage it the best we can, and for that we need awareness. Write-ups like this one are aimed at just that one goal — creating awareness that might tell someone else reading it that “you are not alone”.

For me, it started with just feeling down and listless and unusually cold, very cold. I saw people around me sitting comfortably in air-conditioned rooms with fans on in Karachi summers, but I felt spears of cold entering my ribs and my back. Getting up in the morning became a struggle. There were aches and pains and just feeling down, with no energy. I started realising that I could no longer lose nor maintain my weight that easily. But I knew it was time for an SOS when out of nowhere I would break out into rashes — rashes that would come out of nowhere and disappear without any medication as well.

I googled all my symptoms. My google search findings remained inconclusive. Not knowing what is going on inside your body is one of the scariest feelings because you cannot do much about what you don’t know.

Awareness about my Hashimoto’s Thyroditis has led me to understand better things like where my constant fatigue stemmed from, and why insomnia keeps making surprise visits to me, and also why unexplained aches and pains keep coming and going.

My symptoms led me to knock on the doors of many genres of doctors — general physicians, skin specialists, orthopedic specialists, homeopathic doctors, and even a psychiatrist, as google kept bringing up the suggestion that perhaps this was nothing but depression. It was finally an allergy specialist who, luckily for me, was extra cautious, and advised me to get my tests done, including one for autoimmune thyroditis. The result was clear. I finally had a diagnosis. I have what is called “Hashimoto’s Thyroditis”, and it is an autoimmune disease. It is an annoying disorder to put it simply and honestly, because it makes life a drudge. The good news is that for the most part, it is not an extremely dangerous condition. Yet, living with an ongoing condition is a test of patience — both physically and emotionally.

To put it simply, autoimmune diseases are when the cops who have the job of catching the bad guys start harming the good guys. It is when the body starts getting attacked by its own immune system, and instead of attacking infections and anything that harms us, the immune system starts attacking the normal body tissues.

Why do certain people get them and others don’t is a question medical science is still trying to answer. It can be one of many reasons. For starters, more women get afflicted by these disorders than men do, and one reason experts give is the female hormones, particularly estrogen, that may lead to a predisposition to autoimmune diseases. Another reason could be hidden in our genetic pool. Certain families report higher incidences of illnesses like Multiple Sclerosis and Lupus, but there is no way of telling why some people in these families get them and others don’t.

Are autoimmune diseases on the rise? Many medical experts believe yes they are, and they feel environmental factors like ready use of chemicals and solvents, unhealthy environments, and infections could be the culprits. But others feel that these diseases have always been there but we are just getting better at diagnosing them. Some suspect the increased use of fats, sugar, and processed foods. Unhealthy food choices lead to inflammation that leads to an overactive immune response in the body. Another hypothesis is that use of sanitisers, antiseptics, vaccines and keeping one’s self in overly sterile environments leads to a lack of exposure to germs, and resultantly sometimes our immune system overreacts as a result and goes into autoimmune mode. And maybe, just maybe, stress and emotional trauma triggers these disorders.

Some common autoimmune disorders are Rheumatoid arthritis (RA), Psoriasis, Multiple Sclerosis, Systemic Lupus Erythematosus (Lupus), Inflammatory Bowel Disease, and even Type 1 Diabetes. Some of these like Lupus can lead to serious complications if not managed with care.

If a person has one autoimmune disorder, there are chances that he or she is susceptible to getting another one.

Awareness about my Hashimoto’s Thyroditis has led me to understand better things like where my constant fatigue stemmed from, and why insomnia keeps making surprise visits to me, and also why unexplained aches and pains keep coming and going. I have understood that I have to regularly visit a doctor for follow-ups, and keep a check on my thyroid levels. I have understood that taking medicines regularly is a lifeline. And I have understood that a healthy lifestyle –healthier eating, exercise, yoga, sleep, faith in God – will help me in this fight against this disorder.

I have also come to understand that one needs to be more sensitive to what other people are going through, because we often do not know what is causing that person to feel a certain way. Why do certain people feel down more than others? Why do some people put on weight more than others? Why do some sleep like babies while others struggle to even get a few hours’ snooze? Why do some people feel so hot and others feel so cold? Who knows who among us is going through an invisible but debilitating condition?

Autoimmune disorders are not all bad, then, are they? Maybe they make us a better person.

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The writer is a freelance journalist with a focus on human rights, gender and peace-building. She works in the field of Corporate Communications.

Women on the go – How information technology has helped Pakistani women’s mobility

Access to smart phones and internet has played a major role in adding to the mobility of women

Women on the go

It takes 34-years-old Afshan Babar some 90 minutes to reach from her home in Surjani Town to the training centre run by TAF Foundation (TAFF) where she is enrolled in the Cooking and Housekeeping course at TAFF-VTI.  There was a time when she could not have imagined stepping out of the house alone.

Now, the ability to reach from point A to point B has changed her life. “Watching others use public transport is what encouraged and motivated me,” says Babar. She has now joined the millions of Pakistani women, particularly in urban Pakistan, who are daring to be mobile on their own.

The credit for this acceleration in the number of women daring to go where no woman from their family had gone before goes, according to experts, to access to information technology and cellular mobile phones.

For Amber Zulfiqar, a Food and Travel Influencer & Digital PR Consultant, services like smart phone taxi services have eased up travelling for women. “Women are taking inspiration from other women — it grows like a chain. When a woman lets go of her fears of travelling alone, it is because she has heard stories of her friends using it or read encouraging material online.”

Most gender experts like Mahnaz Rahman, Director, Sindh chapter of the Aurat Foundation, agree that cellular phone access is a blessing for Pakistani women. “Technology has shown women a path that is a means to an end. Sitting at home, many women have become entrepreneurs with the help of social media,” says Rahman, adding that as ours is a patriarchal society, men have better access to information technology as more men than women have cellular phones, especially smart phones.

“Nonetheless, access to information technology has helped women get exposure to the world and step outside their cocoons, not just physically but also intellectually,” she says.

“The first step for women is to step out of their homes. Exposure helps them evolve and grow. This mobility is not just travelling from point A to point B — it is also about joining the workforce,” says Sibtain Naqvi, Head of Public Affairs at Careem.

Naqvi echoes the opinion that mobility is a serious challenge in Pakistan. “A mega city like Karachi is without a serving metro system. And the challenge is bigger for women. Even privileged women are dependent on males of the family to go out; women from the middle class who are educated are expected to sit at home simply because getting to work poses a challenge. The vans that women use to get to office and go back home do not provide personal mobility,” he adds.

A woman’s needs are beyond just getting to work or dropping and picking her children, and the urban woman has a lot on her plate owing to fast-paced lifestyles of both spouses. Taxis are prohibitively expensive, often not maintained, with rash drivers and security issues; rickshaws pose their own sets of problems.

Even privileged women are dependent on males of the family to go out; women from the middle class who are educated are expected to sit at home simply because getting to work poses a challenge.

Once urban women of Pakistan got access to cellular technology, smart phone taxi services began to fill the gap. “We are happy to share that 70 per cent of Careem’s customers who ride are females — females from all areas and all economic strata. What apps have done is that they have empowered women to make their own choices — something they do not get to exercise beyond the kitchen,” he says.

The impact of women’s access to technology is not just limited to riding with the help of such apps, but goes beyond. For Quratulain Tejani, for example, being a digital strategist and entrepreneur would not have been possible without access to a smart phone. “A few apps and tools have changed my life completely. Google Maps have made mobility so much easier and convenient. I can go from one corner of the city to another, knowing that I can find my routes easily. Even when I’m driving around and get lost, all I need is 3G and Google Maps to help me find my way,” she says, adding that Google Drive and WhatsApp have facilitated her in her professional life.

For the 200 plus female captains in Careem and for the female entrepreneurs behind the thousands of home-based small entrepreneurships that rely on social media for their marketing, cellular technology is providing opportunities of work.

These impacts are not limited to just upper tiers of society. In TAFF, one of the projects includes training and placement of women from underserved backgrounds in the Domestic Help industry.

“I’ve witnessed a dramatic transformation in students who graduate from our programme. Women who had never stepped out of their houses are now riding buses around the town to reach their workplaces on time. These are women who overcame their fears, including that of travelling on public transport to earn living incomes for their families.

“Most of them are also now part of WhatsApp groups created by TAFF-VTI to stay in touch with both students and alumni which is a testimony that technology is not only being introduced to but utilised as well by our students and graduates,” says Hammad Mateen, Programme Head at TAFF-VTI.

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The mobility, then, is more than just physical. Naqvi observes that generally, technology is associated with the male gender, especially in South Asia; while girls are encouraged to join Fine Arts and Humanities, boys are encouraged to work in the field of IT. But smartphones may have broken this technological barrier for women.

“We are seeing an interplay between women and technology. Even my mother has now moved to a smart phone so that she no longer has to wait for me to take her somewhere — she can just call a smart phone taxi service. This is true both for generations of technology immigrants as well as technology natives like the youth. This change is not just of physical mobility. It is sociologic as well as demographic,” he says.

However, experts like Uzma Quresh, Social Development Specialist with the World Bank Group warn against the vulnerabilities that women are exposed to due to being active on social media and using information technology. She cites examples of cyber harassment and also mentions cases of honour killings where a girl was killed because of having access to a phone or the internet.

“Virtual mobility gives women job opportunities. E-commerce portals and IT-related skills are profitable avenues for women and also give them exposure,” she says, but adds that society has to work not just on facilitating physical mobility of women but also ensure that virtual mobility does not lead to irreversible repercussions and safety threats for women.

“It is not enough to give women access to information technology and social media; we have to work on changing mindsets,” she says. The need, then, is that the collective social thought-process moves from being restrictive to being enabling for women. That, perhaps, will be real mobility for the women of Pakistan.