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What makes a Pakistani male “manly”?

Being a man isn’t just about masculinity

Published: September 17, 2016

It is generally seen as okay for a man to speak loudly or even yell or curse. Even in the most seemingly progressive families, girls are often told not to talk or laugh loudly. PHOTO: RANGIZZZ/SHUTTERSTOCK

“But that’s how we guys are.”

Is a common response when a woman asks a man about a few traits and attitudes that are seen as manly and macho.

While walking on a street near you, in a mall, or even when couples enter weddings – a familiar scenario ensues. The husband can be seen walking a few steps ahead of the wife for sure, and the wife trudging behind him, adjusting her ensemble, trying to catch up.

For Pakistani males, Def Leppard’s classic Two Steps Behind You is too mushy I’m sure. It is seen as some mark of masculinity to walk at least two steps ahead, if not four.

In our society, or maybe that is how it is all over the world, a few things are seen as ‘guy things.’

For example, the obscene joke sharing. It seems that there is an unsaid rule that in order to classify as a man, you absolutely must share lame and cheap jokes, and video clips and photographs of women in awkward or objectionable poses. Whatever one shares amongst friends is the personal business of each individual. But what is worrisome is how this is seen as a sign of masculinity. Such stereotypes are so etched in our social fabric that we are conditioned to think this is what makes a guy a ‘man.’

Ever seen prime time dramas on Pakistani television channels? They all seem to imply that it is some signature symptom of manliness for men to have affairs, cheat on the wife, and have physical needs, while a good, demure woman is stereotyped as a prudish character who is always shy and playing hard to get.

It is generally seen as okay for a man to speak loudly or even yell or curse. Even in the most seemingly progressive families, girls are often told not to talk or laugh loudly.

It is the men who are supposed to drive the car even if the wife or sister is the better driver or even if the poor husband or brother is exhausted after a long day at work. It is encouraging, actually, when one meets a man who is man enough to say “I don’t enjoy driving” if he doesn’t. But mostly they are unable to voice it, just like it is not easy for a woman to say she does not enjoy cooking.

Women themselves are participants in the act of perpetuating these stereotypes.

They feel sympathy for their sons or brothers if they help the wife with carrying the baby,change the baby’s diapers, or God forbids take paternal leave. Helping in the kitchen is something real men, of course, don’t do.

This conventionalising is not always in favour of men, and is not always healthy. Consider the economic arena.

In this age of inflation and consumerism, one salary is often not enough to support a family. With more and more women joining the work force in Pakistan, both can spend on the collective household. But gender stereotyping ends up pushing both males and females in pigeonholes of rigidly defined roles. The man ends up not helping the woman in the kitchen and housework even if she is also an earning member of the family. Similarly, even if he does end up lending a hand at home, many working women confess to feeling a pinch inside when they have to spend on their families. The feeling is best described as being made to do something they are not supposed to be doing.

Man-kind has not really progressed that much, has it, when the marks of manliness are not values like strength, courage and honesty, but instead driving a sports car, riding a massive motorbike in boots, or smoking a cigarette in public.

There are some inherent traits and tilts that are natural to both the genders. Some of these are natural. But others are not. They are just by-products of being exposed to certain socio-cultural habits of a nation.

For those who are the strongest of men, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to push their boundaries and challenge these norms by walking behind the wife or speaking softly and let the woman in your life have the last word. Being a man takes more than that.

Farahnaz Zahidi

Farahnaz Zahidi

Farahnaz is a writer and editor, and has worked as the Features Editor with The Express Tribune. Her focus is human-centric feature stories. She now writes as a freelancer, and works in the field of marketing and corporate communications. She loves literature and traveling. Her work can be seen at chaaidaani.wordpress.com/

So who should talk to the 20-somethings about contraception?

Published: January 27, 2016

The world is realising that due to cultural norms, adolescents and young people often do not discuss contraception with their elders or family members. PHOTO AFP

They can curse in each other’s presence, break traffic signals in unison and smoke together, and they may at times act macho and show off their romantic escapades. But young men, like their elders, do not readily open up about reproductive issues. Parents or teachers do not discuss subjects of a sensitive nature with them. While it is the same with adolescent and young women, they are comparatively more open to confiding in each other and getting guidance.

But it seems the world may be in for a change in attitude. Young men, all over the world, are stepping up to take part in reproductive discourse.

One such young man is Hamza Moghari. He is still reeling from the long journey from Deir El-Balah in Gaza, Palestine, to Bali, Indonesia. And the reason why he is there is that he has the guts to talk to his peers about difficult subjects like contraceptive choices and reproductive health. Hamza has seen more violence and difficulty than he deserved to in his tender age of 22 years. Coming to the International Family Planning Conference (ICFP) 2016 is a dream come true for him.

“This is the first time I sat on an airplane. I nearly never came,” he says, sharing the long journey of how he first reached Jordan from his home in Gaza.

He explained that he was sent away and told to go back due to lack of a no objection document, but he stayed near the border and went back the next morning, and was finally let into Jordan from where he flew to Bali.

A tad bit shy by nature, he confesses that the most difficult subject to talk about with boys his age is sexuality. Yet it seems that the world is realising that due to cultural norms, adolescents and young people often do not discuss these issues with their elders or family members. With their own age group, if they feel safe enough, they can talk about the typically hushed topics too. Y-PEER, a youth network of young people from more than 700 non-profit organisations and government agencies in more than 50 countries initiated by the United Nations Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA), uses an integrated approach to work with young people on subjects like gender, contraception and reproductive health. This year the thrust of all the discussions at ICFP was how to involve youth in the process. Half of the world’s population today, which is over 3.5 billion people, is under 30, mostly living in developing countries. They need guidance on these matters and silence may not be feasible anymore.

“If you’re not on the table you’re on the menu. How do we bring the youth on the table to talk about family planning?”

This question was put forth by Katja Iversen, CEO of Women Deliver, at the ICFP.

Pakistan is currently the world’s seventh most populous nation, according to the registered number of Pakistani, 199,085,847 in July 2015, as per the CIA FactbookContraception is thus an important subject that should be included in the nation’s narrative at all levels. In Pakistan too, this working via youth strategy has found a foothold.

One such initiative is Chanan Development Association (CDA). What started as a small theatre group is now an organisation that is youth-led and works for the youth.

Muhammad Shahzad, the executive director, has in tow young leaders wherever he goes. At the ICFP, too, he is watching out for and introducing proudly bright young people from Pakistan. One of them is 24-year-old Qaisar Roonjha, who says working with and for people his age is something he just has to do. His organisation, WANG (Welfare Association for Young Generation), is youth-led, and its primary focus is to struggle for a fairer society. Important buzz words like Youth Development, Women Empowerment, Mother and Child Health, Young Girls Education, Gender justice, Peace Promotion, Youth Development and livelihood security are all highlighted on the WANG website. From Lasbela in the perilous province of Balochistan, Qaisar has come a long way.

“I have met at least 40,000 young people all over Pakistan in the last five years,” he says with pride.

He shares that the toughest subject to tackle while talking to young people in Pakistan is gender equality.

“They still seem ready to discuss contraception. At least the married ones do. But seeing women as equal partners is difficult,” adds Shahzad.

Qaisar, whose video was selected for a competition held by organisers of the ICFP, attended the high profile conference in Bali as a moderator.

Ayesha Memon, an MBA student and youth leader from Hyderabad, also won the same recognition for her video, and addressed groups of interested activists and experts at the ICFP.

“Young people need to come out of their boxes; we should not assume things can’t change.”

Sharaf Boborakhimov is no novice at engaging with his peers on some of the trickiest subjects, which especially boys never openly talk about. Originally hailing from Tajikistan, he currently lives in Sofia, Bulgaria. This graduate in International Economy joined Y-Peer in 2011.

“What we do is provide safe spaces to youth where they can talk about sensitive subjects to people their own age. The peer-to-peer methodology works in tackling these subjects. We choose each word very carefully. We have to memorise manuals to know what to say and what not to and how to approach a subject.”

He has a close eye on the Syrian crisis, has Syrian friends, and has worked in Jordan closely with Syrian refugees who have made the Zaatari Camp their permanent home.

“We specially trained couples so that they could go back in the camps and train others. The refugees are just like any other couple. All they want is peace. They are depressed and frustrated no doubt. But in them I see a vision and a hope for a better tomorrow. They need guidance about contraception too.”

Theatre-based peer education, in Sharaf’s view is most effective for youth, whether they are refugees or not, the same strategy Chanan begun with.

“Since 2009, we have recruited some 50,000 young people for Y-Peer who work with us to educate their peers in important matters like sexual and reproductive health rights and also contraception,” Shahzad shares, adding that Pakistan was the first country in Asia Pacific that introduced UNFPA’s Y-Peer program in the region in 2009.

They are working with youth across 135 districts spread all over Pakistan including its toughest regions. In Pakistan, 65 per cent of the population is under 29, and 40 per cent fall into the even narrower age bracket of 10 to 24 years, says Shahzad.

“A big focus of our work is to engage with policymakers,” he says, sharing that Chanan was part of the National Task Force of 2009 for youth policy development, and is hosting the National Secretariat for Y-Peer in Pakistan.

For Hamza, the journey started by working for a local Palestinian organisation called Palestinian Family Planning and Protection Association (PFPPA). He is studying to get a degree in nursing.

“There are two million people in Gaza. The blockade is continuing since two years. Aid and medical help is almost impossible. Unemployment in my people is 70 per cent; among the youth it is 55 per cent. The healthcare system is fragmented. Very few people are able to reach the government-run healthcare centres.”

“In shelters that he has worked in, two to three thousand people were staying in one school. That meant each classroom was housing at least 50 people. Men, women and children, all strangers for each other, crammed into one room. With no food and water at least for the initial days till help started trickling in. Do you think family planning is a priority for them on a hungry stomach?”

In difficult situations and at such a young age, to be taken seriously and sensitise people about contraception is an uphill task. But these young people have realised that their generation’s reproductive choices will shape future demographic trends. They are thus helping their peers make informed decisions.

She was 13 and he was 39 – Rape & Consent

Men face infidelity and are wronged and cheated in relationships too. But women, globally, end up paying a bigger price. PHOTO: FILE

The 15-year-old girl from Lahore gave her “consent” and he was her “boyfriend”, and so it is not rape, they say.

This case is garnering a very expected response. But why are we surprised? It reminds me of a case I came across a while back. A 13-year-old girl fell for her 39-year-old neighbour. They started chatting via the internet. One day, when she was home alone, he coerced her into having a sexual encounter. Reality was not as the girl had imagined. When it actually happened, she yelled, cried and resisted but was raped. But the men in her own family, her own relatives, were of the opinion that this incident should be brushed under the rug and no complain should be lodged with the police.

“Larki buhut taiz hai. Ghalti humari hi larki ki hai. Chakkar chalaya hua tha us aadmi se. Yeh to hona hee tha.”

(The girl is very fast. The fault lies with our girl. She had an affair with that man. This was bound to happen).

This is not to say that it is just men who further these stereotypes.

It would also be unfair to assume that only females are raped. Painful incidents where young boys are raped or sexually abused mercilessly keep surfacing on the media. But the numbers, compared to females, are jarringly lower. Hence, here we will discuss the predicament women are faced with.

Staring in our faces is the reality that unless a woman, of any age, has pushed away, kicked or tried to hit the man forcing himself upon her, and has signs of that physical scuffle in the form of torn clothes and bruises, she will not be considered a victim of ‘rape’. And even that will be accepted only if the man was a stranger practically. If at all she had an inclination towards the man and/or had any one-on-one communication with him at any point in the past, she will be considered one of loose character and having brought the ‘inevitable’ upon herself.

This definition of rape is so inbuilt in our society’s system that the idea of rape beyond this is considered… well… not rape. So much so that other categories of rape, in which some form of consent is present at some stage, may be involved from the woman’s side, are ruled off the list of kinds of rape in an absolutist fashion.

The girl gang raped in Lahore was a minor. Even if, hypothetically, she knew or liked the man, she is a child, not an adult. It is recognised as statutory rape even under Pakistani law which is generally not the most women-friendly. But a Pakistani publication went as far as using insensitive language like “…to meet her boyfriend…” and “the tests proved that the couple had been engaged in a consenting relationship”.

If this is the mentality being echoed by an English language publication, what thought process do we expect the average uneducated or less evolved Pakistani to exhibit? If the minor is not old enough to have a driver’s license or an identity card, is he or she old enough to discern and decide the consequences of indulging in a sexual relationship?

The 13-year-old girl I mentioned earlier was a normal, curious child who knew little what this encounter with her almost 40-year-old neighbour would lead to. But that man knew exactly what he was doing. How is this, then, not rape?

Another example is how every time we use the term “marital rape”, many, if not all, will express shock over the idea – shock that is genuine, as it is considered unthinkable that anything within the bond of marriage could be wrong. Others know what it means but say all is fair in nikkah and vows.

But perhaps the most insidious form of sexual exploitation is when a woman is exploited via emotional manipulation. Leading someone on with the pretence of commitment and promises of a marriage has led many girls and women in our society to points of no return. And this happens across the board – it is not restricted to urban or rural, affluent or underprivileged. After giving their all, women are left in the lurch.

Again, men face infidelity and are wronged and cheated in relationships too. But women, globally, end up paying a bigger price.

Thus in many cases, the seeming “consent” actually has layers of details in the background that one does not know. Talking about this is important so that as a society, we learn to understand the difference.

FEMINISM – What the F word meant for Pakistan in 2015

Published: December 30, 2015
PHOTO: FILE

PHOTO: FILE

She. She has worked for one of the world’s leading Formula 1 team. She is a fighter pilot. She is UN’s goodwill ambassador to advance gender equality. She’s changing the contours of this country. And she is not a man.

In recent years, Pakistan has seen a lot of “firsts” owing to women. At the tail end of 2015, Rahila Hameed Durrani was elected as the first-ever female speaker of the Balochistan Assembly. Muniba Mazari was named Pakistan’s first female goodwill ambassador to advance gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls by UN Women. Iron-fisted Ayesha Mumtaz gave owners of sub-standard eateries in Punjab sleepless nights as Director of Operations at Punjab Food Authority, and rose to fame thanks to her unrelenting firmness during raids. And fighter pilot Mariam Mukhtar added the name of a woman in the list of Pakistan Air Force fighter pilots to die in the line of duty. The year has been particularly significant in bridging some of the gender disparity that the country battles day in, day out.

Female co-pilot dies as training jet crashes in Mianwali

Mariam Mukhtar. PHOTO: FILE

“Women and girls in Pakistan are taking many strides to reclaim public spaces and challenging the concept of women belonging inside ‘safe spaces’, spaces largely identified by a male dominated society,” says lawyer and gender activist Maliha Zia Lari, adding that an increasing number of girls and women are taking up jobs and activities previously considered to be male domains. “This is extremely positive.”

Public places, public office

What initially started as a hashtag, #GirlsAtDhabas ended up becoming a jump start to fresh conversation about how women can – and must – frequent all public spaces, including dhabas, police stations, courts and even mosques.

#GirlsAtDhabas aims to make dhabas run by women a reality

PHOTO: FILE

“The year 2015 ends on a high note as women’s leadership role is getting increased recognition. In traditional milieus such as Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (K-P) and Balochistan, women are leading the provincial legislatures,” says columnist and activist Raza Rumi, and particularly mentions how Rahila Durrani also happens to be a well-known civil society activist. “She brings with her years of experience as a women rights defender.”

The social ripples are many, but there is little simultaneous effort at the state level, and there is too low a number of senior female politicians, female politicians in important decision-making positions, female CEOs and judges. In a recent write-up, former vice chancellor of the Lahore University of Management Sciences (Lums) Adil Najam suggested that after 137 male justices of the Supreme Court of Pakistan, the time is ripe to appoint a woman. But top positions in all spheres, for the most part, continue to be ruled by men.

Lari mentions how the recent local government elections once again evidenced agreements whereby women were disenfranchised from voting. “It is a paradoxical situation where social change is happening, but it has not yet been translated into an institutional actual policy at the state level.”

She says there is little discourse in what feminism actually is, even within the women’s movement and women’s NGOs. “Few, if any, would recognise the iconic names of the feminist movement such as Judith Butler or Simone de Beauvoir, or even Pakistani feminist icons such as Tahira Mazhar Ali, Nighat Saeed Khan, Nigar Ahmed, Shahla Zia or Farida Shaheed,” says Lari. She adds that it is a pity that we do not institutionally focus enough on the ideology and choose to focus more on finishing projects.

On a more upbeat note, Rumi observes that within the dynastic framework, another woman leader – Maryam Nawaz – is emerging within the PML-N, which has been known for its conservatism.

Maryam Nawaz. PHOTO: FILE

With a narrative building around feminism being taken seriously, Pakistan has a rising number of men who identify as male feminists, like Anthony Permal, a marketer by profession. “Male feminism, to me, is about standing alongside women in their daily existence, not ahead or behind and certainly not ‘for’. Women, like men, are their own masters.”

Yet, Permal recognises that leave alone male feminists, even women in Pakistan sometimes have a knee-jerk reaction to the term, seeing it as a borrowed Western concept. “Our deeply patriarchal society has so pressed misogyny into the bare bones of the populace that even many women are anti-feminist, allowing their religio-cultural dogmas to supersede the support of their own gender,” says Permal.

HerStory

Fortunately, women like Suniya Sadullah are blazing the trail for others. In Suniya’s family, the only professions considered respectable were becoming doctors or teachers. But she had other ideas when, at the age of 12, she watched her first ever motor race on TV. Her aim in life there onwards became to be a part of a Formula 1 team. She has succeeded in pushing the boundaries of the norms of a traditional Pathan family and realised her dream: this motorsport engineer is the first female Pakistani to have worked for the Williams Formula 1 team. “I’ve had an unconventional career route for a girl from Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa,” she tells The Express Tribune.

Suniya Sadullah. PHOTO: twitter/ Suniya Sadullah Khan

Suniya shares how her support has been the men in her life but her role models have been women. Her mother wanted to put her in a co-education school, a decision her father supported. “I was one of the first girls in my family to study in such a school,” says Suniya. After working with Williams for some three years, she is presently pursuing a PhD in Aerospace in Pakistan. “My husband has been extremely supportive. We actually had a long distance marriage for about eight months while I decided whether to continue working in Formula 1 or pursue my next goal, which was a PhD.”

According to Rumi, the real change taking place in Pakistan is within the higher education sector. “Nearly half of public sector universities comprise women [in the] student body. Their entrance into such places happens due to increased mobility as well as superior performance in academics.”

Globally, too, the importance of bringing men on board for empowerment of women has gained momentum, and though feminism started out as a movement by women for women, men are now seen as part of the synergy. “HeForShe”, a solidarity campaign for gender equality initiated by UN Women, popularised the thought further.

End violence against women: ‘We all stand to gain from empowering women’

PHOTO: FILE

HeForShe started a campaign with the goal of engaging one million men and boys by July 2015. They may have failed to meet the goal, but supportive men are not as rare as they once were.

Why aren’t Pakistani men given paternity leave?

Published: December 6, 2015

Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan Zuckerberg with daughter Max. PHOTO: AP

“We are pregnant.”  

That is such a wonderful way of announcing the happy news that a couple is expecting a baby. While it is by natural default that the woman is destined to bear the bigger physical brunt by carrying the child to term and going through the delivery ordeal, there is no dearth of good daddies who take pride and ownership in the role.

The more evolved men of today take the paternal instinct very seriously. They are involved in active parenting. And so many of them – like Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg – want to spend some uninterrupted time with their new-born. The purpose is multi-fold: help the mother, bond with the baby in what is perhaps the most inexplicably beautiful time of a parent’s life, and play your part in arguably the most important job life has given you. Yet, not every daddy-to-be owns Facebook, or works in companies that show such empathy.

Facebook employees are lucky; soon after Zuckerberg said he would take two months of paternity leave, the social media company announced that it is extending its parental leave policy to full-time employees outside the US.

Now that Zuckerberg’s daughter, Max, has arrived, he has given her a beautiful welcome by committing 99 per cent of the Facebook shares to charity. He even wrote a letter to his new-born baby girl where he vows to change the world by eliminating inequality and giving every child a chance at education.

While critics may call it “philanthrocapitalism” and worry about the shares currently valued at $45 billion, it is a heart-warming welcome nonetheless. But for the daughter, the two months daddy is taking off from work may go a longer way.

Looking at international labour laws, maternity leave is finally and thankfully given due importance. But paternity leave is a classic case of reverse discrimination, where we see the gender gap tilting in favour of the woman. While due to physical reasons, maternity leave is unavoidable, the paternity leave debate needs to be fuelled yet again. Zuckerberg may have given the subject the much needed impetus.

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) defines the leave as,

“A leave period – paid or unpaid – reserved for fathers in relation to childbirth or leave that can be used exclusively by fathers as paternity leave. It does not include parental leave provisions that can be used by the father or mother or parts of maternity leave entitlements that the mother can transfer to the father. It includes ‘special leave’ provisions in addition to annual leave that may be used by fathers at the time of birth, but which are not strictly ‘paternity leave’.”

An ILO study released last year shows that in addition to maternity leave legislation, many countries also have measures to support working fathers. Of 167 countries studied, 78 stipulate a statutory right to paternity leave, mostly paid. Yet, leave provisions for fathers vary country and culture wise.

On an ILO map showing paternity leave allowed by law in each country, when one swipes the cursor over Pakistan, the words “0 leaves” pop up. The government of Punjab, earlier in this decade, notified male employees that they could avail a paternity leave up to seven days for a total of two times in their entire service. Many corporate houses all over Pakistan allow leave on the same pretext.

The days of paternity leave are still too little and the subject is not discussed enough, yet there is a definitely encouraging upswing trend of more involved fatherhood. More and more fathers wholeheartedly and lovingly take part in changing diapers, preparing the baby’s feeds and walking around with the baby on their shoulder till he/she has burped. Parenting is a joy shared by two, from babyhood to your child’s adulthood. It is time that fathers get some time off legitimately when this journey starts for them.

Pakistan’s legislators and policy makers, are you listening?

Originally published here: http://blogs.tribune.com.pk/story/30678/is-paternity-leave-a-classic-case-of-reverse-discrimination-thank-you-mark-zuckberg-for-standing-up-for-father-to-be/

Where Are Pakistan’s Female Muftis And Islamic Scholars?

Supporters of the Pakistani religious political party Jamaat-e-Islami attend a rally to condemn the French satirical weekly magazine Charlie Hebdo for publication of caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad, in Islamabad, Pakistan, Friday, Jan. 30, 2015. (AP Photo/B.K. Bangash)

“I have a problem. My husband said ‘talaaq’ (divorce) to me thrice in one sitting. Everyone says the divorce is final now although he revoked his decision within hours. I have too much at stake here, and want to stay in this marriage. I have heard that the words uttered thrice in the same sitting count as one according to some Muslim jurists. What do you say?”

These were the words of a desperate woman aged 31, and the query was directed to a female Islamic preacher.

While the preacher explained basics to her, the disclaimer at the end was: “To have a legitimate version, I would suggest you ask a Mufti.”

The girl was puzzled. This female preacher had the required knowledge and had studied Islamic Sciences in depth. Why could she not confirm it?

“Because I am not a mufti. No woman in Pakistan is. I am not certified to give you this answer. You will have to consult a male scholar.”

And so it is. In a country that presently has close to 250,000 female students studying Islamic sciences across the country, not one female mufti (an expert expounder of Islamic jurisprudence) is to be found in Pakistan. With the exception of Dr. Farhat Hashmi, even a thorough internet search will prove exhausting and futile if you try and search for mainstream Islamic scholars from Pakistan. Neighbouring India, with one of the largest Muslim populations in the world, is stuck in the same lurch.

While women study, preach and uphold religious teachings and values, there is an unsaid line which they do not cross. Beyond that line is a man’s domain. In the hierarchy of serious religious scholarship and clergy, women remain submissive and at best supplementary in terms of Islamic intellectual thought. Thus, the narrative that has evolved over the centuries sorely lacks the female voice, not just in South Asia but world over. Islamic female scholars, both in the mainstream and esoteric circles, and both from a faith-based and a critical scholarship premise, have risen again. The mark has been made, but only in the upper tier of Muslim cultures. The change remains to trickle down.

“In our culture, the woman remains dependent on the man, even the educated and self-reliant ones. Traditional Islamic scholars do not want this to change. If women start learning and studying at the level of men, many existing ideological ideas will be questioned. Most traditional scholars want to stay in a state of permanent utopia. Two things are at play here: patriarchy and a monopoly over the corridors of the power that comes as an advantage of religious leadership,” says Ibrahim Qazi, a worker of Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), one of Pakistan’s strongest right wing political parties.

JI, while seen as a hardliner group, has to its credit bringing the signature face-covered veiled women both into the political and evangelism arenas.

Though female voices have always been part of the Islamic Intellectual Tradition, they are not as audible as men’s voices. When asked the possible reason for this, Aurangzeb Haneef, scholar and teacher of Islamic Studies, feels that religion discouraging women is not one of them.

“In the formative and classical period, as well as going on into the medieval period, women’s contribution to the intellectual corpus is palpable. This is especially true for transmission of Hadith,” he says.

Haneef feels that in the modern period, the field has become increasingly dominated by men.

“While religious organizations such as JI have women representation, their organizational structures are not conducive to supporting women’s scholarship independent of men.”

Allowing women to enter this sphere could possibly alter gender-based power dynamics in Muslim societies. A case in point would be Laleh Bakhtiar, an Iranian-American author who is the first American woman to translate the Quran into English. The most debated in all of her translation is her interpretation of a verse of the Quran, where Bakhtiar translated the verse as “husbands should go away,” instead of the husband being allowed to hit the wife mildly if she crosses all limits (including committing infidelity in the opinion of many).

“I believe that it was because I was looking at the verses from a female perspective,” says Bakhtiar, in her answer to Al Jazeera.

While Dr Hashmi may not agree with some of the non-traditional interpretations of Bakhtiar and others, she has to her credit brought a surge of Pakistani women from all strata of society into the fold of deliberated Islamic study. The liberals in Pakistan often see Dr Hashmi as a strict hardliner. Yet, she has also had to face opposition from more strict and traditional schools of thought.

“It is sad that there is such a dearth of Islamic scholars who are women. It is very important that women come into this field and invest their time into research in Islamic Studies. In fact, there is nothing against a woman becoming a Muftiah,” says Dr Hashmi.

Her expertise is Hadith Sciences, and in this she is inspired by historical accounts of Muhaddithat (female hadith narrators and scholars). One of the recent literary works on the subject is by Akram Nadwi who has compiled a biographical dictionary called “Al-Muhaddithat: The women scholars in Islam.” As he began his research, he hoped to find 20 to 30, but ended up finding more than 8000 of them.

“It is easier to perpetuate male authority and to cite men (even on ‘women’s issues’) than to acknowledge women’s voices, particularly where women do not have the same easily recognizable credentials or public profiles as their male counterparts,” says Kecia Ali, Associate Professor of Religion at Boston University. “One way to begin to chip away at this disproportionate emphasis on male scholarship is to bring women’s voices and contributions to the fore on many issues, not just those concerning women.”

But Haneef says that women have a natural advantage when it comes to such issues.

“Women can think, understand, and deliberate better on issues pertaining to women and gender relations.”

The role of women as mothers and nurturers makes them safe choices, for teaching and preaching, seen as lighter ‘fluff’ work, but intensive research and redefining discourse is seen as too hardcore for the gentler sex. This is in sharp contrast with women at the time of the Prophet (pbuh), who were nurturers and home-makers, as well as scholars. One of the most prominent Islamic jurists of her time was his wife Umm Salama, known for her fatawa. Maulana Tahir Ashrafi, Chairman Pakistan Ulema Council, says that these examples must be followed.

“Muslims have inherited a big chunk of their knowledge of religion from these honoured women. Even today, women must play their role. But it is not necessarily patriarchy at work that is hindering this process. If women, themselves, decide to forge ahead in this field, no obstacle will stop them,” says Ashrafi.

One such woman is Emaan Asif, a business graduate who gave up her professional career by choice, and is currently studying to become an ‘Aalima, a degree in Islamic sciences awarded by traditional schools. Yet, Emaan has no scholarly ambitions for doing this. Her reason is simply to learn more about her faith and “become a better Muslim”. Her husband, Asif Misbah, supports her through the demands of this period of painstaking extensive study.

He feels one must venture into this field “as long as it does not compromise any fundamental life-role or leads to sharia non-compliance in any aspect, for both men and women.”

According to Haneef, the female voice is necessary and her perspective essential in the Islamic narrative.

“By virtue of her position, ‘Ayesha added aspects of the Prophet’s (pbuh) life to the Hadith corpus that were humane, personal, and intimate and might have been lost,” he says, citing the Prophet’s (pbuh) wife as an example.

While the change may have begun with a resurgence of women being seen in the area of Islamic scholarship, “it will be a long and discontinuous process,” says Ali. “But like anything worth doing, one must try.”

Bakhtiar is hopeful and feels that change takes time.

“We have to be patient.”

Content posted to MyMPN open blogs is the opinion of the author alone, and should not be attributed to MintPress News.

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About The Author
Farahnaz Zahidi
Farahnaz Zahidi
Farahnaz Zahidi is a Pakistani writer and editor, who writes to “tell stories that need to be told and contribute towards a better Pakistan, a better world.” Her areas of focus include gender, environment, peace-building and Islam. She currently works forThe Express Tribune. She blogs at chaaidaani and her photo-journalism can be seen on Flickr.