The Contradictions of International Women’s Day and the Way Forward for Feminism

On March 3rd, 2016 I was asked to give a talk to high school students in Alberta, British Columbia, Egypt and Bangladesh on the general subject of women’s advocacy and International Women’s Day. What follows below is an edited transcript of my talk.

The last time I did something for International Women’s Day was an interview I did with the Mohammedia Presse in Morocco in 2014. The interview was a poignant contrast to how women’s day is popularly marked in Morocco – which is to say, with flowers and chocolates handed to women in the street all across the country. My interview, however, was about not letting one day obscure the reality of the street for woman every day – which is, a haven for street harassers to relentlessly hound women of all shapes and sizes, all ages, all stages of life, all styles of clothing. Regardless of demographic, whether she’s urban or rural, educated or illiterate, veiled or not, it simply does not matter. The reality for women in the street in Morocco on every day other than International Women’s Day is that she will be intrusively approached by men, asked for all kinds of obscenities, or she will be followed for blocks and blocks, or she will be molested without remorse.

This happened to me countless times in Morocco while I was living there over a period of three years. It didn’t matter that I was 8 months pregnant and clad in a floor-length djelleba with a hijab – there would still be men asking if my baby had a daddy. It didn’t matter if I was walking, a professional director of a primary school in the village, there would still be a man on a motorcycle trying to corner me. On more than a few occasions I uttered profanities and threw rocks to protect myself.

And this sad reality has become so common there that two things have happened: Firstly, women have been unable to fight the tidal wave of harassment and often face physically violent repercussions if they defend themselves. A friend of mine stood up for herself and promptly received a black eye. Secondly, the prevalence of street harassment has caused a psychological trauma that is systemic culturally. It has gotten to the point that if rape culture is not reinforced (ie. if a woman is not sexually harassed by men in the street) in a gruesome manner, she will begin to find herself unattractive, thereby perpetuating and internalizing the oppressive mechanisms of patriarchy, permitting them to continue.

Now, I’m not naïve to think that these women need my perspective at all for their liberation. That’s neo-imperialist, anti-feminist and a reinforcement of the patriarchy I am trying so hard to undermine, as far as I’m concerned. Moroccan women (and men!) are fully aware of the social ills that street harassment represents and they will often excuse the harassers as simply being “bored” or “out of work”. Or they’ll even go so far as to blame the monarchy for the economic ills of the country which have led so many young men to feel that way.

I don’t know about you, but when I’m bored or out of work, the last thing I would think to do is go whisper hideous aggressions as unsuspecting women in the street. I can, however, see it as a way for a hopeless young man to improperly regain some of his power at the expense of the dignity of another. And when I say hopeless, I mean hopeless – Morocco has one of the fastest growing economies in the Arab world and is definitely one of the most stable countries in the MENA region as well. In fact, in my experience, very few people even remotely wanted to protest the current King Mohammed VI’s authority during the Arab Spring and after a few hundred thousand did, the King relinquished much of his power constitutionally. At the best, we can say he had good intentions. At the worst, it was a ceremonial gesture. And yet despite the stability, the growth of the economy and infrastructure is consistently outpaced by the growth of the population, among a myriad of complicating factors, including widespread corruption.

For me, the heart of Morocco’s social ills has a lot to do with disenfranchisement of women and the lack of gender equality – of which, street harassment and economic ills are but social symptoms. And at the very heart of this disenfranchisement is a lack of education.

Which brings me to the reason I moved to Morocco in the first place. In 2010, shortly after I converted to Islam, I was planning to go to law school but on a trip to Italy before I could write my LSAT, I read a book by Nicholas Kristoff called Half the Sky which was about the socio-politico-economic consequences of female oppression worldwide. As a recent convert to Islam and a well-read one at that, I had a hard time understanding the disconnect between the gender equality and rights of women preached in the Qur’an and the Sunnah of Muhammad (PBUH) an what kind of oppressive, misogynistic practices I was seeing played out in real life cases. Of course, this oppression is not limited to Islamic contexts but the fact that I was finding the cures for such oppression in the scriptural sources of Islam clued me into a disconnect that, at its core, was educational.

As a Muslim, I believe that the information exists in our scriptural sources about how to promote gender equality and respect the dignity of women, and if this not is not something I am seeing practiced on the ground, there are only two possible explanations: either people don’t know, or they don’t care.

As an eternal optimist, I have to believe that the former is true, that the majority of people just don’t know what is the prescribed status of women in Islam. And, in my experience, living in a Muslim country such as Morocco for so long, I found this to be the case… thankfully, as I’m not sure how I’d deal with people knowing and simply not caring.

On that same trip to Italy, a mere two weeks after I finished reading Kristoff’s book and had made the vow to myself to work in women’s advocacy in the Islamic world instead of going into law, I met the man who would be my husband in Florence. He happened to be building a school in his rural Moroccan town. Within 6 months of meeting him, I visited the foundations of the school, then only one storey high and within a year, I had moved to Morocco to finish building it and open it as a primary school and center for women’s rights.

During this period, I lived the first year of my Muslim life. I did so in secrecy from my family and most of my friends so I am quite up-front about the fact that I hadn’t yet experienced life as a religious minority or as an underprivileged woman in Canada…and I most certainly had not yet experienced life as a hijabi. I did, however, begin to feel the first pangs of what life is like on the margins.

When I moved to the village, my life as a hijabi began because I was finally free to practice the Deen of Islam in such a context; however what I quickly came to realize was that what I had the freedom to practice and enact as my rights as a Muslim woman was not the same for every woman in the village. In fact my suspicions had been correct: education was a key issue. The literacy rate of women in the village was only 27%. That means that anywhere from 2 to 3 women out of 10 can read. And I’m not talking about reading the Qur’an or legal texts by which they would know their rights. I’m talking about medication bottles or formula recipes for their babies – things that you and I take for granted in a literate, word-saturated society.

So, as we built the school over three years, including a 6 month stint for me in Canada where I fundraised the money for our school bus and third level by holding an arts gala at the AGA, I came to know more and more about women in the community and the obstacles they encountered to self-actualization.

I met women who:

  • had literally never left their homes since their marriage day
  • couldn’t read
  • were forbidden to attend Salat-ul-Eid (Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) was famous for encouraging their attendance on this day, of all days, in particular)
  • were physically and verbally abused
  • were kept in servitude
  • had no way to earn their own income
  • had no reproductive rights

Now, of course, the opposite was also true. I found plenty of women who had jobs and careers, were free to come and go as they pleased, dressed how they liked and generally did whatever they wanted. For a large majority of women though, this was not the case.

Additionally, I became a woman who:

  • was a visible minority in Morocco (as a Western convert) and in Canada (as a hijabi convert)
  • was harassed in the street
  • almost died in child birth because my reproductive rights were violating again and again during labour
  • would go on to organize a student-led country-wide campaign to end street harassment called Letters to Our Brothers

These stories could really go on and on but I want to conclude by talking a little bit about what I have learned from this experience.

  1. Corruption can kill any dream but you have to keep on fighting. Despite our greatest aspirations for the school and women’s center, we still have yet to obtain proper authorization for teaching older children and have been told point-blank by the provincial authorities that they will never give us the paper without “compensation” (meaning a bribe)
  2. The education of women is great. The reasons for this are innumerable. I am not one to uphold the gender binary, but particularly in Morocco, where Islam dictates certain binary-like gender performances based on biological sex, some things hold fast to those performances. This includes the fact that if you teach a woman, you are teaching a community. Information is passed through women at a much greater rate than through men and this is especially true in the education of children. Additionally, educating women doubles the economic participation of community members, but more often than not, women tend to participate in the economy in socially oriented ways that benefit the whole.
  3. The rights of women are a moot point if the duties incumbent upon men to provide them are not known. A married woman may have the right to an education and work and a roof over her head, but if her husband is unaware of his duty in providing those things for her.
  4. Similarly, we need men for feminism to work. I neglected to mention that the literacy rate of men in the same rural village is only 55%. We need men to be as educated as women, not in order to get permission for liberation but to join forces against oppression. This is predicated on the notion that patriarchy works systemically but not always consciously and it only has power if we let it. Additionally, this is to say nothing of the damaging effects of patriarchy on men, including creating an oppressive culture of hyper-masculinity.

Thank you.

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