My weekly newspaper column from The National
I’m feeling a bit superhero-ish. Don’t worry, I’m not about to morph into a green, muscled monster, or scale up a wall to save the good guys. But I am definitely inspired by the latest creation by Marvel Comics: Kamala Khan, a Pakistani-American Muslim teen superhero who takes on the name Ms Marvel.
With a complicated family, the ability to grow giant fists and a complex story of identity, cultures and religions, Kamala Khan is a potent idea: she has introduced the notion to the mainstream that Muslim women can be superheroes.
I believe there’s a little bit of superhero inside all of us. I believe that is the human (not a warped-in-freak-DNA-swap) condition. We just have it ground out of us by the ordinariness of life. Cynicism squeezes out of us the belief that things can be a different, “super” way. The closest we ever get to it as women is joking about being SuperMummy in the face of tasks that appear to be incapable of being solved by ordinary human effort in the ordinary human understanding of time. But the fact that so many of us achieve it shows that what appears to be superhuman is entirely within our reach.
We just need a glimpse that it’s possible to make us realise that we have the power. We need a leader by example; someone a bit like us. We want to see our angst writ large, even if it is in the fictional realm. In fact, sometimes fiction allows us to explore beyond what our realities allow us to imagine.
For Muslim women, all too often the supposed reality of our lives is depicted as deeply miserable and passive. Certainly, injustice is a feature of life for women in many societies, including Muslim women. But to see the rise of fictional fighters, opponents and, yes, superheroes who themselves are Muslim women sows the seeds of the fight against those injustices. They paint a richer canvas for our stories to be told and to experiment with new stories and narratives.
I love Qahera, created by Egyptian blogger Deena Mohammed. With her supersonic hearing, she says: “I can hear the sound of misogynistic trash!” She swoops in to sort out oppressive husbands in typical superhero comeuppance. She then tackles Femen, an anti-Muslim-women “feminist” organisation and finally takes street harassers to task.
In Pakistan, the cartoon Burka Avenger tells the tale of an ordinary unassuming teacher by day, who takes on Taliban-type baddies by night when she dons a black mask and cloak that look like an abaya.
These women are powerful. They contravene social expectations about them. And they say and do things that “nice” (Muslim) women are not supposed to do. The superhero worlds they inhabit give them permission to step outside the boundaries of what Muslim women are permitted to do, and take us on flights of fancy that we would like to follow. In turn they give us permission to assert power in the face of our own angst. These are examples of fiction that can be both commercially successful and socially impactful.
The very existence of these superheroes writes a new story about the right of Muslim women to be powerful. We might be struggling with the laundry, extended family gatherings and putting up shelves at home. But whether it be in our personal domain or in the public space, it is encouraging to see reflections of the superheroes we know we can be. The force is with us, and the force is strong.
The Muslim world needs to put women at the heart of its growth strategy, but that needs to mean more than economics
Last week’s newspaper column for The National
At the 9th World Islamic Economic Forum held in London this week, Malaysia’s prime minister Najib Razak was unequivocal: giving women a central role is vital for a nation’s economic future. “This is neither contrary to our faith nor to our traditions; instead, it honours the founding principles of Islam.”
Women didn’t get merely a passing mention; the entire focus of his keynote address was women’s empowerment. He highlighted Khadijah, the wife of Prophet Muhammad, as a business icon, and their marriage as an example to the Muslim world of the power of both men and women working side by side. And he laid out a road map of how to achieve that engagement.
I was moved that a leader of the Muslim world took a historic moment to “put women at the heart of growth”. The mere fact of him doing so at such a high profile event is significant and other Muslim leaders should take note. Undoubtedly, his thesis that more women in work results in higher GDP makes financial sense.
I want to push the prime minister further, to challenge him to develop his vision beyond today’s economic paradigm. He has provided an opportunity to raise wider societal questions about whether women’s participation and empowerment should have as its metric economic development, or if we need to start measuring “success” in different ways.
I believe we must expand our horizon in championing women’s engagement beyond only monetary terms. It’s no wonder that it is in economic terms that goals are set, decisions are made and social upheaval is undertaken.
As Mr Najib pointed out, the countries closest to gender equality are also among those with the highest GDP. So it’s a no-brainer that women should be engaged and empowered. But should the status, value and rights of a woman – or any person – be predicated on their economic value?
I put to any leader that any social structure is one-dimensional if people’s rights and participation are permitted solely on the premise that it is good for GDP.
Of course economic engagement is important at a societal level. Economic independence is crucial for women to be self-determining and free from oppressive structures.
Already though, we see that economics as the single metric for women’s participation is throwing up real problems: how should the model engage with a variety of issues including pregnancy, motherhood, unwaged carers, disability, and single mother headed households?
Visionary leaders need to paint us a picture of a society not simply dedicated to the dollar. It is not utopian and unattainable to talk about establishing universal human dignity, protection of rights and fulfilment of human potential. But to turn these from ideals into realities we need to define metrics which will allow us to set targets and then measure our progress and achievements.
Economics is effective in setting goals for change, making it a powerful motivator for women’s empowerment. However, we must be cautious not to define emancipation only in financial terms, otherwise women will only ever be as free as economic market forces allow. The challenge is bigger: to redefine wider terms for women’s social, economic and political engagement, and to define new measures of what this success looks like.
Are faith and feminism compatible? A better question is how women of faith and none can work together more effectively
What happens when you take five women of faith and a female atheist and put them in front of a global audience to discuss the future of feminism?
If that sounds like the beginning of a bad joke, then you’d be wrong. There were no laughs to be had during this debate. Instead, a panel discussion that could have built solidarity among women was laden with vitriol against the world’s women who identify themselves as faith adherents while at the same time struggling to radically improve life conditions, opportunities and rights for the women in their societies. It’s a story of lost opportunity, but one that is repeated with disheartening regularity, pitting faith and feminism against each other instead of combining forces.
The debate asked: are faith and feminism compatible? It was the final session of a pioneering experiment called 100 Women, convened in London by the BBC and broadcast to the world.
The 100 Women project was a radical bid to bring more female voices to news coverage and raise the profile of the work and issues that women are tackling around the world. These 100 women were selected to illustrate the varied subjects facing women globally. The usual suspects were there, such as politicians. But the 100 also included some who would never ordinarily be heard in global reportage, women working at the grassroots on microfinance, investment, water quality, in convents, as teachers in ghettoes and in many other settings.
I was fortunate to be chosen as one of the 100. The day was a platform to interrogate what feminism means, to pitch “big ideas” for change, to understand how motherhood affects women’s struggles, how glass ceilings still exist, and whether faith and feminism can be reconciled.
This last topic was the day’s most heated debate, underscoring the fact that women’s rights movements around the world are rooted in different perspectives, with varying visions of what society should look like to best nurture, protect and give justice to women.
During the debate, religion was called a “deep mistake” and “fundamentally incompatible” with feminism. And yet, in front of our eyes were women who were living proof that faith inspires and drives forward movements to improve women’s status.
Western feminism has undoubtedly made huge, positive impacts that have benefitted women as a whole. But we must also admit that it hasn’t got everything right, and women elsewhere are looking at how not to make the same errors. What western and atheist feminists need to get their heads around is that women of faith make up the majority of the world’s women, and women’s movements globally are taking different paths.
For western feminists to argue that their vision and strategies – even with all the unanticipated problems it has thrown up – are the only path and everyone else’s is “incompatible” or engaged in a “deep mistake” smacks of an arrogance rooted in privilege. It carries a whiff of “four legs good, two legs better” in its superior relationship to women’s movements rooted in other traditions and religion.
By agreeing on non-negotiables such as the right to be free from violence, to access education and healthcare, to speak freely in public, to have access to employment and to ensure it is for an equal wage, and so many other issues that we can all agree on, we can achieve greater results. It is pragmatism, not polemics, that will achieve a better future for women.