Women: why our presence and opinions are important, and why modesty and anonymity must not be confused
This is my weekly column published on Saturday 4th May in The National
Modesty and anonymity are often confused. Modesty is important, but too often the enforcement of modesty is used as an excuse to impose invisibility and silence on women.
Social norms may dictate that a woman should not say, do or look outside the status quo and should not take a public stand about a public subject. Doing so, she is told, will affect her reputation, and therefore her prospects of marriage and social status. In short, women are too often expected to blend into the background, blurred into invisibility.
In many public gatherings (private ones are a different matter), women are not recorded as being present, as this is not considered proper by many men, and also by some women.
But why is it not proper for the record to show clearly that women were present at a given event? Simply being in a photo or video is surely not immodest.
Whatever reasons are given to justify this exclusion of women, the outcome is that the record indicates that women were anonymous, invisible or absent.
But the presence of women in a nation’s shared consciousness makes it natural for women to be part of its present, and to share in its future.
This normalisation of women in the public space, politics and power is crucial, because it means that women sharing in authority and public life is something we have come to accept; in fact that we don’t merely accept it, but expect it as well.
For me, this is also the reason why quotas and targets for women in leadership positions are so vital: to make it normal for us to see women as leaders. Women need role models to serve as springboards for their own aspirations. Men, too, should come to see powerful and influential women in every walk of life as totally normal.
We can’t change the past, but we can rediscover it. We must do more to raise the status of those women who already hold significant places place in our collective history. And when the historical record appears at first glance to be bare of female figures, we must investigate more deeply. No history is ever devoid of women; women are integral to all societies and eras. We must also ensure that women are seen and heard as a normal part of public life today. This will leave a strong legacy of equality for the men and women of the future.
If you are a woman and you feel shy about having your picture taken in a public meeting, or if you don’t want it known you were there, remember this: people will look at the record of the event and see no women.
For every subsequent meeting, then, this absence of women will be a template for how meetings should be. Just as we look back at history and find a blank where women should have been, so will future generations find that we have failed in the same way.
This is not about the fame or glory of individual women, but we shouldn’t make ourselves invisible under the misguided notion that it is shameful to be seen and known. We have a rightful place in our societies. Modesty does not mean invisibility, because women can be at once modest and visible, humble and powerful. We need to put aside anonymity, shyness and timidity to ensure that everyone knows that women are here, for themselves and for the good of society.
We must be present in our societies. We must make ourselves and our opinions known. This is important for us, and for our future generations.
Shelina Zahra Janmohamed is the author of Love in a Headscarf and blogs at www.spirit21.co.uk
White flags with red crosses have been fluttering across England this week, as the nation celebrated the day of its patron, Saint George.
Surprisingly, he was not English, but rather Greek or possibly Turkish. He served in the Roman army, lived in Palestine and has been adopted by many countries including England, Egypt, Ethiopia and Iraq. He was killed in 303 AD by the Roman emperor Diocletian for refusing to deny his Christian faith and protesting the persecution of Christians.
Legends from the 11th century onwards recount that he killed a dragon. One of the more famous legends, from the 15th century, tells of how he rescued a princess from a dragon terrorising a village, after which the entire village adopted Christianity.
St George’s life is a story of multiculturalism, migration, social fluidity and the transcendence of human values. Yet bizarrely, he has been adopted by the far right as a symbol of “purity” of the white English.
Poor St George, who died to oppose discrimination and persecution of the “other” is the unwilling poster boy for racism and hatred.
This year, the Christian-Muslim Forum, a London-based charitable organisation aimed at promoting interfaith dialogue, is reclaiming St George to reinstate him as a symbol of unity. Like St George’s adoption into English culture, the forum seeks to address the Islamophobia that is growing in English society with a campaign that suggests that another newcomer to English culture should be embraced. They suggest that the “hijab should be as British as bangers and mash”.
It takes admirable confidence from a nation to embrace the cultures and symbols of a minority, whether those symbols are food embraced by the masses, or icons explicitly adopted by the machinery of state, like St George. We must admire the fact that they are not insecure in their own identity.
It is precisely the adoption of outside influences into a country or state, and their contribution to its flavour, that make that culture unique and give it a powerful magnetism. The way Muslim civilisations embraced the cultures they came into contact with offers an example.
It must be difficult to be a Muslim this week after the tragic events of the Boston Marathon and the suspicion cast by right-wing commentators on Muslims. Meanwhile, in Myanmar, Rohingya Muslims continue to be killed. Figures of peace who are part of the majority, like Aung Sang Suu Kyi, are mealy mouthed about the atrocities rather than clearly condemning the massacres of the minority.
Muslim nations too have responsibilities to care for their minorities. Egypt must work to ensure its Coptic Christian minority is given its due place in the new national structures. In Pakistan and Bangladesh, to name just two other troubled states, minority Hindus, Christians and Buddhists must be protected and embraced.
When a nation treats its minorities well, and offers them protection, that is the unquestionable mark of a great nation.