Humans and Other Things
Issue 66 March 2010
It is International Woman’s Day on March 8th and we will all be cheerleading about women. Or not, as the case may be. I’ll confess: International Woman’s Day does somewhat confuse me, for being a woman is not a defining quality of my life. Obviously I am a woman, and through being one I have the blessings of being married to a wonderful man and was able to bear and feed three children, but I never really framed my life thinking, “I’m a woman”, as if this is a singularly defining quality. Yet, people make much of me being a woman, particularly a Muslim one.
I grew up being told I could do anything. With three older brothers and only one older sister I think everyone was glad I was a girl to balance things up a bit, but that is as far as it went in terms of gender profiling.
My mother ran her own business along with my aunt. Mum told me about the ridiculous moments in her life, like when my Dad had to sign the finance form when she was paying for the sofa, and the fact that she was never allowed to do higher maths at school because “girls wouldn’t need it.” But because it seemed like she could do anything, I thought I could too. It never actually occurred to me that being a woman was a barrier to anything.
Having three older brothers meant that I was surrounded by all their friends too. There were always bikes, cars, sports and politics; and my sister was no sissy. After all, she had contended with three older brothers for seven years until I showed up. Being a girl was irrelevant to me, although being the youngest of five children was challenging.
Holding my own with four older siblings ensured that I had an opinion about everything. Being so opinionated saw me passionately take up the causes of the day: apartheid and nuclear weapons were high on my list of things to protest about. These were issues around race and world peace, it didn’t really matter whether you were male or female in South Africa, and nuclear bombs were not going to be discerning about people’s gender. These were large scale human issues that transcended gender.
Then I became a Muslim. Suddenly, being a woman was an issue. It meant that people kept asking me questions about women’s position in Islam; was I now beaten; did the hijab oppress me; what about polygamy/female circumcision/inheritance... I ended up in women’s sections of things - the first time I had ever really mixed with only women en mass in my entire life.
I started lecturing. I did more than my fair share of “Women in Islam” talks; “Beyond the Veil”; “Behind the Veil”; “Islam’s Precious Gems”; “Pearls of Islam”. I talked until I was blue in the face about women’s rights. And then I could take it no longer. There were many reasons that I gave up doing such talks. I did not get to talk about the wider issues which were important to me; all the questions became predictable (and boring), and fundamentally, I felt I was reacting to the compulsions and neurosis of others. We never had talks on “Men in Islam”. If there was a book about society, you would get an index reference to “women” – was it presumed that men were society, and women just a footnote!
I still feel it odd that we have women’s officers in universities; and a Minister for Women (although now it’s Minister for Women and Equalities). I find these things patronising actually. As if women are some special case and we need help because we’re incapable of helping ourselves. Where’s International Men’s Day? It would seem to me, given feedback from teachers and social workers, that one of the most deprived social groups in this country are white, working-class, young males. Where’s their special day?
I know I am open to the charge that I can say all these things because I am enjoining the fruits of past campaigners, who since the first International Women’s Day in 1911, have made it possible for me to live the life I do. I think there is some merit in that argument. However, I also believe that fundamentally it is only when we recognise our common humanity regardless of faith, race or gender, will we fulfil our true human potential. Labels annoy me. I know I’m a “feminist” to some, and I’m probably an “Islamist” to others. Goodness knows what these words mean. I’d call myself a “humanist” except people would then presume I don’t believe in God – which wouldn’t be much use. So perhaps I’ll just stick to “human” – that’s a label I can live with, and every day for me is a chance to rejoice at “International Human Day!”