What is Woman?

With International Women’s Day in Last Week’s trail, #Life pauses for thought on Today’s Woman.

Indian women participate in a candle light vigil for "India's Daughter."

Indian women participate in a candle light vigil for “India’s Daughter.”

Last week, I read a piece written by Leslee Udwin on India’s Daughter – the documentary she has produced on the violent 2012 rape and killing of an Indian student. I felt sick as I read the details, wide-eyed, not of the rape itself, but of the perpetrator’s understanding of the event. My heart raced at phrases such as “he showed no remorse, and kept expressing bewilderment that such a fuss was being made about this rape” “a girl is far more responsible for rape than a boy” a decent girl wont roam around at 9pm… People had a right to teach them a lesson” and, on recounting another event involving a 5 year old child “she was a beggar girl, her life was of no value.”

The chilling statements continued to barrel on, one, after the other, there was no upturn to this piece, no redeeming ending. Leslee wrote that she felt as though her soul had been ‘dipped in tar, and there were no cleaning agents in the world that could remove the indelible stain.’ I felt the same only upon reading about – let alone encountering – these men, so set in their unequal beliefs abut a woman’s basic rights. I told myself that although this thinking might exist in India, it was surely only pockets, and certainly didn’t exist everywhere. I knew that was nothing more than a rationalisation with myself, to allow my mere conscience to move on, or else it would remain stuck in the detail, unable to accept it or rest until something changed in the equation.

The problem here was I couldn’t rationalise it, yet I tried to any way. My mind had no way of sanely ‘dealing’ with the facts I had read through – the black and white statements that this thinking exists, yes, but also that it is thought promulgated by it’s thinkers, as wholly legitimate thought. Rational thought. My mind needed some sort of way to mechanise through this horror story and pack it away. It packed it away this time, by quantifying the space in which such thought existed, as a ‘small pocket’ very far away, on this very big earth. It was a small fraction which could not outweigh or threaten the mass of thinking that exists against it. And although barely believing myself at all, I moved on.


A few days later, I found myself clicking through news posts to read on about Rima Karaki, the Lebanese TV presenter who had completely cut off an interview with an Islamist scholar after being told to “shut up” so he could speak. With video footage available in Arabic of the show, I instantly thought to myself “let me watch it” and then, the words started tumbling into my thoughts “maybe” they started – the beginning of a rationalisation – “maybe when you hear it in Arabic it’s not so bad.” As instantly as I’d thought these words, I felt sickened by my conditioning. The minutes after I had watched the video, I felt ashamed. What has led me to think in such a way, that I could fathom up such an excuse?” We know that in the Arab world, there exists inequality and less respect for women, much more starkly than in other more westernised parts of the World. I know, first hand, that this is the case. I have been spat at, walking down the streets of Egypt, for wearing short sleeves. I have seen a man walk right up to a woman, look her dead in the eye, and slap her, for telling him to stop cat calling her. So I knew better, than to think “maybe.”

Rima Karaki speaks to London based Sheikh Hani Al-Siba'i

Rima Karaki speaks to London based Sheikh Hani Al-Siba’i

As I watched the video, it was in fact worse than just an “oh shut up.” It was a tirade of sexism which, to any open-mind would at best render this ‘scholar’ and his title as laughable. “Shut up, so I can speak…” he spat out, unashamed. “It is beneath me, to be speaking with you, a woman…” although his microphone cut off, ‘yet here I am, for your gratitude’ was the implied continuation. It was, in fact, worse in Arabic, for of the three I understand, I find Arabic to be the language in which you can utter the most venom. It is powerful, and precise, and cutting. Rima began, as every supposedly ‘wise’ woman does, by trying to appease the situation. Then, however, with that polite attempt out of the way, she did the right thing. She questioned his absurdity and audacity. “How can a respected scholar such as yourself tell a television presenter to shut-up?” She asked. As he raised his voice and his insults, she wrapped up the discussion in one simple sentence: “If there cannot be mutual respect, then there cannot be a conversation.”

Rima Karaki

Rima Karaki

 

The video was making a timely circulation across the internet on International Women’s Day. I saw posts about being superwomen, I saw posts about women being masters of destiny, I saw posts about women being the most untapped reservoir of talent in the world. These posts annoyed me. I wanted to see posts about what should not be packed away as “one off events” or single occurrences. We should be posting about the Rima Karakis and how often we are spoken to, as she was spoken to, and how often we find our voice stifled and unable to command authority the way she did, because we don’t realise, until after the event that we ought to have done so. The problem isn’t that women need to be told that they are strong, and equal, and righteous, and powerful, and the untapped reservoirs of all these wondrous skills. They need to highlight. They need to let less go.

Last December I was told that my development plan for my career the following year, needed to involve the ability to push back more, and to stick up for myself. I was livid. “Do you have any idea how much I do push back? How much I do stand up for myself?” It struck only several months later, that he didn’t know the groundwork that went into achieving for myself the same platform for respect and recognition that he or most other male peers had for themselves. One afternoon recently, I came into a clash with an individual with whom I have never been able to locate the root of our differences, and so had put it down to ‘ego.’ When I explained the clash to my manager and he waited for the punch line as to what had offended me so much, and why I was making such a fuss, I heard myself say: “It’s clearly a lack of respect. If I had answered ‘yes’ to his question, all would be fine. But he cannot have me say ‘no’ to him, I cannot legitimately ‘challenge’ him if something has been done incorrectly. He cannot accept hearing ‘no’ from me.” I had said it without saying it, and wasn’t quite sure he understood, but a look in his eyes told me he did. A few minutes later, feeling a mixture of anger and scathing, I received a call from my senior manager. “I’m not unaware of the situation. I don’t think it’s acceptable. I do think it’s a woman-thing” she said. And there, someone had finally said it. And that was all I needed. I needed to confront the fact. Not cover it. Not coat it. Not rationalise it through some other behaviour or issue or by calling it ‘ego’ or ‘difference.’ That, to me, is what Rima, and all of us should look to achieve: to simply address, head on, what is happening, when it is happening, and then leave it to the listeners, whether they be one person or one million:

“Will there mutual respect? Or is this conversation over?”

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