The degradation of our environment is horrendous!
Minority rights are being denied day after day.
The rise of the far-right in the world all over is scary.
You want all the nonsense, all the shit going on in the world fixed. Me too.
But social change requires a million things out of us and PATIENCE is the most important one.
For the last couple of days, in the DRS group, I have been reading a lot about the extremist scriptures from Hinduism and Sharia, in the CONTEXT OF WOMEN’S RIGHTS.
Being a Muslim Feminist, I found this as a fantastic opportunity to observe both sides of the coin: the people trying to make the change and on the other side the people whose religious sentiments easily get hurt.
The posts attracted tons of comments (because people get easily emotional about religious sentiments) in comparison to posts about sanitation, climate change, and education policies. A lot of this involved hate comments or labeling which I guess is the collateral damage of free speech over social media.
But overall, the observation reminded me of a TED Talk I had watched in 2015, of a Baloch Pakistani young woman named Khalida Brohi fighting against ‘honor killing’s in her region.
Now, before you jump on the anti-national wagon, and question why I couldn’t think of any other example; here is why…
Khalida’s story has super important pointers about making social change.
She was 18 when she discovered Facebook and decided to campaign, rally against ‘honour killings’ in her tribal, conservative Islamist region.
She failed monumentally when the local people got offended and destroyed her property, threatened to kill her. (She says that was natural and she is right).
The point in this talk that stayed in my mind, five years later is that YOU CANNOT MAKE SOCIAL CHANGE AMONG THE PEOPLE OF A COMMUNITY BY:
- Belittling or condescending them.
- Telling them how you are the most evolved one and they are unevolved.
- Standing in direct opposition to their CORE VALUES.
This is the MANTRA FOR ANY SOCIAL CHANGE that you ever wish to see.
It definitely helps when the person trying to make the change IS FROM THAT COMMUNITY because when you criticize from the outside, you might often not understand the full extent of their practices and beliefs and even if you do and you talk about them with utmost best intentions, it is easier for the people to dismiss you thinking ‘oh she/he is not one of us’ hence it is an attack on our beliefs. Coming from that community also helps in terms of the ‘savior complex’ which people of privilege often suffer from. There also internalized biases that all of us are capable of holding instead of factual criticisms.
I cannot speak for other religions but from the Islamic point of view, just like in Khalida’s talk, people did not need to become atheists in order for women to have human rights or advance as communities. What they needed was a reminder of the core values that get muddied under the patriarchal systems.
Hence, she and her team apologized to those people. Asked to be accepted and offered an opportunity to make it up to the people.
Why did they do that?
Because it was her own community, her own people. You cannot abandon your own roots, regardless of how patriarchal or oppressive, they are. Many people do. But people like me, people like Khalida Brohi whose mission is to bring about actual change on the ground, we have got to REACH THE PEOPLE AT THE LEVEL IN WHICH THEY LIVE; IN WHICH THEY CAN RECEIVE YOUR MESSAGE.
Yes, this time it worked. Because they made it a point to engage with people’s own culture, music, art, fables in order to bring about social change.
Was it easy? No. Did it take a lot more time, patience, hard work and strategy? You bet your sweet ass it did. But did it work? A BIG FUCKING YES!
And just before you think this is all, came the next hurdle.
The men in the community began to notice the change in wives and daughters… their confidence, their income capabilities, their talents… and as always, it threatened men and immediately they started stopping their women from participating in these programs.
Was it the end of social change?
No, of course not. It was time for the next strategy. It was time to up the alley, it was time to make the women’s handicrafts an official business so now men had to trade their fragile egos with lucrative women empowerment.
Did that work? Hellll, yeah!
Islamic scriptures are centuries old and today in various parts of the world, are followed by people all over the globe in various versions. The traditions are also mixed with specific cultural practices of specific regions and the melody and mash-up are just too complicated for an individual to understand. So, people pick and choose things that make sense to them, that they feel to be relevant in their lives and in this modern age.
What’s interesting is that in order to bring about change in the condition of women, feminism did not have to forgo Islam, instead, it became INTERSECTIONAL so women could accommodate their connection with God, along with human rights or women upliftment. This could be done because, in many ways, even those old scriptures have stood the test of time in terms of having outside home employment, riding camels and horses alongside men at wars, not being forced to take the husbands surname after marriage, writing your own terms and conditions for your Nikah and divorce, etc, just to name a few.
Undeniably there are plenty of other things like polygamy or half valued testimony of women that need upgrading. But just like Khalida’s story, these or any other Islamic or cultural (not actually Islamic) practices are to be challenged, it has to be done at the ground level and by taking the people in confidence; not by mocking them.
To this point, I am so proud to see so many Muslim Feminists all over the globe, from small indigenous tribal communities like the Baloch in Pakistan to super Islamic countries like Saudi Arabia where women like Manal al-Sharif live, women are standing up for their rights and challenging the patriarchal ancient customs that are laid upon them. And none of them had to give up their faith in order to work for women empowerment.
A very common myth on the outer side (thanks to Western media and now Indian media too) is that Muslim women are oppressed and don’t have a voice. This statement would hold true in almost every country, every religion, everywhere in the world to various degrees. And as an outsider, if you really care about the conditions of Muslim women, here is what to do instead of head-on attacking the people’s faith or CORE VALUES:
- Google ‘Muslim Feminists’ in the world and pick 5.
- Follow their work, their campaigns, social media.
- Talk to other people about their accomplishments.
- Watch their work closely and send them messages of encouragement.
- Help them out in whatever way you can.
- Join their campaigns if you can and help them out with strategies, resources or ideas.
- Most importantly, INSTEAD OF TALKING OVER THEM, be an ally and let them be their own voice.
Khalida was the privileged one in her story, the one with knowledge and education of these oppressive cultural practices, but in her experience, neither talking AT THEM helped, nor TALKING OVER them helped.
What helped was showing genuine intent of helping those people, meeting them at a level they can understand (and not feel threatened) and ENABLE them to find their voices, learn about their rights, gradually dismantle those archaic practices with their own hands.
After I learned about FEMINISM and evaluated my whole life against it, I wanted to scream out loud at the top of my lungs how things were wrong and injustices against women were happening all over the world.
I began writing blogs, books published. But that was the knowledge, on paper, not much was changing on the ground.
So I began helping women through my blog in other ways.
I would hear their stories, point them towards doctors, lawyers, therapists, whatever resources they were in need of.
Sometimes, I also helped them financially, for example, to get out of violent husbands’ homes.
Informed them of their rights under the Sharia law, according to which they were married in the first place.
I talked about sensitive issues on my YouTube channel so people could use that to get validation and support.
I DISMANTLE the oppression with my Muslim community, among cousins, friends, neighbors, blog readers, book fans and internet strangers by MEETING THEM WHERE THEY ARE instead of challenging their entire belief system.
Is this all I could do? Perhaps more but I am only human and still learning social change.
I am still trying to find better ways, sharper strategies to bring about change in women’s lives, not just in my community but the world all over, but I have to make peace with these few things;
- Social change moves at glacial speed, so don’t expect things to change overnight.
- Probably in my lifetime, gender gaps won’t be closed and women won’t have equal rights as that of men.
- I can’t change a person or their opinion unless I find something in common with them (sometimes it could just be our humanity, an important negotiation technique I learned in my Swiss Business School).
Should I stop trying because it was too hard and too exhausting?
I would probably die if I stopped. I do this because it gives me purpose to live.
I am in it for the surprises, NOT the PRIZES.
For me, a simple thank you from a distressed, domestically abused woman is enough.
That overused, cliched story holds true- the one with the grandfather and the kid walking past by the shore and the kid throwing back fishes into the water that were left stranded on the shore by the waves. And the grandpa laughs and asks the kid “there are millions, how many would you throwback and what difference would it make?”
And the kid replies “it makes a difference to the one fish that is back in the water”!
Total cliche, I know, but I can’t help but feel exactly the same way. The war on social injustice is strenuous and sinister at best, tiring and life draining at worst. But if you are reading this long piece, I have faith that you care about the world and the injustices happening around, and you are working day and night to stand up for the rights of some people, whether or not they acknowledge your efforts.
HOW DOES THIS PLAY OUT IN THE WORLD OF SOCIAL MEDIA?
Over social media, the chances of someone coming to a Twitter feud and walking away with enlightenment is UNHEARD of. The same applies to Facebook.
So how do we expect to bring about any change if our audience is on social media?
The honest answer is I DON’T KNOW because if I did, I would have an army uprising for me right now.
But the basic premise from Khalida’s story that we can learn are the ones I already mentioned in the beginning: that YOU CANNOT MAKE SOCIAL CHANGE AMONG THE PEOPLE OF A COMMUNITY BY:
Belittling or condescending them.
Telling them how you are the most evolved one and they are unevolved.
Standing in a direct challenge to their CORE VALUES.
If you do even one, you won’t be making any social changes but inviting nonsensical debates from people that did not understand your intentions.
Now also a thing to be noted is that this is a general approach to a tribal, uninhibited people.
It does not apply to fundamentalist politicians, right-wing supporters, and leaders.
That’s because leaders, politicians are privileged people in power that are voted by democratic masses, and their job is to be secular and unbiased (no racist sexist shit can go down).
I also include supporters of the majority (often right-wing type) party supporters because in Khalida’s example we were talking about challenging only cultural/religious practices.
However, in the other one, there isn’t just religion but political ideologies. And political ideologies do not work on the same principles. Politicians use fake news, propaganda, fear-mongering, hate speeches, polarization, inciting communal riots, and several other sinister tactics to keep the voter scared enough to vote for them. And these change state after state, politician after politician.
Bringing about social change in the political area is something way harder (in my opinion) because of the awe-inspiring, larger than life image created by media for the politicians. And until and unless your very own existence comes under threat, your own women raped on the streets and your own life savings taken over by a bankrupt bank; it is hard to give a crap and understand how the minorities feel.
There are people, plenty of privileged people who stand up for minority rights, challenge the status quo even when it is dangerous and put their own lives at risk. But with such compassionate people, on the opposite spectrum are also the vile, vicious and violent ones. And those are the ones that will take heed with time alone, maybe by having employment opportunities that keep them busy and provide them an environment to intermingle with the very people their politicians are telling them to hate.
But that’s a distant dream, right?