“The story of women’s struggle for equality belongs to no single feminist nor to any one organization, but to the collective efforts of all who care about human rights.”
– Gloria Steinem
When it was suggested that I write an article for International Women’s Day, I had to take a minute, a minute to consider what it actually meant to be a woman. Not because I am unfamiliar with the concept of course, but because there is no one universal definition.The definitions, or stereotypes if you will, are most often determined by ethnicity, by class, by religion and by the media, but not by the individual women themselves.
I consider that to be a woman is to encompass all things. It is to be hardworking, reliable, caring, intelligent, vulnerable, emotional and strong all at the same time. What bothers me most often however, are the hard line feminists, the feminists who attack other women, in particular those women who do not themselves, identify as feminists. Don’t get me wrong, I am very much a feminist, but I believe that feminism is about the right to choice. A woman should be able to make the choice about whether she pursues a career, a family or both. Too often, women attack other women for their choices simply because they do not align with their own. Because they feel that by, for example: voluntarily undertaking the path of a homemaker, they aretaking for granted the rights that women across the world are still fighting so hard for.
I believe in equality, I believe in equal opportunity, in equal rates of pay and professional recognition, but I am also conscious that there are particular roles that are best suited to either sex. Many however, may disagree with me, but for example, most women who hear a disturbance outside of their homes at night, would expect their husbands or partners to investigate it. That is of course unless they happen to be a single woman and parent like myself in which case I would hurriedly check all the windows and doors are locked and silently hope it goes away. Because the reality is that while there are exceptions, physically, men are the dominant sex and are instinctively looked upon to provide protection and assume a provider role. This doesn’t mean women are incapable of providing for themselves, I myself solely support myself and my daughter, but it doesn’t mean that I hope to be ‘doing it alone’ forever.
So while, in the interest of equal opportunity I consider myself to be a feminist, I also recognise that both men and women each have strengths and weaknesses, that femineity compliments masculinity and vice versa, that they each fill the others gaps. I happen to be an intelligent, self-sufficient single parent who aspires to complete my law degree and pursue a career in family and human rights law, but I also hope that I will again one day re-marry, perhaps have three more children, leave my work at the door with the support of appropriate maternity leave and pay conditions and fulfil my role in my home as a wife and mother, and that is okay, because that is my choice.
According to the International Declaration of Human Rights, “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood”.
Recently, I summoned my ‘reason and conscience’ and I made a wonderful decision. A long overdue, whole hearted, life changing decision, I became a Muslim. The desire to revert to Islam had been persistent in my heart for a very long time, but then so had fear. I had been frightened my friends and family wouldn’t understand and frightened that my daughter and I might be ostracized as a result. After a while though, I grew tired of being frightened, I figured, ‘it can’t be that bad right? I mean, my family knows me, my friends know me, they know I’m a mature reasonable woman, of course they’ll understand.” But they didn’t, well the majority that is. Reverting to Islam, in their eyes had changed my definition, both as a woman and as a human. Now, rather than being defined by my nature, work ethic, parenting skills and intellect, I am defined by my hijab, by the media’s depiction of what it means to be a Muslim, in particular a Muslim woman.
Most often its other women who shoot me filthy looks, old women scoff, family members are apparently mortified and old school girlfriends post hateful posts online, making nasty comments to anyone willing to listen. They assume that I am oppressed, radicalised, that my nature has negatively changed in some profound way. What they do not realise is it is they who are oppressing me, not Islam, not my hijab, but those who stereotype me, abuse and attempt to coheresme, attempting to guilt me back into my former identity. The identity that they are more comfortable with. Women attacking women for their choices and beliefs is oppression. The very definition of the oppression is to crush or overwhelm, to cause one to feel worry or distress, or as it is best known in modern terms, to bully.
Somehow, my decision to fulfil my own life as a young, happy, independent and successful woman who also happens to be a Muslim makes other women uncomfortable. Perhaps it’s that as a single woman, I independently made life changing decision, perhaps it’s that I didn’t consult them or ask their permission first.
Unfortunately, I now find people genuinely surprised that I am studying a law degree or more so that I am ‘allowed to’. Prior to my hijab I was met with congratulations, now I’m met with the many assumptions of what ‘Muslim women’ aren’t allowed to do or are stereotypically thought to be incapable of. While frustrating, this is hardly surprising when the media reports more typically on the ‘oppression of women’ in ‘Islam’ but very rarely on their achievements. Did you know that the oldest university in the world was established in Morocco in the year 859 by a woman? A Muslim woman in fact, her name was Fatima Al-Fihri.
In all I can sometimes find women’s attitudes toward other women discouraging, but I am optimistic that this will one day remedy, we are all sisters after all. I look forward to the day when we can simply respect each other’s choices, appreciate that while there is oppression, devastation and certain evil in the world, that not every stereotype fits each individual person. I personally love my hijab and the empowerment it provides me with, it makes me feel beautiful, strong and protected. If I have any advice for other women at all, it is to celebrate your choices, wear that well-fitting dress that makes you feel a million bucks or the beautiful abaya that says everything you want it to say. Women need to celebrate women in all their forms because in the end a woman, is a woman, is a woman and until we stop oppressing each other, equality will always be just out of reach.