Shame! Shame!

About the author
Anita Anand is Head of News and Current Affairs for Zee TV Europe. Previously she was the senior news correspondent for TV Asia. She has also been a columnist for India Today magazine and the Asian Age newspaper. She, the typical example of a “second generation” Asian, is a governor of Thames Valley University and a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. She was also the national champion of the English Speaking Union’s public speaking competition.
First of all allow me to come clean. I am a bit of a hybrid – an oestrogen-fuelled soup of so many different cultures. My parents were Hindus from India but before partition they came from the Muslim dominated North West Frontier Province – and therefore were no doubt influenced by the same culture which pervades that area and its neighbouring Afghanistan to this day. They had an arranged marriage and settled in Britain where I was born. Very soon I was shipped off to a predominantly Catholic School where the greatest influence of my life was a bonkers nun called Sister Francesca, and now I watch Sex in the city in between considering the injustices of patriarchal brutality for a speech on gender and modernity.

Like I said – my background has been soupy.

In short, I think I have become a bit of a soup dragon. I feel like a feminist who doesn’t want to burn my bra because it was quite expensive and took me ages to choose. So you can temper anything I say with that potted history.

So those Muslims then. What are they thinking of? Treat their women terribly don’t they? And what is wrong with those women. Don’t they know that Kabul is liberated now (By John Simpson no less if you are to believe the BBC!) They don’t have to hide anymore – they can watch Sex in the city too!

The kind of hysteria surrounding the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan can ironically tell us a lot about the way in which we as women are treated – or moreover expect to be treated in the West.

There was such a spluttering indignation when the pictures of women in Kandahar started to filter through to us here in Great Britain. It was an evocative cocktail and it moved us. I know – moved me too – I’m only human. Despite the fact that I have been brought up in a similar if less veiled culture, I got swept up in it all too. How could we stand by and watch women like us denied education and health and rights of dignity? (Forget for a moment shall we that such a paradigm can apply to any economic backwater here in Great Britain. Turn a blind eye – because you can on the spiralling figures of teenage pregnancy, school dropouts and despair on council estates not all that far from here – because it’s easy to do that.)

The one most compelling image brought to us from the sub-continent was surely the vision of women forced to hide their faces from the sunlight. Our sisters of the shadows – it may sound prosaic, but the prose in most of the op-ed’s couldn’t have been more ribena coloured.

We had the wife of the Intergalactic president – Cherie Blair no less – telling us back in November last year that “Nothing more symbolises the oppression of women than the burqa, which is a very visible sign of the role of women in Afghanistan.”

It would be a good idea to look at the timing of that statement I think. I’ll remind you how it came out. Cherie Blair with her eyes circled by her fingers and all the sub-headlines you would expect to find under such a photograph. What she was trying to do was illustrate the way in which the burqa falls across the face. What she ended up doing was making a point that was as lasting and valuable as the chip wrappings that copy provided the very next day.

You see the thing is – Mrs Blair made those statements after the Taliban had been forced into the mountains. They had been bombed into the ground. They weren’t running the show anymore. And yet – and yet… women still didn’t take to the streets on mass and get rid of the veil. Sure some did. But not the majority. They still chose to wear the veil.

While the West was clapping itself on the back with such enthusiasm they lost sight of one point. The war against the Taliban can only make sense if we take into account the real truth. Their crime, as far as I am concerned, was not their belief in Islam – as my fellow speakers will tell you, women too voluntarily have that belief. The Taliban’s crime was that they didn’t give women a choice!

The subject of female modesty isn’t one that is restricted to Islam. Many religions (mine included and I am a laissez-faire Hindu) insist that modesty is comparable to piety. In Christianity those nuns like Sister Francesca are closer to God than we are – and they too veil their heads. Do we then launch rocket attacks against the Vatican because the Pope thinks it’s a good plan.

What exactly does our Western morality offer as freedom? For an extremist view we should probably cut to my mother about this. There is an Asian way of dealing with issues that would cause ‘we of the west’ to perhaps giggle – or tut tut.

If things get a bit too much for her sensibilities she simply says “Shame Shame!” If it’s something I did the re-mix is “Shame Shame! Change your name!” v So let’s go through a list of Western women’s freedoms as she sometimes sees them:

More and more women choose not to get married. – Shame Shame!

Women who choose not to have husbands but have babies anyway – Shame Shame!

“Kylie Minogue shows her bottom!” – Shame Shame!

Gail Porter shows her bottom in the House of Commons – Shame Shame!

Sophie Dahl does that opium add! – Shame Shame!

Front page Sunday newspaper story – Posh bares her boobs at Jordan – Shame Shame!

Actually Jordan in anything – Shame Shame!

Now that’s not all there is to the Western Woman – but then I think we will find out there is more to Islam than the Burqa.

There are reasons that my parents came here and there are reasons that I am very very fortunate to have grown up in the West – and I love it here. For a start I do have more choices here. I had the choice to go on to further education, to take my career seriously rather than as a stock gap to marriage. To have good friendships with boys without being tarred and feathered by a conservative society that does rather frown on such things.

I have the freedom to make choices about my beliefs and values – that is a side effect of being exposed to the rich tapestry of life here. Even as I look around this room I see people from so many different walks of life, each bringing a different colour to my experience. Perhaps if I had grown up in India I would only know the Indian stuff.

My cousins in India also feel that I am freer than they are – and they live in Bombay and in Delhi not backwater villages. They feel that I am freer but they feel sorry for me too.

My seemingly endless choices and freedoms come at a cost in their view. There are expectations on me – perhaps expectations I have of my self – which they find comical. I want to have a career – and be the Head of News. And I want to have my own house – and I want to have my own car and I want to fall in love some day with someone I choose and have children some day. I want to live the lives I read about in the magazines – where I can welcome my fascinating friends to my beautiful home. I want to wear the dresses I see on page 17 of a magazine modelled by girls who are size 8’s and be able to prepare and enjoy the sumptuous banquet that some domestic goddess has shown me on page 22.

They laugh at me and they feel sorry for me. The numbers just don’t add up you see and mine is a recipe for a life of unfulfilled frustration and flat soufflés.

My cousins – God bless ‘em – have different sums to deal with. They grow up, they study, perhaps have a job, perhaps not. They get married and they have children. They grow old and their children will look after them. And in the mean time they will do what they can to make their homes more beautiful than each other's.

It’s a simple and achievable equation – and they don’t feel they are serving out a prison term in the process.

You may say that these are the expectations of women who have a poverty of experience and who come from poor countries. And it is true that the more conservative a country the poorer it is, by and large. I read an interesting explanation of why that should be. The historian Bernard Lewis – and he was talking about Islamic countries in particular – said that by denying women the freedom to make choices to work and develop in careers – Muslim countries were denying themselves the energy imagination and skills of half their population.

That seems to make sense. But as Mona Charen wrote recently in the Washington Times – It may well be a secret of the West’s success that it liberated women. But let’s not indulge the idea that 1,000 years of women’s progress was achieved so Jennifer Lopez could display her breasts.

And OK – so we in the west have freedoms of choice and expression. Does that make the west a female-friendly place. Don’t kid yourselves for a second. I don’t know how many times we will have to read that women get paid less here for doing the same jobs we have the freedom to fight for. Get promoted less. Have to do more around the home and around the work place to achieve the same level of harmony a man may have for so much less.

The practice of equality may be real in theory and less real in practice – but surely the foundation of this society is based on mutual respect and gender equality isn’t it?

Well is it?

We live in a nominally Christian country – and so (as George Dubya is so keen to remind us) do the Americans. Christianity believes that pretty much everything awful is the fault of Eve and her apple.

St Paul in the New Testament says: “ A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I don’t permit a woman to teach or have authority over a man; she must be silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam wasn’t the one deceived. It was the woman was deceived and became a sinner, but women will be saved through childbearing.”

The reformer Martin Luther was even more blunt. Speaking of women and childbirth he said: “If they become tired or even die, that doesn’t matter. Let them die in childbirth, that’s why they are there”.

Words like this wouldn’t have been unheard of from the mouths of the Taleban a few months ago, would they? Perhaps the world of Kandahar and that of Big Brother really aren’t as different as we think.