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Consider the Culture to Gauge Women's Rights


[ Ms. Farrukh Hasan is a university librarian and a free-lance writer. She lives in Shawnee, Kansas with her children and husband, Dr. Syed Eqbal Hasan. Dr. Syed E. Hasan is the Secretary of the Islamic Research Foundation International, Inc., 7102 W. Shefford Lane, Louisville, KY 40242. ]



March is Women's History Month, and while talking with friends about the status of women in America, I happened to remember my grandmother.

She was a woman who went around in a burqa -- as bold and beautiful as any modern woman stepping out of her house in high heels and miniskirt.

My grandmother would never have thought that some day to wear a burqa would become equivalent to being oppressed or being subjugated. Women wore a burqa or something equivalent to it like a big shawl, often called a chador, not just in Afghanistan but also in India, Pakistan and many other countries in Asia. That was the custom.

In India in my grandmother's time, wearing a burqa was elite. It was expensive, custom-made and only women of a certain class wore it. It inspired respect, not repression and abuse, as the Western world seems to believe today.

But then things started to change. My grandmother started facing opposition to her burqa and from no other person but my father. A university vice chancellor and a great advocate of women's education, he viewed the burqa not as a symbol of oppression but of ignorance.

For my grandmother, though, the burqa among other things provided safety. It was like getting into a car and locking the doors. She could walk the streets at midnight and feel absolutely safe. The veil was optional; to let it cover the face or pull it back to reveal it, the choice was hers. That was the power of the burqa. Eventually it disappeared from the scene because it wasn't available, and somehow it lost its status, too.

People often have misconceptions about the status of women in other countries and cultures based on what they see on television and read in magazines. And that is why they are so horrified at seeing women in burqas. The burqa is just an example of how women can be different in different cultures yet have the same desires for freedom and respect.

We assume that women who do not have the same lifestyle as ours must be really oppressed; that they have no freedom or are not given equals rights of any kind. The fact is that women are still struggling for their rights and better treatment in every culture. It has nothing do with how they look and what they wear.

We forget that women in Western society also face insurmountable challenges. The images of women that we see around us are mainly of youth and beauty. One has to look deeper to find women who are old, sick, abused and unhappy. As hard as it is to believe, in an advanced, modern society, many women are suffering like many all over the world.

Women in Western society have many advantages: They are free to get an education, a job, a life of their choice; they can drive, can travel alone, and can do almost anything they want to. But after having lived in the United States for more than 25 years it still surprises me immensely that there is domestic violence, rape and other abuse against women.

A society functions according to many unwritten rules, which help harmonize life for everyone. Sometimes these rules seem elusive and illogical but they serve the overall purpose of maintaining equilibrium. A good example is the different roles of men and women in different societies. In many cultures, for example in India, where I grew up, although men are financially responsible for taking care of family members, it is actually the women who care for them in physical terms. This does not necessarily mean that they are subjugated or suppressed -- not in that culture at least.

While watching Bill Moyers' documentary on death and dying, I was surprised -- or rather not surprised -- to see that even in this country most of the caretakers of the sick and elderly shown were women. There were sisters taking care of sisters and brothers, mothers taking care of children and parents, daughters caring for mothers and fathers.

There is no one ideal situation for women. What is important is the freedom to choose. Women all over the world are struggling to bring about a change in their roles, responsibilities and status. But this change has to be brought about by women for women and not imposed upon them from outside. I hope my grandmother did not give up wearing her burqa because she was forced to do so.


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