I came across “The Girl Effect” campaign the other day on Twitter. Backed by The Nike Foundation, Novo Foundation, UN Foundation and The Coalition for Adolescent Girls, The Girl Effect’s mission is to get 50 million of the 250 million adolescent girls living in poverty out by 2030. The message is fairly simple. If girls, especially in un- and under-developed nations, can go beyond age 12 still in school and not married, not only do they prosper, society prospers as well. The website features videos of young girls expressing hope that they can continue their educations.
Living in the Arab world has heightened my awareness of women’s issues, whether it’s the ban on women driving in Saudi Arabia, perceptions about “modest dress,” or outright bias I see against women in the ways laws are sometimes applied. And it’s not just here. I read a story recently about middle-class Indian women telling doctors they had to abort a girl fetus because their in-laws would be livid at another female child in the house. All of this anguish because of two X’s.
It’s even more confounding to me because of my own upbringing. My parents both came from very traditional households in India and they both assumed largely traditional roles in the house. Still, to this day I remember vividly my mother telling me that getting my education was the most important thing. I was about 8 or 9, and the importance of that message that I didn’t get then I certainly do now. My dad’s suggestion to me decades ago that I be part of an exchange program inaugurated my love for travel. Both of my parents’ support in developing me to my fullest extent, especially when it came to my dreams and aspirations, never wavered. My being a girl was not a consideration. Nor was I given slack for it.
So how is it that my parents were able to strike this balance between culture and modernity (as perceived by me) while other families find it more difficult? Obviously, progress and modernity are somewhat relative. But the question especially intrigues me in a place like Dubai: modern-facing but, at heart, a conservative Islamic society.
Thanks to my friend A.S. who’s let me raid his personal library, I’ve started a sort of “reading program” that relates to women and Islam in particular. Women in Iran, Pakistan and other Arab countries who are revisiting their faith and finding it to be compatible with empowered women, not an obstacle. They are working within and among their communities. Of course the pushback is from societies that have interpreted their religion in a more restrictive way.
There is Amina Wadud, an American minister’s daughter who found Islam in college, who has pushed back against the prohibition against women leading the Friday prayer. She studied at Al Azhar University in Cairo and speaks Arabic fluently. Or Zainab Anwar in Malaysia who founded Sisters in Islam to press for women’s rights. There are many others.
I’m sure there are many Muslims who think these women are pushing for too much, too fast but their willingness to work toward change that will better women – and therefore society – is admirable to me.
I’ve also recently met a few Emirati women for whom this balancing act is everyday life. They’re pursuing careers, wondering about marriage and simply living a life a lot like you and me. Like me, they also have supportive families. Here’s to that shared patch of terrain being expanded to include greater numbers of women.