I Empower Me

Under a new banner called I Empower Me, an organisation wants to change the narrative to women becoming heroes

Aisha Sarwari October 16, 2018
The writer is the co-founder of Women’s Advancement

The criticism of the #MeToo movement from nuanced feminists and social anthropologists alike is that women are portrayed as victims. Victims are unlivable and throw the blame on the perpetrator instead of focusing on the remedy. Under a new banner called "I Empower Me", an organisation by the same name wants to change the narrative to enable women to be heroes. They want to shed blame and establish control where it needs to be — with the person who was violated.

This Norwegian organisation was started by two feisty, yet gentle women of Iranian descent. These two sisters and founders explain that women everywhere take up the fight to challenge status quo using the pen, the gun or the fist, and yet, they are not considered fighters. Instead they are forced into a narrow pitiful box and called survivors.

Melodi and Pouneh Attar are certainly not survivors, because they have lost so much along the way. Yet when you look at these petite women, they are warriors. They don’t #MeToo they say I am the only person who can empower me. The solidarity they seek is not from naming and shaming but celebrating the triumph of victory that the fighters won.

In short, take your pity and burn it to the ground.

Make no mistake about it. Women who are part of the "I Empower Me" club are not weak. They have paid in blood and limb. At the Oslo conference on October 13, 2018 where I was honoured to be a speaker, the stories I heard were harrowing. Sara Mohammad from Iraq escaped the brother who wanted her to enter into a forced marriage. Rudi Bathtiar, a famed CNN news anchor, faced severe post-traumatic stress as her family was assassinated during the Iranian revolution. Latifa Anda from Somalia had a female genital mutilation procedure go bad. It traumatised her mother to stop the practice at home and take her younger daughters to a doctor instead — no more home procedure with a rusty razor blade and no anaesthesia. The list goes on, the pain too, as does the trauma of being an observer, but the auditorium where the speeches were made refused to harbour shame.

Shame is a social construct. We are not born with it. It is thrust on us like braces around our sense of self, to contain us with hard metallic things. It is different from guilt. Guilt is inborn to save us from being sadistic. Yet, when sadistic perpetrators hurt women, shame is thrust on the women, without any guilt. The organisation asks why and then also answers: Because women have not dared to turn the mirror back to society. To show them how ugly their aggression, their harassment and their indoctrination is.

Instead many women blame and shame and pity themselves. Sadly many women perpetrate violence on other women. Which is why the organisation is not a men vs women battle but a patriarchy vs equality battle that they feel everyone should benefit from.

The world now increasingly belongs to inclusive feminism which is now coming of age and passing the mic onto women of colour first. A disability rights activist, Sally Kamara told me as she huffed her way onto the streets of Oslo in her wheelchair, “The browner you are, the more your claim to feminism, the graver the story.” The conference in Oslo also featured women like Hilde Charlotte Solheim, a business leader who faced severe violence from a partner. This was important because, violence against women is indiscriminate of race or class, wealth or influence. Still, it was like sipping ginger ale in the Sahara desert to see women of colour not just tell their stories but add an empowered road map to reverse the imagery portrayed in the media about the status of women who come out and take down patriarchy. They are heroic. They celebrate themselves.

Out of all the stories, Shabana Rahman’s was particularly resonating for me. Shabana’s family moved from Karachi to Oslo decades ago, leaving Shabana the meshed identity of both countries. Both communities shunned her voraciously. Male Norwegians did not let her into the realm of comedy and stand up because the exact jokes they made were not funny when Shabana mouthed them. The Muslim Pakistani community didn’t appreciate her guts because she didn’t conform enough and they wanted a monolith. They wanted a woman to take permission first. Shabana, ever ready to shed all, literally and otherwise, went on to make it to the New York Times for “holding a mirror to society and reflecting the shame from where it came.” She wore her mother’s yellow sari on stage and talked about the immigrant experience. She asked women everywhere to do and wear anything they want, “just make your choices creative and do not make them gendered, because everything gendered is patriarchal.”

When it was my turn to speak, I asked an empowered audience of women, people of intersectional challenges, men who suffer patriarchy and women who are on the fence, to think of my people. To sensitise themselves to the women of Pakistan who face violence and an inescapable focus on the uterus — violence that leaves a 1,000 a year dead and 16,000 a year dead from childbirth. I also asked them not to think of the silent women as weak, because women are self-preserving and that too is heroic. I asked them to remember our women as brave and strong: Asma Jahangir, Sharmeen Obaid- Chinoy, Ismat Chughtai and Mukhtaran Mai.

Published in The Express Tribune, October 16th, 2018.

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