A Southasian journalist discovers the limits of Berlin’s presumed enlightenment.
|Image: flick / Flexart|
A few weeks ago I met a pleasant Austrian woman at a party in a bar in Prenzlauerberg, the formerly East Berlin area now home to the young, professional and cool. It was a weeknight, lights in the bar were violet and dim and conversation was possible. We were celebrating a friend’s journalism prize awarded by the German feminist magazine Emma.
My companion promised me Sachertorte – the famous Austrian chocolate cake – from her next trip to Vienna, and I instantly warmed up to her. This was before the fireworks began. When I mentioned I was from Pakistan, her reaction was the oft-expressed assumption that it must be very difficult to be a woman there. I have lived and worked in journalism in Berlin for a year and a half, and the experience has made me appreciate the way I am treated back home as a career woman. I told her as much – that I find that I am more respected back home. I was about to tell her that my mind is more appreciated and I am, of course for several reasons, taken more seriously there than in Germany. “Respect,” she said, cutting me off mid-sentence, “You call walking three steps behind a man respect?”
I was aghast. I also had no idea what she was talking about. Later, I found out that some cultures had a chivalrous custom where a man walked in front of a woman to protect her, for the same reasons men walked behind women according to other chivalrous conventions. The argument proceeded to where my Austrian friend insisted that women from Afghanistan and Pakistan aspired to become “Western” women, and equal to men, and that I chose to live in New York and Berlin to escape the treatment I received back home. I insisted that women all over the world had a long way to go, and that Pakistani women had achieved some things before German, or in that case Austrian, women did. I said that every woman needed to choose her own path to get what she wanted, and the fact that I liked to travel did not mean I was fleeing my own country.
“Do you really think you are more progressive than we are?” my Austrian friend asked me.
I was both offended and saddened by this woman’s views. In that sentence she instantly made me the ‘other’. She also made the mistake that many women from developed cultures make: not acknowledging that gender is still very much an issue in their own ‘developed’ societies. Towards the end of the argument, she asked me what I thought of the situation of women in Afghanistan. I have never travelled to that country, and have only met two or three Afghan women in my life. The only thing I remember about all these women was that they were very well dressed. So, I had no substantial things to say about Afghan women. To put them all into one box would be an atrocious, not to mention anti-feminist, thing to do, but sadly my Austrian friend didn’t think so. “No one could desire to be a woman in Afghanistan,” she said to me.
Saddened, offended and upset, and realising that I would not be able to add anything constructive to the argument except anger, I made my leave. The anger became a part of me for days afterwards. And I never got my Sachertorte either.
Ironically, after a year and a half of living in Berlin, I have often been glad that I do not plan to pursue a career in journalism in Germany. I moved to Germany in winter 2011 as part of a fellowship that placed me at Die Welt – a German national daily. Here, I was shocked at the lack of women in the newsroom, especially during the morning conference. Back home in Pakistan, I started my career at an influential news magazine, Newsline, which was almost exclusively run by women. I grew up in Pakistan with a very keen sense of how long and hard the fight was for women in my country. Moving to Germany, however, made me look at some aspects of my own country with renewed respect and appreciation.
At Die Welt, a colleague of mine told me once to take the day off and go shopping. The same colleague, after I provided the paper with some journalistic contacts during the Arab Spring, asked me whether it was my ‘Freund’ at Al Jazeera who had supplied me with contacts. I had made the mistake of saying ‘mein Freund,’ (my boyfriend) when mentioning this former classmate, instead of saying ‘ein Freund’ (‘a friend’) – an essential difference my teachers at German language school should have emphasised.
Conversely, visiting Pakistan this winter after a year of living in Germany, I was overwhelmed by the respect I got for being a woman of intelligence. People – men, women, professors, analysts and relatives – wanted to know what I thought of the Euro crisis, and what my take was on political issues. I, on the other hand, could not stop talking about gender. An uncle I consider rather conservative said to me, “Beta, do you only write about gender? What happened to your interest in politics?” At a book festival in Karachi, an important defence analyst, a man, overheard my remarks about British analyst Anatol Lievin’s new book about Pakistan, and sought me out after the reading to ask if I had considered writing my views. The shock and surprise I experienced when he approached me made me realise how my self-esteem as a woman journalist had suffered in Germany.
Upon returning to Berlin, I joined a band of women with courage and conviction. Pro Quote, a group of women journalists lobbying to get German media organisations to establish a 30 percent quota of women in higher positions in the newsroom, restored my faith in womankind. Here were women willing to acknowledge that there was a problem in their society and willing to fight to correct it. Before I met these women I was often angry that German women did nothing to address the fact that one saw very few women in German news organisations, especially higher up the ladder and continued to live in self-denial, thinking that they had it all. I also appreciated that the women at Pro Quote had the foresight and open-mindedness to accept a Pakistani woman – from ‘Taliban country’, no less – into their midst. I was asked to give the keynote address at their launch party in Hamburg on 31 March 2012. I was overwhelmed by the welcome I got, and was shocked to hear how many of them had suffered. While speaking of my experiences with sexism in Germany, I saw many women nod; seemingly, they could relate to what I had been through.
But, after all of this, I still heard many surprised women say, “Even in Pakistan, they have it better.” Their earlier assumption – that Pakistani women should have it worse while trying to reach managerial positions – is at best one of ignorance. Progress is not linear, and Southasia, despite its many problems – classism being one of the worst – has seen many woman leaders. The first woman head of state, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, was a Sri Lankan woman. The second was the Indian Indira Gandhi. Even Bangladesh – the youngest of the Southasian countries – and Pakistan have had women heads of state. I was a little girl when Benazir Bhutto was elected to power in 1988. It was done without discussion about her gender. Even in 1948, after the first Pakistani head of state, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, died, there was speculation about his sister and advisor, Fatima Jinnah, succeeding him. Which is why I was shocked during Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, when all people in the US could think about was her being a woman. The US is still yet to have a woman president.
I often wonder how a country and culture like mine, which has a long way to go with regard to women’s issues, can have such strong women role models. These powerful women, contrary to stereotype, are not always rich women with political connections. Our housekeeper in Karachi, Mina, took up her job at our house years ago because her husband did not see any value in sending their children, whether boys or girls, to school. She decided she would take matters into her own hands, become financially independent, and earn the money needed to educate her children. She is not among the ‘privileged’ women that many insist are the only independent women in Pakistan. In fact, Mina’s daughter has a lot more personal freedom and mobility than I do as a woman of a different, more ‘privileged’ socioeconomic background. She used public transport and travelled alone without a chaperone even when she was teenager. And, this is only one example.
Mina’s daughter will most likely never become president, but neither will her son. Southasian societies are heavily classist, and our politics are very nepotistic. I have often heard that successful women are attached to powerful men. I agree, but often successful men have been associated with powerful women. If Indira Gandhi was her father’s daughter, Rajiv Gandhi was his mother’s son. And, Benazir Bhutto was chosen to represent her father’s party despite having two brothers. Now, her widower has cashed in on her name.
In Naomi Wolf’s Guardian op-ed earlier this year, I found part of the answer as to why Pakistan has so many groundbreaking, inspiring women. Wolf wrote:
Most instructive is the image of scarved and bareheaded, religious and secular young women fighting hard for Enlightenment freedom and Enlightenment feminism in Muslim countries – without feeling that the headscarf or religious affiliation divides them. Indeed, feminists in India, Pakistan, Bosnia, Liberia and other developing or traditional societies are creating discourses about raising the status of women that are completely integrated with family and community life. Unlike us, they have not inherited the existentialist opposition between individual and community that we have.
These are anecdotes and explanations I have given to women and men in many a bar, café and newsroom in Germany. Often, as a response, I am asked whether this is the case in all Muslim countries. My answer is simply that I do not know. The ‘Muslim world’ and ‘Muslim women’ are artificial and flawed constructs that reinforce prejudice. But, living in Germany, I find myself put into these false categories over and over again. And, much as I try to escape it, in most German eyes I remain the ‘Muslim woman’.
~ Hani Yousuf is a Pakistani journalist currently working in both the German and the Southasian press, and leading the South Asia team for the news agency Associated Reporters Abroad. She currently lives in Berlin and Karachi, and holds a master's degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. A German version of this article was published by Spiegel Online.
Romila Thapar addresses invitees at the
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