The importance of sisterhood

Published: January 8, 2013

Misogyny is best fought in company of the sisters who are fighting it out on their own turfs no matter what part of the world they live in. PHOTO: REUTERS

Last week, I wrote an op-ed for The Express Tribune on what needs to be done in the aftermath of the Delhi gang rape. I wanted to write a lot more but was constrained by space I am allotted in the newspaper.

The piece did not receive many comments either on the website or my personal blog where I cross post my work, but I got a lot of emails – some from regular readers who liked my ideas, and one from an Indian grandfather who wanted a safer Delhi for his two young granddaughters.

“Thanks for a very thoughtful blog.  I really enjoy your writing.  Please keep it up. Happy new year to you.  As a grandfather with two granddaughters, this crime in Delhi has become more than a horrific crime.  It has become a very personal thing.  We really have to change the attitudes of males in our part of the world.  Hope this vent brings about some change.”

Some emails were from women in Pakistan saying that things are worse in the country and that at least Indians are protesting and have taken to streets. Had this incident happened in Lahore, they said, we would not have even known about it. A few emails came from sisters from across the border appreciating the support and concern from their neighbours.

I want to thank you all for reading it and feel humbled by your responses.

While people generally appreciated what I wrote, I got a few emails and tweets (all from Indian men) saying that I should focus on women rights violations in Pakistan and leave India to Indians.

One even pointed out that I have never written about the plight of Hindu girls like Rinkle Kumari and chose to write about Jyoti Singh Pandey. Another likened me to Ajmal Kasab and said some choice words about Pakistanis butting in their noses where they are not needed.

Indians with narrow nationalism are not the only ones who question what I write. I get asked by Baloch dissidents why do I not write about them; I get asked by the pan-Islamic zealots why do I not write about atrocities in Gaza and American aggression in Afghanistan and Iraq.

While I do respect anyone fighting for liberty and dignity, I am not a professional bleeding heart and would not write about everything that is the hot topic of the day. I don’t touch Baloch issues because I feel I am not equipped enough to write about them and there are far better writers who take on that cause in a much more effective manner.

I don’t write about struggles in Bahrain and Palestine because they are far removed from my reality and writing about them just for the sake of writing about them is kind of pointless. Honestly, I feel flattered when people tell me or expect me to write on issues that matter to them – as if me writing about them would make a difference – but it is impossible for anyone (unless that person is Ansar Abbasi) to write about everything under the sun, so I refrain from doing that.

As for the Indians who believe I should first write about the Rinkle Kumaris of Pakistan, I do feel very strongly about the minority rights and have written about them repeatedly, but Jyoti’s plight moved me like Rinkle’s couldn’t. Probably because as an urban resident of a big city who has used public transport and faced threats like harassment, insecurity, robbery day in, day out on the streets of Karachi, I empathise more with Jyoti than I do with Rinkle and feel strongly about it.

It may not be correct and perhaps Rinkle deserves the same attention, but as a writer, I feel more confident when I write about things I strongly believe in or empathise with. Perhaps it is my inability to transcend the personal, but that is who I am and that is how I write.

I also want to point out the importance of sisterhood to those who are willing to understand that women draw strength from each other and if one of them stands up to reclaim their space or seek their rights, others also stand up either in support or to claim their respective rights.

I may not benefit directly from the rights movement in Indian right now, but if the rape laws get amended in India, I would be cheering up for my sisters there and will try to campaign for similar change here in Pakistan.

As far as significance of sisterhood is concerned, let me share a recent example.

A fortnight ago, my elder sister and I were flying to Karachi. The plane was packed and the flight attendants were busy serving the passengers. My sister pointed out that a man sitting in the lane in front of us is trying to get fresh with one of the flight attendants. I, too, started following their conversation. Initially it sounded like a bit of harmless chit chat, then he started asking inappropriate questions and the flight attendant became uncomfortable.

He asked her where she lived and also wanted her to give him her phone number. He also tried to touch her whenever she would hand her a glass of water and so on.

She moved away quickly, but then every time that girl would pass our section, he would stop her and ask her for something. When she went back to the galley, he followed her and said something to her after which her facial expressions changed and we gathered that it must have been something very improper.

Let me also point out that she was very young and probably joined the airline recently and was not sure how to approach the matter. I was quite incensed and wanted to take up the matter but my sister said that we should not intervene and let the flight attendant handle it. Though I was not too happy with it, I said okay.

A couple of minutes later the man who was harassing the flight attendant started chatting with his family member on the other side of the aisle with their bodies hanging out making it almost impossible for the flight attendant to move without touching them or addressing them to move.

My sister, who asked me to practice restrain, lost it at the temerity of those two Lotharios, and asked them if they can stay seated properly so that the others can move freely.

The main aggressor turned to my sister and asked her to stay out of it at which I, too, lost my cool and told him in no uncertain term what kind of a creep he is, preying on a young girl who cannot tell him off because of her professional duties, and just because she is serving him tea and coffee does not make her his personal chattel. I told him that any woman who works in public space is not there for his unwanted advances. When he said that I am insulting him, I said, even more loudly, that yes, I am publicly humiliating him so that other women should also see how one should deal with a cretin like him and everyone on the plane should know what a miserable excuse of a human being he was.

At this point, his mother who was travelling with him but was sitting separately went up to him and asked him to be quiet. A senior citizen suggested that he should be handed over to the airport security. Most encouraging was the fact that no one including the man’s family stopped us from standing up for the flight attendant.

A few minutes later the senior flight attendant who was at the other end of the plane came up and asked him if he was harassing the junior flight attendant and told him off – that he may have bought a ticket but that does not give him license to misbehave with the staff.

When the flight landed in Karachi, it took a little bit longer than usual for the doors to open and for the passengers to disembark. We found out that the senior flight attendant had called the ground security staff who detained the harasser from getting off the plane. The senior flight attendant at the gate who was seeing the passengers off thanked me for standing up for the junior flight attendant.

My sister and I don’t know what happened to that guy after we left the aircraft but what I do know is that incident helped a lot of women.

All the flight attendants got to know that passengers barring one view them as individuals with right to dignity at work. The junior flight attendant drew strength from the incident and I am sure that if anything inappropriate will happen to her in future, she is now better equipped to deal with it.

Other women who witnessed the incident learned that keeping quiet is not the answer and when you raise your voice, things change.

My sister who has lead a very sheltered life, stood up for someone else. Not only she felt great about that afterwards and had a sense of accomplishment, but she understands me better and respects my need for this crusade.

That man, and others who witnessed the incident, will think twice before doing something like that because they know that someone might retaliate and tell them off.

All in all, one stood up and other sisters drew strength, lessons and understanding from it all.

Sisterhood is important and I dedicate this post to all who understand it and stand for it. Misogyny is best fought in company of the sisters who are fighting it out on their own turfs no matter what part of the world they live in.

PS: This is a rather long personal rant, apologies if you did not know what you were getting into before you started reading it.

Read more by Tazeen here or follow her on Twitter @tazeen

Tazeen Javed

Tazeen Javed

She has worked as a journalist, teacher, salesperson, activist, tour guide, election observer, fruit vendor, copy writer and television producer in the past. Tazeen blogs at tazeen.net/

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Samosa Freak

    Kudos for standing up for the flight attendant! I think it is high time that we stop ignoring harassment towards women and be vocal about it. Generally women ignore such incidents but it is important that men realize that they can’t get away with such behaviour.Recommend

  • Qurat ul ain

    Much appreciated step by you! A great example for many girls :) thumbs up!!Recommend

  • Amer

    This blog really warmed my heart. It’s good to know that there are still people who stand up for others. I live in the UAE, have travelled to Pakistan both on Pakistani airlines and on UAE based airlines. I have seen similar behaviour of some men on Pakistani airlines, as soon as they get on the plane, they want a glass of water. All they actually want is for the flight attendant to talk to them or for them to get a chance to harass a flight attendent. But I have never seen this behaviour from the same men on UAE based airlines and believe that the reason behind the change in behaviour is the consequences they could face.

    I am so glad that the senior flight attendent in your flight found the courage to report that man, this is a good leason for all of us who face such a situation. No one should keep quite if they see such behaviour from perverts. These perverts get away with one incident and then find the courage to do something that’s even more henious. Recommend

  • http://na deep

    I agree with you – and please feel free to comment on issues in India just as I feel free to comment on issues in Pakistan.

    I agree with you – the larger state of womenhood in the subcontinent is depressing – and I try to make a difference in my own small world by ensuring that my daughters are empowered to face a culture that seems to attack their self esteem at every opportunity.
    Kudos on the incident in the aircraft – gives me the courage to speak up if anything like this happens.Recommend

  • citizen

    kudos for this great piece ! Recommend

  • Nitish

    One who suggested you to focus more on rinkel kumari case was absolutely right?Leave Jyoti case to indians.Atleast 1 billion population is behind her.We know that the law is not going to change as easily as it seems.We r preparing for second round of agitation.As far as rinkel case is concerned,it also hurts us.But nothing is in our hand.Raise your voice and show some guts to stand for poor Hindu girls who r repeatedly raped and forcibly converted.Believe us madam,we will rejoice even more if any law is passed by pakistan’s assembly to protect Hindu girls.Leave hindu girl,can you fight for your own malala.What a shame that she is seeking asylum in UK and her own homeland betrayed to accept her.Its very easy to blog upon Hindus and india to bring about a change in the society.But I know that you people can only protest in the name of allah and prophet mohammad for a crappy trash movies.Madam I bet,law will definitely change to protect woman in india but same cannot be said about pakistan.Incident that happend with Jyoti was heartbreaking and we r crying at every moment.There is a deep deep dissatisfaction among us as a human being and that dissatisfaction and anger came as a protest nation wide.But if you really believe in sisterhood ,go and cry for those unfortunate hindu girls .Believe me madam,rinkel case and jyoti case is equally condemnable.Since jyoti is dead ,we can satisfy ourselves if justice will be done and strict law and stringent punishment will be implemented for further rape cases.That will be a tribute to her.Rinkel case will always haunt us.She is still alive bearing agony of an intolerant highly radicalize society.We have seen the horrible video of her trial and frankly i have no respect for pakistanis afterwards.For me ,one who cannot stand for their own nation and people r cowards.its foolish to see a protest for a guy who recently killed and no protest for malala,mukhtaran mai ,salman taseer etc etc..Recommend

  • Fatima

    Well done Tazeen! you are right, this incident will be an inspiration to many, who were present on the flight and those reading your blog. Things will not change unless women start to stand up for themselves. Our mothers and aunts have always told us to keep hush and guard our honor because girls who retaliate defy the docile stereotype they need to uphold in south asian society.

    Its time to make a change and put these sleazeballs in their place once and for all!Recommend

  • sars

    Because you spoke up , this man was shamed. If it makes him think twice next time( even if it is not for the act , but the repercussions) that is a good deed.Recommend

  • Insaan

    Author: I, too, lost my cool and told him in no uncertain term what kind of a creep he is, preying on a young girl who cannot tell him off because of her professional duties, and just because she is serving him tea and coffee does not make her his personal chattel.

    I am sure these things happen on planes quiet often (drunken men misbehaving) and flight attendants are trained to handle these kind of situations. Attendant could have told the man politely to behave or/and she could have informed her senior staff as she did.

    Amer has commented “I have seen similar behavior of some men on Pakistani airlines, as soon as they get on the plane, they want a glass of water. All they actually want is for the flight attendant to talk to them or for them to get a chance to harass a flight attendant.”

    Loosing control is not a good sign, could get you in trouble some times.

    I am a NRI and support your writing a blog about Delhi gang rape.

    I think most Pakistani journalists avoid writing about Balochistan and Rinkle Kumaris because most Pakistanis won’t like it and some journalists may even get threats and more.

    A few weeks back a 6 yr old Hindu girl was raped by sons of some powerful Pakistanis. Police refused to register a FIR. I came to know about that from a letter to the editor written by a Muslim expressing concern about the incidence in Dawn. At that time I tried to Google the News and did not find anything. Looks like media ignored that incidence. A few days later the incidence was reported in ET. Police registered a case after family and friends started protesting. Police later arrested an innocent man, beat him up and made him confess to the crime.

    May be you can update us on this incidenceRecommend

  • Asif

    Nicely written Tazeen. This core mentality of our men (and to an extent many women who are brain-washed by men) need to change.

    Unfortunately under the cover of ancient customs and wrong interpretation of religion, somehow the women get the blame for all the wrong doings of men. Be it even a rape.Recommend

  • Parvez

    Liked the subject and the story. Sisterhood is powerful stuff as this one off incident proves.
    Why does it not work on a larger, lets say country level, for the betterment of all, would be worth considering. Recommend

  • Huma

    @author… good blog and kudos for standing up to the creep!Recommend

  • gp65

    Agree with the general concept of speaking up against injustice when one can – as you did in the flight.

    It is also not uncommon for vested interests to try to discredit anyone who speaks up against injustice by bringing up 10 other things against which the person did not speak up. In India too when Anna Hazare movement against corruption was at its peak, government had its proxies question why Anna Hazare had not spoken against the caste system. Pretty sill logic that was.

    As an Indian myself, I found nothing objectionable in your post about the Delhi gangrape. I have however seen some posts in very poor taste gloating over a heinous rape. For example one person brought religion into it and stated that this is just what you can expect from pagan Hindus. Another one said that the Delhi gang rape justified the 2 nation theory because rapes do not happen in Pakistan. It is this type of mentality that then generates a backlash where people may have asked you to keep out of it.

    But if one speaks against injustice in a responsible manner (as you did), then there is no reason to limit it to one’s own country. SO please continue to comment – even if you see things in India that resonate with you.Recommend

  • Pro Bono Publico

    Miss Tazeen Javed,

    I am duly impressed and pleased on you & your elder-sister for adopting such an honest, strict and upstanding stance towards the incident. Its great knowing that you actually stood-up for the attendant having witnessed the entire scenario. While, i am afraid the society also consists of many who can be classified as the silent majority, who strictly constrict towards themselves knowing that their voice and their stance could actually bring about a better change not just in the society but even within themselves.

    Keep up the effort for surely this step of yours is a pure inspiration for not only the women but also the men folk – belonging to the silent majority.

    Thank-you for sharing! :)

    God-Bless.

    p.s: Are you the same Tazeen Javed from the op-ed for Tribune who recently contributed Gender & Television article?Recommend

  • Amer

    @Insaan: I don’t think you read my comment carefully.
    I never advocated loosing control, standing up against harrasment is not loosing control. I am glad that you are so interested in the news in Pakistan and your concerned about 6 yr old Hindu girl was raped by sons of some powerful Pakistanis is much appreciated. I am sure you have stood up for Indian religious minority groups when they have been attached by powerful Indians as well.
    I am a non resident Pakistani myself and think standing up for the weak in the society, asking for justice against the henious crimes committed is the best option we have in order to make our societies a better place for the future generations.Recommend

  • Sameer

    @Tazeen : Ignore the fringe group from India who want to Keep the Delhi incident in ‘India’ only. Of a billion people you will always find dissenting views.

    You and several other commentators know that safety , equality and respect for women is a universal wish – no one society has sole control or responsibility. Why waste time arguing with one other on what incidents to pursue. Why mess up the important point of ‘ganging’ up on male perpetrators of ‘stupid’ ‘evil’ things against women however small the incident. You have discovered a very good method of countering this menace.

    The only response to a bully is public castigation. If women in the sub-continent ‘train’ together , to gang up and shame in public a male bully who is harassing a women, this will for sure reduce the incidents of eve teasing and may be even more serious incidents of rape etc.

    If the ‘illiterate’ and ‘ill mannered’ male bullies know that they will face a counter punch every time they harass somebody. You will not only be supported by women around you but also by the ‘good’ males around you.

    If you stay weak and say nothing, this will continue for ever.Recommend

  • AQ

    @Pro Bono Publico

    Yeah, she is the same Tazeen Javed.
    She taught me two undergrad courses and was an all round inspiration to us.

    Ma’am,
    It was so nice to see U here. Just reminded me of all the fun times we had in your class. Recommend

  • Insaan

    @Amer: “I never advocated loosing control, standing up against harassment is not loosing control.”

    Actually my whole comment was directed towards the author. I just used your following statement to show that this behavior may be a common thing.

    Amer has commented “I have seen similar behavior of some men on Pakistani airlines, as soon as they get on the plane, they want a glass of water. All they actually want is for the flight attendant to talk to them or for them to get a chance to harass a flight attendant.”

    In my personal life, I know many Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, Jews. I treat every one as an equal and with respect. I don’t care about any religion, sect, caste when dealing with others. For me an Ahmadi is as good as any other Muslim. Actually I used to watch a Muslim TV show in US which talked about secularism and peace. I was impressed. Later on I came to know it was an Ahmadi TV show.

    Sorry for misunderstanding.Recommend

  • Nobody

    @Nitish:
    Taking one tidbit out of what you wrote…. laws changing in India (or Pakistan) will achieve nothing. PEOPLE need to change and that is a herculean feat and I admire people who fightfor that change knowing how challenging it is and how long it will take. Furthermore, why can’t people accept when someone is writing something positive or something that should be brought to people’s attention? I’ve seen Indians and Pakistani alike react in such a childish and unnecessarily defensive manner when someone from across the fence writes about a hot topic simply because it casts the country in a negative light. Maybe if both countries focus less on what other people’s opinion of their country is and more on what’s ACTUALLY happening things can finally start to change.

    @author:
    Kudos on standing up for that woman! I would’ve gladly done the same. No downside in shaming those who have little or no respect for those around them. I’m sick of women criticizing other women and it’s high time they start to support one another. Recommend

  • Nitish

    @Nobody: Change of law in india will bring a big difference….why?India has large number of ever growing middle class who r mostly law abiding.Most of the accused in delhi gang rape case r slum dwellers who only understand “lato ki Baat”.They will think 100s of time before committing such crime if tortured and punished properly in the same way…….There is no moral in doing rape yaar.Even criminals charged with murder having an iota of morality refrain from doing a rape.Ask them,even they will like to kick them out.
    About pakistan i dont want to comment.There is no comparison b/w situation in india and pakistan.Recommend

  • Nobody

    @Nitish:
    I stand by what I said, laws alone are not enough. They’re a START, but not enough. People must change. Culture must progress. And in a place like the subcontinent, that’s no easy task. People as a whole have not always caught up with laws overnight, and simply passing a bill making it a law doesn’t automatically change the general mentality.
    If a developed country like the US struggled with racism long after passing the civil rights act (because people had not caught up to the change that was written in words), I can only imagine how much longer it takes in some other parts of the world. India has a large middle class, but painting everything as rosy is a disservice to your women. The educated class in India may be larger percentage wise, but the officials who deal with enforcing laws are no less corrupt or uneducated. That’s where the progress hits the first of many obstacles. Recommend

  • kiwi

    that is absolutely true now that you have stood up for the flight attendant her, and the women around her have learned of an alternative and better way to deal with such a situation i.e. stand up for themselves and tell off creeps like that!
    kudos to your sister too for gathering courage for the first time I know how hard it is to do something which is not a part of our natureRecommend

  • Citizen

    Although the blame usually falls on the male gender, for the purporting of stereotypes and illogical traditions and values, there cannot be any greater emphasis on women playing a huge role. The cooperation and open-mindedness of women can do more to improve the nation than any man ever could.Recommend

  • Usman Hassan

    Why not brotherhood? Why didn’t a single man on board rise to take the culprit to task?Recommend