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How far have women progressed in their freedom march?

(Column in Khaleej Times dated 9 March, 2023)

It was Day 2 for me as a visitor at an international photography exhibition in Sharjah, and I was lingering in a young African photographer’s booth, marvelling at the depth of human storytelling in his pictures. As I began to converse with the lensman, an Emirati woman joined us and began to speak eloquently about photography and her desire to tour Africa. Turned out that she was Suaad Al Suwaidi, the first female Emirati wildlife photographer with an elaborate body of works behind her.

Given the fact that the number of women who take up wildlife photography are fewer in comparison to men, I was amazed and impressed that a woman in a hijab and abaya could be out in the wild, freely hunting for photo-ops of creatures and creating a niche for herself in the profession. I realised what a long-distance women, especially those in this region, have come in breaking the time-worn constructs about female prowess and how they are creating new templates for women in the workplace.

Looking around, I am acutely aware of the fact that a lot has changed from the time I wrote my first essay about women’s liberation way back in 1989. At that time, it was a movement in its infancy, which gained momentum with the growth of technology and media, and now stands at a point where women fearlessly lead power wars, capture citadels and topple the apple cart of male domination across occupational domains.

Yet, a couple of questions nag me every time I see a woman of content and courage making the headlines for her professional accomplishments. Have women really crossed the threshold and entered the other side of history? Is this what women really want: these larger-than-life contours to fit into and feel liberated?

I live in the UAE, which is highly reputed for women’s safety and a lot of importance is placed on upholding the dignity of women in the public space. But often, I wonder how many women in the world can proudly claim that her life and honour are safe on the streets and in the confines of home. In so many societies women are still considered infra dig and incapable. In so many countries are women subordinate to men, in some cases even subjected to outright slavery and dishonour!

While we have been busy celebrating the accomplishments of women in the mainstream arenas, millions of women continue to suffer atrocities that defy common justice. From being trafficked to being sexually abused within marriages, from being beaten in the name of spousal privilege to being denied basic rights — there are huge pockets in the world that harbour female stories of misery and manipulation. For every tale of redemption and victory that we gloat over, there are a dozen sob stories that remain unspoken. Somewhere in between the triumph of a few in setting glorious examples and the abject failure of many to break the shackles is the reality of women today. Aren’t we putting too much spotlight on the victories (hard-won doubtless)? Isn’t the flipside getting shrouded by the shadows they create?

We don’t need statistics from the UN or other stock-taking agencies to tell us the real story behind our open elation, although the numbers can ratify assumptions of continued assault on women’s virtues. We have had enough extolling, and it is time for us to ask the right questions. Are we women being allowed to live our lives without fear of being discarded, disregarded, and despised? Are we women equally given the freedom to exercise our choices about not just what will go into the cooking pot today, but also with regard to her own definition of a happy life? Do we enjoy the freedom to say ‘no’ when we want to and still gain the respect and love of the man we declined?

Until we have a satisfactory answer to the above questions, we cannot claim to be either free or equal to the rest of the world. Equality is not about being able to earn as much as men, or claiming spots in areas that were once male bastions. It is about a woman having the right to live happily and in peace, and to be given the space to build and realise her dreams without being castigated or questioned.

There is no doubt that women have ripped many a fence and walked boldly into the wilderness, but those are still in the minority. Until every woman in the world can openly proclaim that she has lived a life that she has always dreamed of, that she has not faced coercion or subjugation, that she has viewed the world through her own eyes and not through the prism of prejudice, that she does not feel stereotyped, that her body, mind and spirit aren’t beholden to anybody, the celebration of Women’s Day will be a tad short of achieving its ultimate purpose.

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