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Fatima Zaman
Ekaterina Iatcenko/

Gender equality: an exchange between young leaders

Over the past month, Extremely Together young leaders Hajer Sharief of Libya and Fatima Zaman of the United Kingdom have exchanged e-mails on life, work, family, and gender equality across borders. Now they open up their inboxes to share what they’ve learned.

From: Hajer Sharief
Sent: 08 August 2016
To: Fatima Zaman
Subject: gender equality

Hey Fatima,

I’m emailing you from where it feels like ‘the hottest place on earth’. As the temperature in Tripoli today reached 40 degrees, I’m writing these words while trying to ignore the small note appearing on the button right side of screen, notifying me that my laptop will die in 12 minutes unless I plug it in the charger (as if there’s a person on earth nowadays who doesn’t know this fact)!

However, my laptop doesn’t know – neither many people around the world – that the electricity in Tripoli has been cut for 9 hours today so my charger is not useful at the moment!  Which reminds me of so many other facts that the world seems not to have a clue about, for example that gender inequality is everywhere! Despite the fact that sometimes gender inequality seems to be linked with culture, religion, politics and the list goes on! But at the end the root causes are sort of the same!

Oh! You should hear my typing! It sounds like the footsteps of someone running a marathon with high-heals! No matter how fast you run, you know you won’t make it! And this applies on me now as I’m trying to write to you as much as I can before my laptop dies until a further notice…

From: Fatima Zaman
Sent: 11 August 2016
To: Hajer Sharief
Subject: Re: gender equality

Dear Hajer,

I feel guilty writing to you from a place where there is a constant flow of electricity and no fear of having it cut off. Equally I’m sitting in a room with fully functioning air conditioning, when its a measly 20 degrees outside. That pales in comparison to a 40 degree heat!

It’s weird how we are miles apart but are facing the same issues. Inequality unfortunately has become synonymous with gender and vice versa. There’s a common misconception that religion perpetuates gender inequality, but I agree with you that cultural practices and societies attitudes towards women in politics shapes a lot of what we think and how we perceive.

I was interested to read this piece in the BBC today about how Muslim women are some of this most disadvantaged women. That’s certainly not how I feel here in the UK.

From: Hajer Sharief
Sent: 15 August 2016
To: Fatima Zaman
Subject: Re: gender equality

Dear Fatima,

Sorry it took me some time to get back to you. It wasn’t because of the electricity, I got busy with my mom who just had a breast removal surgery after a long fight with chemotherapy after she was diagnosed with cancer (isn’t interesting that gender inequality exists even in sickness). Can you believe that 1 in 8 women are expected to develop invasive breast cancer during their life time while for men, it’s only 1 in 100!

Thanks for sharing the article, that was an interesting read which placed me in sort of a paradoxical situation – in one hand it is true that some Muslim families don’t allow and support the women in the family to work or be active, but also in the other hand there’s Muslim families who invest everything they have and can do to support the women in their families.

I really liked this line: “discrimination comes from the workplace, from employers, but also from within communities as well.” because sometimes what the community does is try finding reasons that they can point out. In this case, they’d refer to religion because it’s what distinguish Muslim women from other groups, whereas the community doesn’t know that this action in itself is discrimination.

What the community perhaps doesn’t know is that stereotypes about women coming from different backgrounds create discrimination; I know many Muslims families who prefer that women won’t work or be active not because they believe that women shouldn’t be allowed to contribute to public life, but they look at it more as a way to protect women from the discrimination within the society. Of course I’m not saying that this is a justification because those families should support women in the family despite any external obstacles. But If the community would understand their perspective without judging them by who they are, then perhaps a much easier solution can be found. What do you think?

Just noticed how much I wrote to you this time, as I wasn’t rush by my laptop buttery or the electricity cuts..

From: Fatima Zaman
Sent: 30 August 2016
To: Hajer Sharief
Subject: Re: gender equality

Dear Hajer,

Sorry for the delay in responding back to you. I’ve now been experiencing connectivity issues of my own also! How odd that in the 21st century of technology that we still face internet problems. Though, that being said – it is the 21st century and we still have gender inequality, so I guess I shouldn’t be surprised…

I’m sorry to hear about your mum, but I wish her a speedy recovery. She seems like an incredibly brave woman. Personally, I’ve always found my mum my greatest source of strength and inspiration also. She’s faced a lot of cultural patriarchy and so has instilled in me the values of striving hard, standing up for what’s just and right and quite possibly is solely responsible for my feminist views!

The irony here is that my mum is the type of person the article I sent you was stereotyping. I mean it could not be further away from the truth, my reality and upbringing. Muslim families and certainly Bangladeshi ones are so supportive, especially our mothers, being first generation and knowing first-hand the inequality that exists in society.

I don’t know about you, but sometimes don’t you feel like punching through that glass ceiling and smashing it to pieces? (in a non-violent way of course!) I completely second your point on discrimination and perceptions. I always get asked ‘why do you do what you do?’/’you’re such a sweet ‘girl’, why are you working in the field of CVE?’ Sometimes this is from men, but sometimes women ask me this too. It’s so important for me to do my work, not in spite of being a woman, but precisely because I AM a woman. Too often I’ve seen mainstream society marginalise women and play down gender inequality and it’s got to stop. Wouldn’t you agree?

Anyway, I’ve been battling long enough now with my internet which is still cutting out. Hopefully I’ll get it sorted soon, but first to tackle gender inequality!