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Women's way of shaping their realities

Par Edith sizoo


This special issue of Cultures and Development- Quid Pro Quo is dedicated to the outcome of a Network Cultures' book project entitled "'INTERTWINING : Women's Ways of Shaping Their Realities'. The aim of the book project was to make explicit the diversity and complexity of women's perceptions and reactions to their own life-worlds in their own words.

Fifteen women of various age-groups, from different cultural, religious, social and geographical backgrounds, were asked to write about the lives of their grandmother, their mother, themselves and their daughters (or, if this was impossible, other women of those generations close to the family).

Esperanza ABELLANA, Philippines: The act of breathing
Durre S. AHMED, Pakistan: Changing faces of tradition
Janaa AIRAKSINEN, Finlande: Giving and taking space
Ethel CROWLEY, Irlande: An Irish gender diary
Yvonne DEUTSCH, Israël: Belonging
Kamala GANESH, Inde: Etchings on a grain of rice
Shanti GEORGE, Inde: Women's work and 'fulfilment'
Christina GUALINGA, Equateur: Rowing against the stream
Amal KRIESHEH, Palestine: No isolation anymore
Nicole NOTE, Belgique: Subtlety in perception
Eliane PONTIGUARA, Brésil: Travelling in a stone
Dolores ROJAS, Mexique: Left to invent the future
Safia SAFWAT, Soudan: Advocating Islamic rights
Safiatu SINGHATEH, La Gambie: Breaking culture's chains
Edith SIZOO, Pays-Bas: Sweet and sour fruits

These life narratives served to prepare a Workshop at which the authors came together to share their perceptions of the currents and undercurrents of the narratives. According to the comments of those invited to take part, the main stimulus to participate in this rather demanding process was precisely to request to write this four-generations story. In their professional contexts none of these women had ever been asked to write about her own life or about the lives of her close family. The act of doing so had an influence, in different ways, on the relationships themselves. It compelled the participants to try to look at the mother's or grandmother's own perception of her life. It gave rise to discussions between grandmothers, mothers and daughters about their respective appreciation of their own and the other's life - discussions which, in some cases, had never taken place before.

The narratives span a great variety of contexts. They tell the stories of 54 women in Asia, Africa, Latin America and Europe, covering a period of more than a hundred years.

The insights gained from the analysis of the narratives strengthen the motivation for the theme in the sense that they illustrate the need for a much more nuanced and specific approach to women's perceptions and ways of shaping their realities. The narratives have a strong de-stereotyping effect. They move beyond traditional feminist concerns and North South divides. They highlight women's own implicit ways, in day-to-day dealings with their lives, of disregarding the dominant tendency to define realities in terms of dichotomies. These ways intertwine rather than separate seemingly opposite elements. The narratives reveal invisible similarities and visible differences. And they make one aware of misleading similiarities created by the use of dominant languages in intercultural relations.

The book itself will consist of three mains parts : an Introduction on the theme and the process which led to the book, the Life Narratives themselves and the Findings of the analysis of the stories. In this special issue of our journal, we would like to share with our readers the richness of the insights that emerged from this process. Hopefully this will stimulate the reader's appetite to read the life narratives in the book itself so as to discover for themselves other aspects.

For stories tell different things to different people ...


"The Workshop turned into a real-life meeting. Having come with pen and paper, I found myself unable to write down the very secret of reciprocity that in my view characterized our exchanges, the secret that true dialogue between people and cultures depends upon"

(a participant)

¨ Adding Stones to a Historical Path

Over the last few decades tremendous efforts have been made to reach a better understanding of the causes of women's problems in society and to set out strategies to solve them. For many women the rising awareness of worldwide `sisterhood' was a vital spark in their personal life, igniting consciousness of their own specific reality.

Slowly but surely women started to speak out, publicly and privately, wanting to be heard openly and to be listened to on their own - perhaps differing - terms. Although women's feelings about being a woman within their own societies were perhaps voiced most eloquently through feminist movements, less formally organized and less articulate women also had their own perceptions of themselves and their societies.

Feminist thinking and acting, outspoken as it was, may have created the impression of dealing with one universal problem of submission to patriarchal models of society, and of working on global, uniform strategies to empower women. However, a closer look at the emphases placed on the various aspects of the issue shows not only different waves in feminist thinking but also its inherent heterogenity. We cannot speak of one feminism, but of a variety of feminisms, each with its own angles and foci.

At different times and in different places, one finds varying degrees of emphasis on such issues as women's rights in society, emancipatory politics and life politics. Many feminists focus particularly on gender equality and equal access to decision-making, or on the `relations of ruling'. Others, especially those from the Southern hemisphere, feel that feminists should not be too preoccupied with sexuality. They challenge the hierarchies within the global feminist sphere and denounce western feminist writing as `colonial discourse' on `the third world woman', thus ignoring differences. At the same time there are many Northern feminisms which acknowledge or advocate plurality. Sometimes they go even further by challenging the whole category of `woman' as too fixed and too dichotomized, whilst life in fact is much more fluid. For some within this heterogeneous feminist movement explicit political action through a well-organized movement is the main focus. For others, it is not even on the agenda.

¨ Celebrating Differences

After the recent decades of worldwide discussion on `women's issues', we now seem to have entered a period of exploring the ways in which women respond to their immediate, and often very different, environments. The focus of attention is moving towards discovering the nature and the quality of differences and the characteristics of their meaning.

Similarities and differences are explored within the categories of woman and of man, the social construction of woman/man and the consequences of this for the dealings that each have with their environment. In this sense there is a shift towards defining and explaining differences in order to broaden our understanding of the contribution they can make. We could even speak of a move away from celebrating womanhood to celebrating differences in general, not just between women within the category of `woman'.

This tendency may bring feminist thinking closer to those - both women and men - who have been distanced in the past by a lack of subtlety and nuance; it may even bring it closer to feminists themselves. For even women who have been very active in women's movements recognize that in their own lives there are obvious differences between their own public stands on feminism or gender issues, on the one hand, and shifts or compromises which they make in their own lives as women, friends, lovers and mothers on the other. We may have hesitated to reveal the discrepancies between what we say, do and write, and what we live - but they do exist.

¨ A Parallel with the Development Idea

There is a parallel to be drawn here with the history of the idea of `development' and its practice. For decades `development' was defined in universal terms and thought of as a blueprint for the well-being of humankind. The `developed' sat gloriously at the top of the Rostowian ladder which was to be climbed by all human beings in order to attain `the good life'. `Development' was supposed to be desirable and applicable anywhere, at any time, for anyone. Unfortunately, however, this heroic ascension did considerable damage to nature, cultures and people en route.

The universalist and therefore reductionist approach in development thinking and practice ignored the historical and cultural diversity of the various local environments targetted as its `beneficiaries'. The many failures of large scale development programmes, however, have slowly awakened a certain awareness of the need for a more culture-sensitive approach to problem resolution.

The United Nations Decade for Cultural Development (1988-1997) which (significantly) followed the UN Decade for Women and Development and coïncided with the UN Conference in Rio de Janeiro on Environment and Development, bears witness to the inevitable recognition that `development' remains a myth as long as it is not tailored to fit Our Creative Diversity, the title given by the World Commission on Culture and Development, chaired by Pérez de Cuellar, to its final report.

Many development projects for women were initiated from outside by governmental or non-governmental agencies with a view to improving women's socio-economic situation. Experiences with these projects have made it more and more evident that women in different parts of the world, belonging to different cultural contexts, social classes and religions, may perceive their womanhood and their life (partly) differently, may act on that perception (partly) differently, and may even resist `integration' into a development model which does not respond to their own perception of their own aspirations. Key issues in such resistance are so-called `development' programmes which violate natural resources, as demonstrated by the Chipko movement in India, where women came out of the forests to embrace the trees which were to be destroyed by development bulldozers.

The trend towards further differentiation can be seen as characteristic of a new phase. Initially, the `women's issue' (like the `development issue') tended to be stated in universal terms: it was thought to be the only way to make the point sufficiently powerfully. Now that the general analysis has to be applied to specific micro-levels, it is the diversity of situations which becomes more apparent, and - perhaps even more importantly - the differences in perceptions and appreciations of these situations. It is an attempt to explore this latter phenomenon and its implications that has led to the production of this book. This exploration has been conducted in a spirit of trying to understand rather than to explain.


This book is first and foremost a collection of life narratives. Its compilation was preceded by a process at the centre of which was a concern about what women personally consider and appreciate as basic dimensions of their own lives, their sources of strength and the things that bring meaning to their lives. Rather than objectively addressing the socio-economic position of women in various cultural contexts, the book is concerned with women's own - subjective - perceptions of their environment and the forces which drive them in shaping their lives the way they do.

The process that finally resulted in this book brought together at a Workshop fifteen women who were prepared to look into their own realities, interwoven as they are with those of other people from the context to which they belong: fifteen individuals whose situations were different, but who had at least two things in common - being women and having the curiosity to enhance their awareness of how they themselves, and other women around the world, have been shaping and are being shaped by the realities in which they live.

The composition of the group was based on the criterion of achieving diversity in geographical, socio-economic, cultural, religious and professional background, as well as age. At this point, information on the candidates was restricted to their activities outside the family circle: next to nothing was known about their personal background.

It hardly needs to be stated that the group thus formed was not meant to be in any way representative of `women in the world', nor of women in their own country, class, age or creed - not even of their family. Expectations did not go beyond the supposition that each of the invited participants would have her own specific frame of reference from which reality is observed and analysed, as well as her own personal approach to the common exercise. For instance, a lawyer would probably approach reality in a different way than a housewife, a social activist, an anthropologist, a psychiatrist, or a linguist. Not only might her perception be different, but also her conclusions. The combination of a variety of cultural, religious and professional angles might lead to a more comprehensive light being shed on `the ways' of the women in the stories.

The encounter of the fifteen women at the Workshop was marked by a striking acceptance of this diversity among them. Their ways of writing and talking showed clear shades of difference between what has been called `print oriented' and `oral/aural' oriented modes of expression. There was a quiet willingness to listen seriously. Before the event, each of the participants had read the life narratives of the others: already familiar with these shared narratives, there was a strong sense that the mental distance between the participants had already been significantly reduced before the geographical distance was removed and the participants finally met at the Workshop. It was then not a matter of identifying with each other because all were women: rather, there was a feeling of being familiar with the unfamiliar, of being curious about the known.

Very little attempt was made to `dis-cutere' in the original sense of discoursing about something in order to arrive at the truth. Nor was there any urge to convince others of the validity of one's own position. Instead, the interaction between the participants could best be characterized by the meaning of the word dialogue: `dia-legein', to converse, to immerse oneself mentally in someone else's situation and allow a questioning of one's own position.

This mental disposition shaped the Workshop in an unconventional and ingenious way. Presentations emerged which had not been agreed on beforehand, and what was agreed in advance could be changed in a very free-flowing and productive way. A topic was deepened if the conversation so demanded and issues that had been put on the agenda but which did not naturally emerge, were simply left out. All of this made for a vivid and profound polylogue.

¨ The Life Narratives

In view of the motivation behind the project, it was felt that the working method underlying the polylogue should reflect the need to stress differences in perceptions and appreciations of realities. In addition to this, the interrelations which exist between these different perceptions and appreciations, and the ways in which women shape their realities in different places and at different times, were considered relevant and important. These two concerns gave rise to the choice of the life narrative as a `tool' for making explicit these differences and interrelations.

Women recording their own life histories or those of other women in order to understand more about their perceptions of realities, is by no means new. The history of novel writing shows abundant examples of women writing about themselves or about other women and their representations of life. The feminist movement has also stimulated an important renewed interest in oral history as a subject for research by, about and for women.

The life narrative is the translation of a perception of events. It is intuitively analytical. It presents causes and effects in a selective manner. It refers to facts, experiences and accounts of facts, and reveals the sense which these make to the narrator. It shows how narrators perceive and shape their own and others' identities, and how they are thus guided in their actions.

The narratives in this book mainly reveal the perceptions of the authors and, to a lesser extent, those of the women they write about. Some of the authors expressed more hesitation than others in terms of the moral dimension of selection and re-interpretation of events. Each found her own solution to this problem. Some discussed the text they wrote with the women concerned and/or with other family members. Some carefully selected the events they described and left out personal interpretations of them. Some gave only a minimum of personal information and insisted on the historical and socio-economic context. This diversity has been intentionally maintained, as it was felt to fit the objective of leaving a maximum amount of space for differences in perception of what has been significant in the lives of the women described.

However, these limitations with regard to the tension between narrative and historical truth do not interfere with the purpose of this book. In the course of subjecting highly personal and selective life narratives to an intercultural exchange of thoughts in an interactive process, some of the implicit motivations behind the great variety of choices made by the women in the stories became explicit. These discoveries in turn revealed, unintentionally, some further commonalities.

The intent reader will discover for her/himself nuances, subtleties, and the richness of differences in content, in events, in the ways of describing, in emphases, in questions raised and solutions found. So did the authors: their discoveries gave rise to different people being struck by different things, to currents and undercurrents sensed and identified. These were shared during the Workshop and it was decided to share them with the readers of this book as well.

The life narratives differ in terms of length, style and degree of personal information. There are distinct individual emphases, diverse experiences and different perceptions of them. Although some language editing has been done, no attempt has been made to mould the narratives into a standardized style and format. This choice was made consciously so as to remain true to the observation of one of the participants: `We met as multi-faceted individuals and not as uni-dimensional resource persons'.

¨ The Processing of the Narratives

The first round: the personal in a historical context

To start off the process, the participants were asked to write a first paper describing briefly - preferably on the basis of interviews - the lives of their grandmother, their mother, themselves and their daughters (or, in case this was not possible, the lives of other women of these four generations close to the family). This description was to focus in particular on:

This first round resulted in fifteen narratives grouping the stories of fifty-four women. They are situated in twenty-four countries and cover a period of over a hundred years. The Core Group responsible for monitoring the process came together and analysed the results of this first round. On the basis of this analysis a new set of questions was formulated for the second round. All papers of the first round were sent to all the participants with the new questions.

The second round: beyond the personal

All participants were asked to read the other fourteen narratives and to send comments or questions for clarification to the authors concerned. This correspondence proved to be a moment of discovery regarding the subjectivity of one's own perceptions: what had seemed self-evident to the author was not always so obvious to the reader.

In addition, the participants were asked to write a second paper. While building on the life stories, the authors were now asked to move from the descriptive to the analytical, from the personal to the collective, and make an effort to deepen the historical and the cultural aspects of their narratives.

Questions suggested for reflection in the second round of papers were:

The Workshop

The Workshop itself (held in Brussels, 12-16 October 1994) was envisaged as a distinctive stage and a further step in the thinking process. The products of the preparatory writings were not used as discussion papers for the Workshop, but as reference points.

The participants themselves set the agenda by suggesting the issues to be discussed during the Workshop. The agenda was focused but open - focused in the sense that it aimed at finding some tentative answers to the main concerns behind the initiative of the workshop, but open as to the choice of analytical frameworks used to help grasp the realities being described. This allowed for additional inputs from participants with regard to their experiences with `Women's Ways', and their analytical perspectives on women's problems in society. The result was the emergence of specific issues such as `the female body as target for religious and cultural identity', the participants' own attitude towards spirituality and institutionalized religion, and the pitfalls of the use of dominant languages. These issues were explored during the Workshop itself.

By way of follow-up, the participants decided to continue the process after the workshop by allowing time for improving their written contributions which then could be published together in a book.

¨ Postscript: The workshop as experienced from within

One of the participants, Shanti George, described her experience of participating in the project as follows:

"I have taken part in many projects and conferences, but the Network Cultures project on `Women's Ways of Shaping their Realities' has involved somewhat unconventional participation.

The first unusual feature was being selected to take part in the project on the basis of my familiarity with certain everyday realities, with contexts rather than with texts. (I am usually invited to join projects because I have written such-and-such or am familiar with particular literature.) The same applied to other members of the project's core group, so that discussing what we had lived was at least as important as debating what we had studied. This was a departure from what I am used to, namely the `professionalism' that stipulates that one keeps oneself out of the picture.

This emphasis on what is usually seen as `informal' (and outside the formal world of most study projects) carried over to the meetings of the core groups, where we met as multi-faceted individuals and not as uni-dimensional `resource persons'. Another unusual feature of these meetings was the very loose agenda for discussion, that was made even looser by what many would see as digression and meandering. At first I mentally gave up expecting that the main issues would be covered in the time available, but somehow they generally were (sometimes in a final inspired half hour of `Let's finish what we've come here to do') - so that eventually one came away satisfied, as well as relaxed from the meandering!

As with other participants, the idea of writing about my own experience seemed attractive, a bridge between context and text. After several years of social science training, I turned some of its searchlights onto myself instead of others. The process of writing about my own family eroded some barriers: it authenticated my professional training against the material most familiar to me, at the same time that it provoked wider and stronger interest among my family circle than any of my previous writings.

I was simultaneously `revealing' myself to the new circle of project participants. By reading their papers I became intimate with the lives of women I had mostly yet to meet - and so when we did meet, in some important ways we were no longer strangers. I did not know what they would look like or sound like, but I knew some significant things about them `under the skin'. This was in contrast to other projects and workshops, where personal details were never `up front'.

The project workshop was characterized by relatively free-flowing discussion rather than by structured discussion of papers. I found that I could test my perceptions and interpretations among a circle of experienced and interesting women, who - at the same time that they were fascinatingly diverse - shared some major concerns about women's lives. On the agenda were the sorts of things that at other workshops I had discussed briefly and often wryly with co-participant women, but only sometimes and then only in the interstices of the formal proceedings.

Very personally, I was encouraged to bring my seven month old baby along to the workshop, with my husband to look after her. He brought the baby to me to breastfeed at the sessions, once even when I was chairing the session. At that point, there was no other way in which I could have attended a workshop (and there were probably few other workshops that I could have attended in this way).

To summarize, this was one project and one workshop in which I participated as a person with many dimensions, and with both a personal life and a professional life that could be integrated in the project work. Of course, many projects and workshops by their very nature could not function like this.

The project's manner of studying `women's ways of shaping their realities' reflected what to many is the ideal-typical or stereotypical manner in which women have traditionally operated, usually described as informal rather than formal, spiralling rather than linear, elliptical rather than direct, expressive rather than instrumental, holistic rather than fragmented, and collective rather than individualistic. While I would not treat these qualities as representing some `essence' of the female, I would agree that they have tended to characterize women's ways in a wide range of cultures. Thus, the project achieved an unusual congruence between its subject matter and its procedures".


To try to present an analysis of the life narratives which comprise the second part of this book, is both challenging and full of pitfalls. The material is life material. It is like an ocean filled with rivers from different points of the compass, moving forwards and backwards with currents and undercurrents, merging into each other, difficult to grasp. Every effort to get hold of the currents, to pin down the waves, runs the risk of forcing the material into a pattern which reduces its fullness.

The attempt to nevertheless highlight some of these currents should be understood as a wish to share with the reader the richness of the insights that emerged from the polylogue. At the same time, it is hoped that readers will discover for themselves other currents and undercurrents. For stories tell different things to different people...

No attempt will be made to provide an exhaustive discussion of the multifacious themes running through the narratives. The following will focus only on a few major issues: some of these were distilled from the life stories themselves, others emerged from discussions during the Workshop which carried the participants beyond the narratives.

¨ A De-Stereotyping Effect

In the course of the polylogue, the presentation and analysis of the life narratives had a gradual de-stereotyping effect. For instance, the popular distinctions frequently attached to `North' and `South' (such as: rich/poor, assertive/subdued, modern/traditional, active/passive, etc.) appeared to make little sense with regard to women's perceptions of themselves and of their role in society. The descriptions of the women in these fifteen stories, in deprivileged as well as privileged situations, in countries of South and of North, serve to unravel stereotyped images of women. Although they do not manifest grandiose heroic self-images, neither do these women define themselves as typically passive, weak, oppressed, irrational and sacrificers as opposed to active, strong, powerful, rational, dominant. And there are, of course, a great range of characters, from the subtly strategic to the confrontational, from the inwardly pensive to the outspoken.

Even under conditions of physical abuse and fear for the life and existence of their communities, whether in the Southern or Northern hemisphere, hardly any of the women in the narratives describes herself as a victim. Without denying the presence of oppressive power structures, what these women saw as important were the forces that gave their life a meaning and a sense. There was a great diversity of what these stimuli and sources of energy might be. It became evident that one's `identity' is contextual and in that sense multiple. Women, just like men, change their priorities according to situations and moments of time.

The narratives reveal a blend of strength and vulnerability. The women in the stories often combine a feeling of not being fulfilled or stimulated to their full potential with a determination to fight for (and often achieve) what makes life worthwhile for themselves and for others. They often relate imposed `respons-ibilities' with a consciousness of their `ability-to-respond'. Their role of caring for others is a question of choice rather than compliance. However, many do have to contend with the fact that the task of caring for others is imposed upon them as if self-evidently - something which many do not appreciate.

Some of the individuals in the stories choose to function in the public sphere; women do not always shy away from leading positions which imply power. However, they are not willing to take on such roles at the cost of other things that contribute to their personal fulfilment. In contrast to the image created by some internationally-known women who have occupied powerful political positions, for many of the women in the stories the problem with `power' seems to lie in keeping the balance between `power over' and `power to', in an arena where the former is more frequently sought after.

Whereas some Southern feminists have reacted to a Western feminist discourse representing `the third world woman' as a category of human beings who passively accept oppression and victimization, the life narratives suggest that feminists worldwide could be blamed for comparable generalizations. By stressing so publicly and so insistently the subordination of women, feminists in both North and South have implicitly reinforced the distorted image of women as passive acceptors of this situation. Their often indiscriminate use of words like `empowerment' has contributed to that image. It implicitly suggests that women lack `power', thus veiling the fact that `power' is a multi-faceted phenomenon which may take many different forms and is exercised in many different ways. One example which challenged stereotyped images of the relation between women and power came from Safia Safwat's Egyptian-Sudanese family:

Safia Safwat was born of an Egyptian mother and a Sudanese father. Her grandmother on her father's side was the daughter of a very wealthy slave-trader. In spite of the fact that slavery was officially abolished in the Sudan in 1933, her grandmother's slaves stayed with her until she died, as they had nowhere else to go. The grandmother was a powerful woman who, as the head of her large extended family and as a rich patroness of men and women alike, was used to being in charge.

She had longed for a traditional bride for her eldest son as this would have enabled her to arrange a traditional marriage which involved elaborate, exotic preparations and endless feasting and exchange of gifts. Her son, however, wanted to marry a foreigner, an Egyptian girl. She never forgave him and took it out on her daughter-in-law: it was partly her constant complaints that ensured the ultimate failure of the marriage.

Safia's mother married Safia's father at the age of fifteen. In spite of resistance from her own mother and her mother-in-law, Safia's mother had a strong belief in education for girls and taught her sisters-in-law to read and write. After a painful divorce she chose to take up the education of her four children herself. In spite of the extreme wealth of her family-in-law, Safia's mother drew on her own social, emotional and financial resources to bring up her children. She stayed in the Sudan and took up dress-making. She managed to get her children through secondary school and university.

Safia did a PhD in law. She joined the Attorney General's Chambers as a legal counsel and was chosen to represent those Chambers at the prestigious national Law Commission, where she was the only woman. Her political activities earned her the wrath of the regime and she had to leave the Sudan for London. There she lives with her husband and two sons. She practices as a lawyer and teaches Islamic Law and Human Rights at the University of London, hoping that one day she will return to her homeland and be in a position to apply what she is teaching now.

¨ Similarities and Differences

Although the narratives posed challenges to assumed patterns of similarities and differences among women, such similarities and differences still remain. Apart from an emphasis on family life, one of the most striking parallels between the women in the narratives was the importance which they attributed to education, for both girls and boys, and to the personal urge - or even fight - for education for themselves.

The deeper and more intriguing similarities, however, were found in the underlying currents, in the forces which drove the women of the stories to shape their realities the way they did. Differences between them became manifest in the forms in which these driving forces were expressed in concrete, everyday reality.

Moving beyond Dichotomies

While participants in the polylogue discussed their difficulties in dealing with dominant ways of conceiving of reality, they discovered basic similarities in their own reactions to them and in those of the women of the stories.

It was felt strongly that in dominant ways of defining reality, phenomena which are composed of different interrelated elements are too readily dichotomized. This tendency leads to distorting pictures of reality being divided into, for instance, the psychic vs. the physical, rationality vs. intuition, scientific knowledge vs. popular wisdom, private vs. public, male vs. female, development vs. underdevelopment, and so on. These distorting dichotomies are often associated with a priori value judgements, one side of the dichotomy frequently being seen as superior to the other. Furthermore, dichotomies are all too often presented as consisting of opposing forces of which one has to give way to the other. The creation of these opposite categories is an act of separation, which results in the separated categories acquiring a status in themselves.

In fact, however, these categories are pure constructs and do not reflect reality. Opposites exist only in relation to each other and are apparent in differing degrees depending on the situation. They are interacting parts of the same whole, as symbolized by the Yin/Yang principle. They correlate and their boundaries are constantly moving.

An analysis of the narratives seems to suggest that many women in the stories (without saying so explicitly) do not necessarily agree with this tendency to value the one category more than the other, nor with the inclination to oppose the two in a potentially destructive manner. In concrete life situations, some women go even further, tending to relate the two `opposites' with each other in such a way that they become not only complementary but also mutually enriching. By so doing, they move beyond the dichotomization of reality.

The reluctance or even refusal to simplify reality by reducing it to mentally and practically more manageable proportions, may also explain why many of the women described in the life narratives are combining several purposes and drawing on different strategies at the same time. This way of acting on their perception of reality may be seen as a sign of `confusion', but can also be interpreted as `fusion' of the many facets of life. The following examples may illustrate this observation.

Interweaving attachment and detachment

Kamala Ganesh, born and living in India, describes the way in which her husband's grandmother (1906-1969) discovered her special gifts to assist people who were in search of physical relieve and spiritual growth. She became a guru and started her own ashram. Contrary to the practice of male gurus, the members of her own family also lived there. She fused her roles as mother who creates and nurtures a home and as guru for whom the entire world is a home, dissolving the boundaries between home and world and yet maintaining a distinction, interweaving detachment with attachment. She was able to reach out to the public and also plumb deep into her own inner self.

The stories about women in situations of severe material poverty and exploitation, or psychological oppression, show intriguing similarities of response. In spite of physical suffering and the threatened annihilation of one's feeling of being a person in one's own right, many women in the stories are witness to remarkable efforts to resist this erosion of the self. Relief is often sought in relating the personal identity to a shared group identity; in entering into a close relationship with non-human manifestations of life, such as Nature; or in symbolic signs of one's dignity as a human being. Striking descriptions of responses to this identity problem were given by Esperanza Abellana from the Philippines and Nicole Note from Belgium.

Keeping the balance between personal and shared identity

The Filipina women described by Esperanza are not exceptional: the lives of many poor women are stories of physical and mental hardships. Women taking up the hard task of responsibility for the family end up by not being able to separate their own identity from it. They are so used to denying themselves that they seem to have become a non-entity. Nevertheless it is not unusual for them to become active members or leaders of community organizations. The woman's feeling of `wholeness' seems to lie in the extent to which she can keep a balance between her personal and shared identity by putting the personal in a wider perspective, connecting personal needs with collective interests, identifying herself with both and experiencing them as intertwining.

Relating the self to nature

Maria, although born in Flanders, spent her early youth in a village set up for Belgian soldiers stationed in Germany. After this carefree period, she returned to Belgium where the restrictions of an urban environment and a rather rigid catholic education curtailed her sense of wholeness, joy and freedom. She started to perceive her reality and herself in a negative way and developed an inferiority complex. She reports that her relationship with nature, experienced in deep silence and loneliness, has helped her throughout her life to gain the strength to continue:

Sitting in the grass at noontime, with only the sound of the larks, the heavy heat embra-cing her, the warm smell of the earth surrounding her - then she felt her batteries recharging. She had expe-rienced the same feeling of harmony at her godmother's farm. There she would spend hours on her hands and knees, searching for fresh potatoes in the dry earth, the sun shining down on her back. Being one with nature gave her strength, fulfilment and purpose. It made her com-plete.

These experiences had, and still have, a determining influence on Maria's perceptions of life, the education of her children and her priorities for society.

Stories told by Eliane Pontiguara from Brazil and Kamala Ganesh from India illustrate the way in which women in situations of extreme deprivation respond by first taking care of the immediately useful, while at the same time connecting it to the symbolic with a view to safeguarding their dignity.

Poverty and the use of limited resources as symbols of dignity

Eliane is a daughter of the Indigenous Nation of Pontiguara, inhabitants of land in what has been called Brazil since the arrival of the colonizers. Now the Indigenous Nation of Pontiguara does not have land, nor a State, and even their language was lost in the course of colonization and modernization. Still, the people of Pontiguara feel that they belong. Eliane describes how their belonging is expressed through the simple dishes they prepare, symbolizing the dignity of their people: Mandioca is a basic food for the indigenous people of Brazil. It unifies them. It is dignity. Dignity is built step by step. It must be watered everyday, just like mandioca.

Anjana lives in the slums of Bombay. She works as a part-time domestic help. She has two young children. During the Hindu-Muslim clashes in Bombay in 1992, her hut was burnt and she lost all her belongings. She came to Kamala's house and told her what had happened. When Kamala asked what she could do for her, what she needed most urgently, Anjana answered: `an iron'. Why an iron? Was there nothing more urgent than that? No. She wanted to wash and iron the few saris she had left, since otherwise the crumpled sari would expose her legs, thus impinging on her sense of dignity.

These three types of responses seem to correspond with the ways in which many women throughout the ages have shaped their realities: using limited resources as symbols of dignity, sharing their personal fulfilment in life with the collective interest of the family, finding sense in caring for the offspring of humankind and sensing the overarching wholeness of nature. Often, these responses may also reflect a survival mechanism: the void left by the erosion of one's individual identity is filled by living through others and/or through different manifestations of life, as in nature. As is sometimes evident in times of major crisis, it may be because of the small, immediate necessities and concerns that people survive. In this sense responses to conditions of oppression, non-recognition, physical and mental marginalization show similarities.

The life narratives of this book also provide ample examples of ways in which women integrate rather than separate `tradition' and `modernity' in their ways of life.

Integrating tradition into modernity

Durre-Sameen Ahmed was born and raised in a deeply religious Muslim family in Pakistan. Today, she and her two children still live in an extended family set-up of four generations. In her youth, she learned to ride a horse, shoot with a rifle, and play the piano. She was unhappy at her convent school, which was run by French nuns, but says that the misery of school was compensated for by an atmosphere at home which placed great emphasis on what was considered the best of western culture: music, literature, thinkers and a general reverence for science and knowledge. Although her parents also tried to inculcate in her a familiarity with eastern culture, this was largely overshadowed by a genuine respect for the West. Durre studied in Pakistan, Europe and the USA and became a psychologist. As she approached her forties, she began to realize, mainly through her practice as a psychologist, that many `modern' ideas of knowledge were in headlong collision with the spiritual side of humans. It was a knowledge which asserted that `God is dead' and which viewed human nature in extremes of black and white. She began to realize the extent of this dichotomy as it existed not only in modern psychology, but in her own social and intellectual relationships as well. Thanks largely to her mother's extensive knowledge of spirituality as related to indigenous/Islamic conceptions of health and healing, Durre managed to retain both her faith and the considerable intellectual discipline which she had gained in Western universities.

Coming to terms with a desire for both professional career and motherhood appeared to be a matter of concern for most of the women in the stories who were aged between eighteen and fifty.

Fulfilment in profession and/or family?

In Shanti George's family, embedded in the historical and cultural context of the Syrian Christian community in the Indian State of Kerala, female professionalism (medicine and sciences) has been part of the tradition since her grandmother's youth. Shanti's mother, a medical doctor, chose to combine professional and domestic tasks. She sees `compromises' between her work as a medical doctor and her family as `trade-offs' that have enabled her to combine professional as well as domestic fulfilment.

Shanti herself, at the age of thirty-two, was appointed a reader in social anthropology and sociology. She resigned from this position in order to marry and move abroad. She has had a series of varied assignments, but no longer a tenured academic position. Now that she has new commitments of parenthood and has decided not to take up employment outside the home for the first part of her daughter's life, it may be that she will never have such a position again. Shanti says that she does not see the situation in either/or terms: although she would not agree that her life choices represent a step backward from some feminist agenda, neither does she try to present them as a step forward. She prefers to see this period of her life as a step sideways, enabling her to explore new choices and combinations in addition to familiar ones, and to move away from notions of `forward' and `backward' on some sort of linear scale where `forward' often connotes individual achievement through competitiveness.

Janaa Airaksinen (Finland) is combining a professional career and a young family. She sees the concepts of `private' and `public' getting new meanings and being re-defined. If we see the world and us in it living in interactive, mutual relations, many concepts become more versatile and have more layers to their content. For example, an autonomous person can be defined as someone who is not afraid of losing her/himself into others and is therefore able to loosen the boundaries and melt into other beings, rather than as a person not making connections.

Moving beyond boundaries, relating personal interests with collective needs, making choices, trying to keep the balance, should not be understood as a way to be constantly in harmony with oneself and one's surroundings or an effort to avoid risks and conflicts at any price. The life narratives provide many examples of courageous, often painful acts of breaking away from expected behaviour. These disconnecting acts, however, often result in reconnecting in other ways: with oneself in terms of one's self-confidence, priorities, spirituality, and even with one's supposed enemies.

Gaining self-confidence by steadfastly facing conflict and pain, is the thread running through the stories provided (among others) by Amal Kriesheh from Palestine and Yvonne Deutsch from Israel.

Breaking and relating

Amal's grandmother (1887-1987) lived in the North of the West Bank in Palestine. She was married to her cousin at the age of sixteen. Her husband died young during the popular uprising against the English mandate. She herself was illiterate, but sent her sons to the city to study. When her second son graduated from the University of Damascus, she went to visit him, something no woman in her village had ever done. The political activities of another son gave her a further reason to stand out: it gave her the self-confidence to talk about politics. Her independence generated hatred between her and her daughter's husband as well as with other women in the village, because she was an unusual woman who had achieved things that others did not.

Her daughter Nabiba (`the clever one') was not allowed to go to school and was married to a close relative at the age of eighteen. When her husband decided to build a house in the village and charged his wife with the supervision of the construction, she came into conflict with her mother and father. But her self-confidence grew and she discussed public affairs in front of men. When she decided to go on a literacy course, this brought her into serious conflict with her husband and her social circle.

Amal's mother (Nabiba) freed her from wearing the head cover. Grandfather, father and brothers were furious, but she persisted. Amal found much self-realization through school, extra-curricular activities and in particular through theatre. She scandalized her family by participating secretly in a TV play. When her father refused her request to go to University, she went on hungerstrike... and won. At university in Jordan, she had her first love affair, which ended when she became involved in the women's movements in the Palestinian refugee camps and could not devote her life entirely to her boyfriend. She became politically active, led an uprising in which 5000 students participated and joined the Trade Union. She started organizing working women's committees. Then she discovered that the political parties were only interested in the working women to increase their own power and not to enhance equality among men and women. Her decision to marry the man she loved caused another battle with her parents.

Yvonne Deutsch, a Jewish Israeli woman, became directly involved in the women's movement in Israel which opposes the military culture. It was the Intifada that brought about active opposition against the Israeli occupation of Palestine territories. Every Friday, Women in Black stood at different busy public sites in the big cities of Israel and engaged in silent protest by holding up a cardboard hand saying `end the occupation'. The colour black stood for mourning. It was felt that the Jewish people belonging to the Zionist State of Israel had failed to synthesize their own experience of loss, destruction and extermination. The Women in Black consider this failure dangerous because it prevents the soul from healing the fears and traumas of the past. They see the use of military force as a destructive form of compensation.

This act of female protest gave rise to strong negative reactions from within the Israëli society, including from Israëli women. But it intensified some women's awareness of the necessity of establishing a female political culture of peace based on women's life experiences as an alternative to militaristic values including war, oppression, exploitation, violence and rape. This political, as well as feminine, claim also brought the Women in Black into direct contact with some Palestinian women who - contrary to many Israëlis - understood the message. Yvonne now feels that she lives in a cultural vacuum: as an adult she rejected the political culture of Zionist Israel and now wants to be integrated into the culture of the Middle East. She is seeking a Middle Eastern women's culture. She wants to belong, somehow.

The youngest women in the narratives are starting to pursue professional experience; they are in the midst of trying to find out how to get their priorities right. Whilst to their mothers it seemed obvious that more freedom and more choices would make for more happiness, this freedom - which the younger women also want - has proven a complex and ambiguous acquisition. The problem seems to shift from integrating tradition and modernity, from obtaining more freedom, towards retaining a feeling of `wholeness' in a world of more choice.

The challenge of choices: moving beyond dichotomized alternatives

Dolores Rojas, thirty-two, relates how she broke away, time and again, from the usual scheme of a young middle class woman in Mexico City, supposed to grow up in the parents' house, go to school, perhaps aspire to higher education, to marry, settle and have children. But what if you don't follow this scheme? It starts with a conflict between father and daughter. You decide to leave the house while still in school. You remember your father's final phrase which still hurts: `if there is a rotten apple, it is better to get rid of it before the rest go bad'.

You fall in love, you marry, you get work as an engineer, in the evenings you rehearse for a theatre play, you realize that there are more things that are important like human rights, politics... You want to involve your husband in all this. Mission impossible. `Don't you think we should start a family, you could stay home and look after them'. You think about it. You don't want to be shut up at home. Why should you leave work and your own interests? You don't want to keep quiet about what you think... You are forced to conclude: I don't want to be with him anymore. You are surprised at how you are used to blaming yourself, at feeling anxious when you start to do what you want and what you think is right.

You are overcome by fear. You feel strange as if you have suddenly shaken off a heavy weight and you feel as if you could fly...

Solange, thirty-one, (Netherlands) stresses that it is the multiplicity of insecurities which, for the moment, keep her from having children: job insecurity, relationship insecurity, and insecurity about the future for new generations.

Her sister Manon, twenty-nine, sees the issue rather as a matter of making clear choices and setting one's priorities. And this is something, she feels, that young women of today hesitate to do: they are ambivalent. They make half-choices and then they accuse the men of exploiting them. In fact they are unhappy that their ambivalence does not allow them to flourish fully in both ways. One has to make clear choices and then find a form of living in accordance with those choices.

Eman Ahmed, twenty-five, (Pakistan) says that until a couple of years ago, getting married was top of her list of priorities. But now she wants to make something of herself before devoting herself to a husband and children. She wants to establish herself as a person and not only as a woman. She wants to be able to support herself if necessary. Once she is married, however, she feels that she will have no qualms about being dependent, emotionally or financially, on her husband.

Itisal, twenty-three, (Palestine) studied business and administration. She now works in Jerusalem and from the very beginning she has demanded her rights according to the Labour Law. She has taken part in a course to support raped women and victims of sexual harassment. At the moment, she feels that males cannot be trusted: she is disgusted by the fact that men look at her as a body only. Nevertheless she has male friends and many male penpals from other countries, and has taken part in meetings in England between youngsters from Palestine and Israel.

¨ The Female Body: Marvel and Battleground

A close look at the life narratives shows that the women described are not confronted with the same kind of social pressures in all places and at all times. Yet, there is at least one striking field of tensions which all women have to deal with: responses to the female body from the social surroundings. The woman's body has long been seen as a marvel, admired for its aesthetic value: one has only to walk the corridor of any art gallery to see that the female form is and always has been considered an object of beauty. Yet because of the way certain reactions to it have been institutionalized and sanctioned by religious institutions, cultural practices, political powers and commercial needs, the female body has become a battleground for cultural and religious identity as well as for economic competition.

Examples from the narratives were complemented by other examples emerging during the discussions at the Workshop. They highlight three aspects of this field of tension: male control over the female body; the imposition of patriarchal and commercial perspectives on the female body; and the complicity of religions in targetting the female body for power purposes.

Male control over the female body

Symbolic ju-jitsu

¨ The Challenge of Institutionalized Religion

Even if, in the same period of time and in many parts of the world, women are struggling on similar frontiers, they may respond differently. This is partly because the tensions, although similar, are not identical; but other factors also play a role, such as differences in the history of generations and, of course, individual personalities. Even responses to similar challenges may differ.

Within the narratives, the most striking example of this appears to be in the responses to institutionalized religion. In almost all the life-stories `religion' is present. In the grandmothers' and mothers' generations there is little open or rebellious questioning of the religious institution as the container of a belief system. The stories also report that the majority of people active in Hindu religious life and in Christian churches are usually women.

The women present at the Workshop, however, expressed many reservations about institutionalized religion. Some had rejected `religion' altogether, others are still adherents but question certain manifestations of the religion they belong to. Most of them were open to, or explicitly searching for, spirituality as an existential need. The daughters' generation in the stories hardly mentioned religion; this is not an issue that profoundly preoccupies them.

The basic question in this domain of challenges can perhaps be summed up in the formulation of Durre S. Ahmed from Pakistan: "how to reclaim or sustain, discover or re-discover a spiritual life when `the religion' is being made repellent all around? In other words: would it be right to think that institutionalized `religion is a defense against religious experience', as Jung suggested?"

Durre is of the opinion that the choices facing women in the future will be dominated by two issues: the environment and religion. In her understanding the rise in Islamic fundamentalism in Pakistan is a quest for power by certain groups and perhaps more of a reaction to corrupt and inefficient government than anything else. Islamizing the society means laws and restrictions which are horrific for women. Durre feels that the secularist Pakistani intelligentsia, claiming to be `progressive', often have much in common with `fundamentalists'. Their set ideas about societal issues like `modernity', `progress', and `development' is just as dogmatic as the rejection by their fundamentalist brothers of the same. It is, in her opinion, partly because this left `modern' intelligentsia fail to take seriously the legitimacy of the questions addressed by institutionalized religion, that Islamic (and any other kind of religious) fundamentalism gets a chance.

Western science and systems of knowledge have - in recent decades - given women a voice, but they do not allow space for religion. Durre argues that the `modern', `rational' man is as unable to deal with complexity and ambivalence as the religious fundamentalist.

Durre feels that secularism is not the answer, that religious fundamentalism can only be combated with good religious arguments from within the religion concerned. All sorts of fundamentalist readings exclude the notion of the feminine. The Koran, however, does not refer to the male as the first human. Eve is not mentioned by name. She is not born out of Adam's rib and is certainly not the temptress responsible for the Fall. In fact it is Adam who was responsible. In its original meanings Islam liberated women long before Europe. Durre is convinced that it is women - because they are the ones most under threat of fundamentalism - who have to work internationally on a re-visioning of Islam (and any other kind of fundamentalist religion). This is necessary because Islam is not confined to one particular geographical area like Hinduism, but is becoming a worldwide power.

Re-visioning Islam will mean a dual problem for Muslim women: they will not only be besieged from within Islam by mullahs and their political allies, but also from outside it, by their own `progressive', secular and Christian friends, women and men alike. There is a need to search together for a female spirituality. In Durre's experience women in the West are yearning for a spirituality which is not prone to a body-mind split.

She recalls that the heart and core of all religious traditions, arrived at after deep contemplation of reality and grounded firmly in the spiritual, point to a certain feminizing of one's inner self in terms of an attitude of receptivity. This is where female/male differences become important, especially as reflected in the metaphors of the body, for example, in the notion of interiority as exemplified by the female.

For Kamala Ganesh (India), religion is not easily definable. While she sees herself as a Hindu in some respects, advocating such positive aspects as philosophy, spirituality and a sense of anchorage, she dissociates herself from other aspects: caste, inequalities, obscurantism, susperstitions and orthodoxy. The typical secular, liberal, marxist development discourse emphasizes poverty and regards religion as irrelevant, embarrassing or dangerous. For most people in India, however, peaceful religious co-existence is both norm and need. Kamala's efforts at grappling with religious pressures from the family have not led to a total rejection. However, she feels that many Hindu texts are male-oriented and enhance the profound misconceptions of women's inferiority. They may have some emancipatory aspects but one cannot bend them too much to suit one's inclinations. Why keep trying to re-interpret `the books'? On the other hand, in the Indian sub-continent, there have been female-centred traditions running in parallel. To Kamala it makes more sense to look for a selective re-appropriation of religious values and practice.

Eliane (Pontiguara Nation, Brazil) says that, to her, oppressing forces are found in dominant philosophies, religious dogmas and unagreed ideas, the opportunistic and the cruel. She draws her spiritual force from the dialogue with the ancestors and with some indigenous leaders (although certainly not all), and from the dignity she received through her mother and grandmother.

Edith Sizoo (Netherlands) writes that the protestant expression of the Christian faith did not induce a spiritual experience in her. The services were centred around cerebral explanations of bible texts. The head was hardly connected to the body, the heart and nature. She did not find what she was looking for: an expression of the deeper mystery of Life, the kind of spirituality that transcends the limitations of the rational and the cerebral, something that makes one experience one's connectedness with the wholeness of the mystery of the Creation. Religion should create space for people to experience and express that connectedness from within.

She feels that there is a need to explore with women from different cultural (including religious and secular) backgrounds what spirituality means to them and whether one can speak of female spirituality. Women should go beyond complaining about the power devices of male dominated religious institutions and address the heart of the matter.

In contrast, Safiatu Singhateh (Gambia) speaks of the positive effects of Christian ethics with regard to respect for the integrity of the person. In her experience it is thanks to the presence of the Christian church that women could be educated and that certain cultural practices which were detrimental to women were (partially) abolished. Her narrative shows, for instance, that women are not in favour of polygamy; and although Christian men are not monogamous, the church does at least question the behaviour of unfaithful men.

Esperanza Abellana observes that in the Philippines the Catholic church reinforces the non-identity of the woman in the family by emphasizing her subordinate role in relation to her husband. In spite of this, many more women than men attend religious services. She wonders whether the women's religiosity is based on their need to implore for added strength and to ally themselves with whoever they believe is the source of power. One of the most heavily attended church activities is the novena to the Mother of Perpetual Help held every Wednesday. This demonstrates a kind of spirituality that closely interrelates the physical with the spiritual. Do women manifest a world-view that seeks to integrate rather than separate? To what extent is their religiosity a sign of powerlessness and fatalism, or an act of empowerment and strength? A cultural understanding and perception of the women's concept of power would help to shed light on this behaviour.

Esperanza tends to think that religious practice is a woman's way of being `attuned' with `forces' bigger than herself. This comes from a realization (or perhaps a basic intuition) that she exists as part of a bigger world - hence her connectedness and relational character, which is affirmed and expressed through her religiosity.

It seems that the common element in all these reactions is in the realm of connections. The women here have a problem with tendencies in religious institutions which lead to separation rather than connection: separation between the institutions, conflicts over interpretations of `the books' of the religion concerned, dis-connections between the mind, the heart and the body. What they are looking for is a spirituality which unites rather than divides. The responses to this common search, however, were not and are not likely to be the same. Fortunately. Because the diversity of responses is bound to be mutually enriching as long as it is seen as a search for experiencing the wonder that is Life.

¨ Misleading Similarities: What's in a Word?

The Pitfalls of Using a Dominant Language

Re-discovering the obvious becomes exciting when it proves to be more relevant than one originally thought. Everyone knows that languages are different but that they can be translated into each other. One may also be aware of the limited extent to which a translated word covers the field of associations of the original word. This common knowledge is, however, often not felt to be particularly relevant until one tries to communicate through a foreign language.

The language of communication in the life narratives and during the workshop itself was English. However, English happened to be the mother tongue of only one of the fifteen women who participated - and an Irish woman at that, who could claim that English is an imposed language and that her roots are Gaelic.

Because of the necessity of communicating in a `common' language, the participants almost fell into the trap of reducing their findings to what the common language partially conveyed about ideas more fully expressed in the mother languages. The first warning signal came from the write-up of the stories. These revealed, for instance, that the questions on `personal integrity' and `wholeness', as formulated in the guidelines for the narratives, did not work. These concepts were simply left aside and, instead, a series of other, more dynamic, notions emerged expressing something one can strive for, something that provides sense and a certain personal fulfilment to one's life.

A second signal came during the workshop, when the participants tried to distill from the stories what the forces were that drove the women concerned in shaping their realities. When trying to find English words for them, the participants discovered that the fields of association of these words, although partially overlapping, were not the same in their own mother tongues.

The truth of this became crystal clear when some of the participants, during the discussion on the meaning of these words, declared that in fact the women in their stories had used words or concepts which could not be translated into English at all. At the request of the group they explained what these untranslatable words meant.

There was great value in elaborating on the content of these and other notions. On the one hand it highlighted in a concrete way the great extent to which one is indeed prisoner of one's own language; and even more so of a chosen means of communication in international relations, in this case the English language. On the other hand it demonstrated that a conscious attempt to cross the boundaries of that prison, does indeed open the window to complementary perspectives on life.

Examining the question `what's in a word' also underlines the fact that this type of exploration can bring to the fore a great variety of motivating factors, as well as their actual consequences for women's behaviour in dealing with their every-day realities. A much more systematic effort to develop this method may provide precious basic material for culture- sensitive approaches to supporting women in various parts of the world, particularly within the framework of development policies and practices.


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