WOMEN

DECONSTRUCTING WOMEN AND POWER

I heard Patti Digh say once that we give up our power to the very people who took it away from us in the first place. Who has the authority to grant permission? That depends on your culture and your perception of who's in charge. Mostly in the West, when it comes to kids, parent(s) or the legal guardian has that power and right to justly care, manage and supervise another person in a fair and humane way, where rights are pretty much protected. Yet, in some Eastern cultures where men are traditionally in positions of power and authority have this right, not only over children but also over adult women. I don't believe this is an equitable distribution of power, nor is it a helpful attitude in developing nations where many factors already put women and children at a disadvantage.

Never Judge a Book by Its Cover. Yes, I was born into an Eastern family, but culturally I was raised American, with a values orientation that points West. It's a mindset that favors free will, openness, practicality, self-reliance, directness and healthy competition. No one, I repeat, no one, has the authority to lord over me and treat me like their property. I am not chattel. No one owns me. Not my father. Not my dear husband and certainly not my brothers. I may look "Arab" but that's just skin color and facial features, but that's the "evident culture" that sits above the water line. Deep below, you will find my true colors are "all-American," and that's where the hidden dimensions of culture lie. This is what makes me tick. While we are a composite of personality, country of origin and ethnicity, in a flat world, we don't realize that it's what you can't see: our values, attitudes, perceptions, deep cultural tendencies and expectations -- that are not only taken for granted, they are hugely misunderstood and at the root of misconceptions, bias, and outright conflict.

In Pakistan, although women's rights are largely defined (and derived) by religious and tribal customs, I think tribal customs or traditional practices are to blame for women's inequality. It's no secret according to the actual Islamic principles, not the ones interpreted by power-hungry men, that women have equal rights, but we will never be able to take advantage of those rights unless they are enforced social, politically and economically from the top down. What's behind this power is the notion of the notion of namus (face/honor) is the single most important underlying factor driving their national behavior. It's central to understanding what makes these men tick. They don't want to risk making a bad choice, or looking bad, or being ridiculed for an unmanageable wife and family publicly.

Baby, You Can Drive My Car (and Other Drivers)

Girls are raised according to these dimensions of culture with the expectation of a life that can seem like nothing more than a series of compromises. Yet, like many women around the world, while I'm personally comfortable with assuming the role of family caregiver, I also presume the rights and responsibilities that come with this position: Namely, the right to a just and humane existence along with personal sovereignty and dignity. Being a wife and mother should not be mutually exclusive of human rights.

The roots of this power play between men and women in Pakistan, especially in rural areas, goes back centuries. Women continue to be segregated from men (as in many Eastern cultures). They live in purdah, which means "curtain" in Urdu -- completely separate from men. The only contact they have with men is with members of the immediate family. In these areas, everyday tasks which involve leaving the house, like shopping, are carried out by men. Women's work involves staying behind to clean, cook and raise children. However, many Pakistani women go out to work these days and are increasingly experiencing more levels of equality with men. Life varies dramatically between regions of Pakistan. A more liberal middle class plays an important role in the big cities, where conditions differ greatly from those in rural areas, which are far more traditional. The area in the northwest, bordering Afghanistan, dominated by tribal customs, is extremely conservative and very traditional with a self-styled strict adherence to Islam favored by the Taliban.

In the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, although women were previously forbidden from voting or being elected to political office, King Abdullah declared that women will be able to vote and run in the local elections and be appointed to the Consultative Assembly come 2015. Yet, the most recent act of rebellion came by car. Manal al-Sharif, a women's rights activist from Saudi Arabia helped start a women's right to drive campaign in 2011 because Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world that prohibits women from driving. Enabling mobility can only empower women who make up nearly 20 percent of the country's workforce. The World Economic Forum 2009 Global Gender Gap Report ranked Saudi Arabia 130th out of 134 countries for gender parity. It was the only country to score a zero in the category of political empowerment.

The ongoing battle of the sexes is being played out in different stages in different cultures. Each one is working through deeply held-notions of who is in charge and why, by whose authority and at what price. It's not so much the notion of independence (of women) that seems to be at issue with traditional cultures so much as the loss of face (by men) when the power shift happens. Santosh Kalwar said, "a strong gives forgiveness but weak gives permission." My advice to the men who uphold traditional misogynistic practices that were created by and for them is to seek to be advisors, not grantors of permission. Therein lays your power.

It's the kind of power reflected in the upcoming documentary, Sweet Dreams Rwanda. The women depicted are so resilient and powerful. It seems they can deal with the worst situations often without an education or resources, and yet they are able to stand up for themselves to improve their lives and the lives of others -- thus improving the overall health, welfare and economy of their nation. It's a lesson we can learn from for a more just and peaceful world.

DECONSTRUCTING CULTURE SHIFTS

At the same time, the more unaware we are about where our cultural GPS is positioned, the greater the likelihood that we may expect everyone else to be just like us. Failure on the part of someone else to be like us leads one to conclude that something's wrong with those Arabs, or those Americans or those French. Then, we complain: why can't they be like us? Or why can't they just do it my way and by my rules? When the other guy doesn't play the game "my way" we might say, "you're either with us, or against us" and the unintended consequence is likely to be mutual, puzzled frustration, misunderstandings, if not outright anger between people and countries that often leads to war -- in short, a failure of cross-cultural understanding.

Take for example the life or death situation I faced in the American hospital when my father was gravely ill. When it came to dealing with my father in that context, I knew what was expected of me and how to act. Or so I thought. In fact, the way I was about to handle his wishes according to my role with all the rights and responsibilities I believed I knew, were wrong, especially in the context of an American hospital. I was not taught that in death we assign sacred roles and responsibilities to strangers with whom we have not built trusted relationships. As a Pakistani, I do not have an advocate at the hospital bed in a life or death situation. It is understood that I am that person. We don't have to go through the patient privacy issues with children or parents.

I learned that when it comes to health in the American context, Americans defer either to the spouse or an outside expert, like an attorney. In fact, Americans often turn to outsiders for help like talking to therapists regarding for personal problems; lawyer to settle their disputes. This is a reflection of two more dimensions of culture at work beneath the iceberg: American Individualism versus Collectivist (about 80 percent of the rest of the world, including mine) and Transactional (deal-based) culture (US) as opposed to mine which is Relationship orientated.

Do we think about who will call the shots about a gravely ill parent if we are not a native? I never thought I didn't understand the cultural laws of my adopted home (America). I did very well in building my career and by adopting the Western mindset and life style. And however much I am a product of both the Eastern and Western mindsets, when it came to a life and death situation that involved my Dad, my Pakistani mindset kicked in and, to my surprise, American laws circled right around me to his legal next of kin, which is considered his wife, even if she's not his first wife or his children's mother.

Although I successfully brought my Dad home from Yemen in good health to Washington D.C., the authority I had "over there," did not apply "over here" in America. I couldn't advocate for my Dad's health without his prior written consent to appoint me. This time, as he was headed for major surgery, Dad and I both realized that according to American law, his (second) wife was considered his legal guardian and next of kin, with complete authority to make decisions, not me. 
My father opted for an arranged marriage after my mother passed away in 1995. According to Pakistani custom and Islamic laws, this second wife has rights but they do not exclude existing children from their rights. Now she was in complete charge of my father's health which made me feel culturally, emotionally and psychologically, powerless.

Conscious Competence

The cultural insecurity I felt, coupled with the shift in my role about my Dad's health care, made for a situation that was ripe for misunderstanding. I realized that not only was cross-cultural training an absolute necessity, but that even if we think we have some degree of intercultural competence, we can't know all that we do not know.

Even if we are aware of how to culturally "style switch" and to "relate, regulate, and reason" synergistically, with the adopted culture, our psycho-social-emotional IQ must also be "fit." Together they form a holistic approach for handling situations. (We get the word "manner" from the Latin word for hand or "mano.")

My Dad died in September 2012. This was the most poignant moment of culture shock for me because even though I have lived in America for 25 years, I was shocked to learn that I was powerless to make decisions that may have yielded a different outcome for my Dad. He may or may not have lived. I cannot bear to think what may have been. This reflection is not about the laws or customs of one culture being better than another. My Dad may have not lived no matter which country he was hospitalized in. That's something any child would have to deal with. We all do the best we can.

But I can't help but wonder, as I look back on across my landscape of loss, could this tough cultural lesson have been easier? Perhaps, if I was more aware of the unseen dimensions of our humanity at work, like culture, personality, and emotion things might have turned out differently. Maybe not, but I do see now, with the gift of hindsight, how each one profoundly influences behavior in ways I could hardly imagine.

It's an understatement to suggest cross-cultural training become a requisite to immigration -- anywhere, not just in the USA. With this knowledge base for immigrants and expats, no matter where in the world they intend on living they can embracing the full power and magnitude of their influence on our behavior, and navigate the tricky roads that lay ahead, such as the implications of what is custom versus law. Perhaps we can "re-engage more directly in a new democratic bargain as opposed to being trapped by systems that are too big to control," as former Prime Minister of Greece, George Papandreou suggested in his recent TED Talk at the 2013 Global Summit.