Disrupting the patriarchy through disability rights

Munazza Gillani, March 2016

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Throughout my professional career as a development worker, I have witnessed women merely considered as beneficiaries but not part of decision-making processes.

This thinking is rooted in behavioral, cultural, and family traditions. Our cultural and social attitudes are often unfavorable to women’s participation in decision making at family and communal level.

When it comes to the domain of disability in poverty-stricken areas, then women with disabilities face double, or rather triple, discrimination: for being disabled, for being women and for being poor. There is a need to raise our voices for the rights of women with disabilities and the prejudices faced by them in every decision that affects their lives.

Let me share the story of Noori, from Pakistan. Noori’s husband decided to remarry because she was disabled and presumably not woman enough to perform her proper role. She slaves away, treated as a servant, taking care of the needs of the household. If she is not able to become a mother then she loses the right of being a wife and woman too. Noori is accepted in the family merely as a servant, if she can handle the domestic household chores.

This makes me wonder: what is the ‘proper role’ of women in this era, when feminism and women’s rights have been a visible penetrative force in most of the world? And who has the authority to define this role? When the expectation of the role is combined with a disability, it creates a life of precarity and possibilities that women with disabilities live with. The status and rights of womanhood can be conferred upon those who follow these society-assigned roles, and yet a disabled woman, however hard she may try to fit in, or however successful she may be, is seen as less than other women.

We women with and without disabilities from different parts of the world – India, Pakistan, Malawi and the UK –  would like to highlight how our lives are affected by our physical, sensory and intellectual difference. Underlining every judgement made upon us is the gender role that society carves out for women in general. We are going to talk about this in a panel discussion at the upcoming International Forum of AWID (Association of Women in Development) during September 2016.

This year the theme of the forum is ‘Feminist Futures: Building Collective Power for Rights and Justice’. At AWID we will share how discrimination in opportunities, pejorative attitudes towards women and their decision-making rights, abuse, and the violence that women face in homes and outside, are a byproduct of the intricate intersection of gender and disability that we live with.

Our panel will focus on issues around relationships and marriage, as well as stigma, violence and abuse, through research and personal narratives of women from diverse regions. We will highlight how gender-limited roles, which are an overarching impediment to all women, have been an additional threat to women with disabilities. 

With the efforts of women with disabilities to disrupt patriarchy through disability rights, it is time for the women’s rights movement to embrace differences readily. There can be opportunity in diversity and strength in solidarity to combat the pressure of gender roles that has burdened and continues to burden women globally. We will also share our learnings, and success stories of women with disabilities who broke these socio-cultural barriers with their persistent struggle towards empowerment.

We need to get rid of our stereotypical images. Access to and sharing of information, as well as resources and education, can build the capacity of women-focused disability organisations, promote advocacy by and for people with disabilities and improve the quality of life of women with disabilities. I believe the key to addressing these barriers is to empower more and more disabled women leaders at grassroots level, who can actually lead the way for other women with disabilities by raising their voices and fighting for their rights.

By Muzza Gillani, Country Director of Sightsavers in Pakistan

A 45-year-old lady is standing on crutches. She is wearing bright red clothes and a boy is asleep on a bed behind her.

“There is a need to raise our voices for the rights of women with disabilities and the prejudices faced by them”

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