Naema Tahir (Author and Activist)

12.09.2009 - Interview conducted by Mailin Obermueller

Naema Tahir is a successful author, activist and expert on human rights law for the Council of Europe. Her thus far published books principally deal with the experience of immigration, Islam, freedom of choice and familial struggle. Among her novels is the best seller ‘Prized Possession’ (2006), which depicts the struggle of three Pakistani women in their fight for autonomy and dignity.

Previous to her career as a writer, Tahir worked as a lawyer for ten years. Despite excelling in this field (her numerous prestigious posts included being the Juridical Advisor for Asylum seekers and Refugees at UNHCR, Nigeria (2000-2001) and the Governing Law Expert at the Competition Authority of the Ministry of Economic Affairs (2001-2003), in 2006 Tahir chose to devote herself to fictive writing. She believed that through her background as the daughter of Pakistani parents and with an upbringing that was split between England, Pakistan and the Netherlands, she could bring valuable insight into the struggle of migrated individuals and experience of Muslims in the West. Indeed, this insight is not only apparent in her books, but also in the work she has done for organisations such as E-Quality (2003-2006) and Femaleconomy (2006). The Belgian theorist Dirk Verhofstadt even described her as one of the most important avant-garde Muslim women freedom fighters in his book ‘Third Feminist Wave’ (2006).

Presently, Naema Tahir is also a member of Worldconnectors, a Dutch think tank that aims to advance critical analysis and global thinking through cross-sector dialogue. Furthermore, she regularly appears on radio and TV, as well as writing newspaper articles, essays and columns.

During Interdependence Day 2009, she granted the following interview to CD-News:

Miss Tahir, you have previously mentioned that you believe there to be an over-focus on Islam in questions of integration and that this actually deters from the consideration of other issues, such as intergenerational conflict. Do you then think that integration policy should pay more attention to factors such as modernity versus tradition on the level of the microcosm of the family, rather than focusing on the macrocosm issue of Islam in society?

I think that’s a beautiful question and that you just identified several important issues. I would say that there should always be a focus on Islam, but that it should be accorded with the right proportion of our attention. Giving Islam a very large proportion of our focus, as we do at the moment, leads to people overlooking or even forgetting other important factors. And in consequence, this misplaced emphasis leads to us seeing everything as part of a single pattern, namely the pattern of Islam.

For example, take the case of a father forcing his daughter into marriage or preventing her from going to school or making her wear a headscarf—we see all his behaviour as inherent in the being of Islam. But really Islam, in this case and otherwise, only deserves a small emphasis. We need to realise this and take other factors into account. For instance here the patriarch, who in the above example is the father, deserves equal emphasis. The patriarchal figure wants to be a powerful man—the head of the family; and in traditional communities, he is the head of the family. In more emancipated, modern societies however, we no longer believe in that kind of hierarchy. Instead, we believe that men and women are equal and moreover, that women should be able to emancipate. In a patriarchal society however, which the aforementioned father believes in, a woman emancipating tarnishes the power of the father. He ultimately loses a bit of his power and with that loses a bit of his manhood. These losses will give him not only a sense of grief, but also lead to him feeling that, “I am not enough of a man”.

You see then that in the case of such a family there are certain psychological aspects, which should be taken into account. So our focus should be on Islam and religion, yes, but also on psychological processes and other normal things between generations: like daughters growing up or fathers not wanting the daughters to take too much freedom. And here, we also find the question of how much freedom you give someone. And this question is the modernity and tradition link.

This seems to suggest that there is a need to distinguish between factors, but do you think that the patriarchal system is justified using religious terms? And if so, can you look at it without taking religion into account?

Patriarchy is almost always justified using religious texts. And I think this is not just true for Islam, but for all religions. Going back to my example of Muslim faith however, with the father who wants to control his family, one can look at this as him ruling over his wife and daughters or as trying to protect them. Often, it is seen in the latter light of protection and legitimised through religious texts. And the reality is, often the father is the head of the family; the most respected member with the highest position. I am not a scholar of religious texts, but I think there are sections that are problematic, and so we should not try to ignore these texts.

But above this, I think there is a need to look for solutions. We need to move beyond religious texts and find a common ground, where we just see these people as a normal family with normal struggles.

You made a conscious choice to leave your career as a human rights lawyer and become an author. What brought you to this choice?

Before, when I was working in the field of international law, I felt that I was just reading litigations in legal cases. And I found myself wanting to write about the much broader arena of people’s struggles, particularly with regards to the clash between tradition and modernity within the family.

In my view, the special thing about novels is that they are make-belief. So when people read a novel they will not feel threatened. They will not get the sense that a narrative is directly about them, but about someone else; a woman for instance, whose violent Muslim husband is not allowing her to work. They can read such a story without feeling threatened and because they do not feel targeted they will not get defensive. And in this state, through this reading, you can learn that violations occur. In this sense, reading opens the mind. And this is what I wanted to do. I wanted to leave behind the legal arena and write about the far more complex topic of human nature.

You just spoke of culture’s ability to broaden people’s horizons in a non-threatening manner. In Holland, where you live, there is also some resonance for the argument that at times culture should be challenging, or even controversial. What are you views on this? How do you think the balance between broadening people’s horizons in a challenging way and yet retaining a respectful level of dialogue should be maintained?

I think we should always maintain that balance. It is true that in Holland there is a belief that you can say everything you want and that beyond this, you almost should say everything you want. I used to believe this myself, but I don’t anymore. Now, I think that everything you say should be presented in a civilised way and for civilisation’s or society’s sake.

Freedom of speech is an interesting topic and one of the arguments put forth by thinkers like Mark Twain or John Stuart Mill is that although freedom of speech is one of our most precious things, our right not to use it is equally precious. So in other words, we should always be prudent in our use of freedom of speech.

In this sense, I think that people who are soft-spoken—who can express their views in a softer manner can say much more. In order to do this well, I think you need not only a better education in the subject matter, but also a better education in how people are; you need to be aware of both the psychology of the person and the psychology of the society. I also think that if you continuously express yourself in a gentle way, this shows that your belief runs extremely deep, beyond the momentary emotions that can develop in a discussion. This is the approach that I agree with; and I feel that people who just say anything and in any way are taking the easy way out.

But this is just me saying what I personally think—I respect the different approach as well. I am just saying I personally would not choose it for myself, as it is not my nature.

We’re meeting at Interdependence Day in Istanbul. How does the concept of interdependence tie into your work?

Benjamin Barber used the metaphor of the city as a common ground in a divided world, arguing that taking a city instead of a country as our focal point allows us to recognise the interdependence that exists at many levels. And I think the same procedure can be applied to our perceptions. Taking the example of the West and Islam again, I would say that viewing this in those classifications is the equivalent of looking at the country level. If you look behind Islam, or take away the country boundary, you see cultures, traditions, families, norms, relationships, roles, class and languages—all these factors that are not culturally specific and yet crucial to our understanding. So for me, Interdependence Day opened my eyes to the fact that we should emphasise what lies behind the bigger abstraction.

Once we do this we realise that for instance, in a father-daughter relationship within a Muslim family, there are parallels to the struggles of this relationship within a Christian family. So, by looking beyond the big abstraction of the clash between Islam and the West, a feeling of interdependence develops, which is very positive as in consequence people become more willing to connect with each other.

Thank you very much for you time.