Thoughts and Tangents

m vs f brains?

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I have always had a fairly strong stance on whether males and females were capable of the same things. I have conceded that males and females are biologically different due to differences in our chromosomes, but have always ascertained that the discrepancies between individual people were so large that, although on average males may have some difference to females, in general you could not assume those differences for an individual. Thus, you cannot assume a person would be incapable of a certain job, for example, based on their gender.

Gender is an interesting thing. Do we have these gender roles because of our biology? Perhaps men were better at leading or hunting because they have more testosterone and are therefore more generally aggressive. But there have been better women leaders and hunters and fighters. Do women stay at home because they have to have children? But there are women who can’t have children, or won’t have children, or are terrible mothers. There are households where the father is a far better caretaker than the mother – not everyone is “naturally inclined” to look after children. But here is where it gets tricky. Yes, a lot of the arbitrary social constructs like household work vs outdoor work were probably imposed by history and society, but what “gender constructs” are an actual result of our biology?

This reminds me of a time when my dad assumed that male and female brains were different, and I vehemently opposed it. In my classes at uni they had dismissed the whole thing about males having better spacial awareness than females (and boys are probably better at video games because they grow up playing it whereas girls are given less opportunities to play it since it’s a “boy activity” according to society), males have bigger brains but they also just have bigger bodies and, anyway, big brain do not equal higher intelligence. I think I read something where having a bigger corpus callosum meant women could transfer information faster from one hemisphere to the other but surely (if that’s true) that varies on an individual level, too? Perhaps I did not think about the effect that our different hormone levels had on our brains, so I probably needed to do more research in that area. It did not strike me as important because people who were biologically male or female could still be very similar and vary in different ways. But then I came across something that threw a spanner into my argument: transgender people.

Transgender people confused me a lot because, frankly, I am not trans and therefore do not understand the type of identity crisis they would go through. How can one know that they are male when they look female, and vice versa? I know, it is a very generalised, layman’s view of transgender issues so I apologise if I offend anyone, but that was the general confusion I faced. To me, the brain was genderless and your body was just your body. I had heard about body identity integrity disorder – for eg. you absolutely do not believe your arm is your arm and therefore want it gone so you get it surgically removed and actually feel good about it afterwards. There is also body dysmorphia, where you are excessively stressed about a certain aspect of your body. However, neither of these explain everything about trans people. Some people are born genderless or with the ability to become either gender because of certain mutations, such as being born with XXY, XXX or XYY etc. sex chromosomes instead of XX for female and XY for male. But again, this doesn’t explain all of it.

I asked a friend if there was a genetic basis for all this – she had been telling me about how being gay seems to be transferred from the mother’s side and may be linked to a mutation on the X chromosome. She told me that, yes, there does seem to be a genetic basis for transgender identity, and they had actually pinpointed some regions of interest. I was surprised. I had assumed that there had not been many genetic studies simply because the argument for transgender issues in public debate almost never brought it up, at least in popular media. So I went ahead and found this on Wikipedia (don’t trust Wiki but this did cite sources so):

A 2008 study compared 112 male-to-female transsexuals (both androphilic and gynephilic), mostly already undergoing hormone treatment, with 258 cisgender male controls. Male-to-female transsexuals were more likely than cisgender males to have a longer version of a receptor gene (longer repetitions of the gene) for the sex hormone androgen or testosterone, which reduced its effectiveness at binding testosterone.[3] The androgen receptor (NR3C4) is activated by the binding of testosterone or dihydrotestosterone, where it plays a critical role in the forming of primary and secondary male sex characteristics. The research suggests reduced androgen and androgen signaling contributes to the female gender identity of male-to-female transsexuals. The authors say that a decrease in testosterone levels in the brain during development might prevent complete masculinization of the brain in male-to-female transsexuals and thereby cause a more feminized brain and a female gender identity.[3][6]

A variant genotype for a gene called CYP17, which acts on the sex hormones pregnenolone and progesterone, has been found to be linked to female-to-male transsexualism but not MtF transsexualism. Most notably, the FtM subjects not only had the variant genotype more frequently, but had an allele distribution equivalent to male controls, unlike the female controls. The paper concluded that the loss of a female-specific CYP17 T -34C allele distribution pattern is associated with FtM transsexualism.[4]

These are only from 1 study each, so I suppose we need to stay skeptical. But what I got from this was that “maleness” and “femaleness” could come from a brain’s exposure to certain hormones during development stages. Certain genetics that prevent the access of hormones to the brain can induce thoughts that, although they are physically one way, their brain is the other. I guess that also brings into question gender fluidity – I once listened to an interview with a trans man who for a while had believed he was a lesbian, then thought he must be genderfluid, before finally admitting that in his mind he was male. But what sort of genetics would a gender fluid person have? I understand people who have neither XY or XX chromosomes – but perhaps there is another factor in there that turns off both the androgen receptor and CYP17 T -34C allele distribution patterns. Perhaps there is something else. That is a different tangent however.

My main point was that transgender people throw into question my beliefs that there is no such thing as male or female brains. I suppose I should have read up more on the effects of our sex hormones on the brain before saying anything. But what does maleness and femaleness mean? There are plenty of men who do not subscribe to gender roles without feeling like they are female. I am proud to be female but I dislike many “feminine” traits. (I also dislike many “masculine” traits though). Listening to the interviews of different transgender people, I tended to hear a few similarities – most people who knew them (and accepted them) reacted with, “oh, right, that makes sense” when they came out as trans. They did not always hate their bodies but they felt uncomfortable in their skin. They never fit in with the other kids of their assigned gender, and when they did, those kids turned out to be LGBT (this was in a more conservative society) or were very liberal people.

Side note: The general argument for transitioning was that the person would come to a point where they had to choose between conforming the brain to the body, or the body to the brain. Most battled for years to conform to their bodies but eventually the brain won out. I think this would make sense for a lot of people who might be against transitioning. It’s just corrective surgery. This makes me wonder if trans people would feel the need to transition if society weren’t so split based on gender. Would they feel comfortable with their bodies if what you looked like didn’t matter? But that is a different topic that is probably best discussed with an actual trans person).

Back on topic – basically, I was wrong. There is, apparently, a difference between male and female brains that isn’t completely based on societal gender roles and our environment growing up. But does it make a difference if this aligns with the gender you are assigned? I’m still not sure I’m convinced. There is still a wide variety among cis-gendered people. If anything, society and culture play a more important role in shaping our brains. Perhaps this difference in environment has had an effect on our biological makeup – some DNA methylation or other that has been passed down for generations that affects the way we think or behave. Even if there was, again, I am not sure if this makes a difference in my initial argument. Only that, now, I agree that there is a “female” and “male” brain (and maybe a “genderfluid” brain?) but this generally has lesser impact on life performance than the environment in which that brain is honed in.

Ah and our bacteria! Our gut microbiota has a direct effect on our brains and the way we think (moods, etc) — what we eat and how we digest it has an effect on our minds! With so many different things affecting the way we think, how much does maleness and femaleness have to do with it? Perhaps, as with anything, it depends on the individual. However, I will still say that males and females are generally capable of the same things. Until proven otherwise. End rant.

I wrote for another blog.

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I wrote this little piece comparing China’s hold on Uyghurs to Mother Gothel’s hold on Rapunzel in Disney’s Tangled and it was published today, a month later, on UHRP’s blog. A lot has happened since then so it is a little bit out of date already, but I thought it would be neat to throw in a Disney comparison to the mix of Uyghur news — to humanise us more in the Western world. Is it ironic that comparing us to cartoons is humanising? I don’t know. Here’s the article though: China’s Rapunzel. Enjoy.

July 5th 2017

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Today marks the 8th anniversary of the July 5th Urumqi riots/incident/massacre (depending on where you get your news from). I remember waking up to the news as it happened – my mum had just moved to a different country (a month before the rest of us followed) so I was at my grandfather’s or aunt’s with my dad. Reports were slowly pouring in and it wasn’t too long before I realised this was something big; this was not just the regular news of small disturbances or quickly-quelled attacks; this was going to have a large scale impact. I had just started blogging that year and it was the first time I blogged about anything political. In my own 15 year-old’s words:

For the last couple of months, hundreds of Uyghur workers were forcibly taken to Guang Dong to work in Xuri toy factory for cheap labour. On June 25th a brawl between the workers and the local Han Chinese broke out that killed 2 and injured 118 (according to Chinese media). According to other sources, more than 50 had died. This brawl had come about after a “disgruntled” former worker had started a rumour saying that some of the Uyghur workers had raped 2 Chinese females. This was soon proven false, but the results were the same.

On June 5th, thousands of Uyghur people, mainly students, came out to protest in Urumqi about what happened in Guang Dong. It was meant to be peaceful – they were even carrying Chinese flags instead of Uyghur flags. The government’s response was force. They deployed at least 20,000 armed police to stop the protest with brute force. Official death toll is just above 150, but other reports claim thousands of Uyghur people died. Then the local Han Chinese, thinking that the Uyghurs had killed their Chinese people, came out to kill more Uyghur people, vowing revenge.

The Chinese troops went in to a lot of Uyghur homes to take away the men under “suspicion”. Many men who hadn’t even gone to the protest were also taken away.

This injustice sparked more protests all over Eastern Turkistan. Women in Kashgar came out to protest, saying that the government had taken away their husbands and sons. Now there are thousands of armed troops in cities such as Urumqi, Ghulja, Kashgar, Hotan, Karmay and other cities. They have been told to shoot anyone who looks “suspicious”, and will not be charged if they kill anyone. Many people are afraid to leave their homes. No electricity or water, as they’ve been cut off. Communication to outside of China is near impossible.

The rest of the world though, have heard. We in Australia protested in Adelaide, Sydney and Canberra, with officials such as Kris Hannah, Tony Zappia, Libby Hogarth and Tibetan spokespersons giving speeches. In Canberra you could see the Chinese people hiding behind their curtains and taking pictures in their embassy, not showing their faces. There was even this Chinese guy who came out to protest with us.

Protests have been going on for days in places like California, Washington DC, Turkey, Netherlands, and Sweden, among other countries. We hope the rest of the world can help us too.

I forget that 15 year olds can be aware of things, despite being an aware 15 year old myself… children are smarter than they look. Gotta give them credit sometimes…

Back then it wasn’t even called the “July 5th incident”. The following year, articles like this came out describing eye witness accounts to make some sense of what happened. I will attempt to expand on what I have learnt of the event 8 years since. Note: I will be quoting numbers but they are mostly from Chinese sources which are usually drastically understated:

  • The protest occurred in response to the deaths of 2 Uyghurs in Guangdong, killed by a mob of Chinese who falsely claimed that Uyghur workers had sexually assaulted two Han women
  • The protest started peacefully on July 5th but turned violent
  • The Chinese government claim the violence was pre-planned and masterminded by Uyghurs outside of the country, like Rebiya Kadeer and the WUC
  • Uyghurs say the violence occurred in response to the excessive force deployed by the Chinese government in response to the peaceful protest (stating they started to fire their guns first)
  • The WUC claim no involvement, instead stating there may have been agents provocateurs within the crowds
  • Police used batons, live ammunition, tasers, tear gas and water hoses to disperse the rioters, and set up roadblocks and posted armoured vehicles throughout the city
  • By July 7th, officials reported that 1,434 suspected rioters had been arrested. Personal account state that police took men from their homes indiscriminately, whether they were involved in the protests or not:

Rebiya Kadeer claimed that “nearly 10,000 people” had gone missing overnight.[93] Human Rights Watch(HRW) later documented 43 cases of Uyghur men who disappeared after being taken away by Chinese security forces in large-scale sweeps of Uyghur neighbourhoods overnight on 6–7 July,[63] and said that this was likely to be “just the tip of the iceberg”;[15] HRW allege that young men, mostly in their 20s, had been unlawfully arrested and have not been seen or heard from as of 20 October 2009

  • Women in the hundreds came out to protest these arrests on the 7th July
  • Han Chinese also came out to protest “in revenge” on the 7th July in Urumqi and caused more violence, attacking and killing groups of Uyghurs
  • By July 10th, all but 2 mosques had been closed in Urumqi. This resulted in another protest where the Chinese detained “another 5 or 6 people”
  • The last official update on July 18th placed the tally at 197 dead, 1,721 injured. The WUC claims the death toll was around 600
  • By August:

Over 300 more people were reported arrested. According to the BBC, the total number of arrests in connection with the riots was over 1,500.[10] The Financial Times estimated that the number was higher, citing an insider saying that some 4,000 arrests had already taken place by mid July, and that Ürümqi’s prisons were so full that newly arrested people were being held in a People’s Liberation Army warehouse.[104]

According to the Uyghur American Association, several other Uyghur journalists and bloggers were also detained after the riots; one of them, journalist Gheyret Niyaz, was later sentenced to 15 years in prison for having spoken to foreign media.[105] In the most high-profile case, Ilham Tohti, an ethnic Uyghur economist at Minzu University of China, was arrested two days after the riots over his criticisms of the Xinjiang government.[106][107][108]

  • Mobile/telephone services were cut for months afterwards, and internet and international calls in the region was not restored for almost a year, until May 14th 2010
  • In early August, the Ürümqi government announced that 83 individuals had been “officially” arrested in connection with the riots.[203][204] China Daily reported in late August that over 200 people were being charged and that trials would begin by the end of August.[205][206] Although this was denied both by a provincial[204] and a local Party official,[7] Xinjiang authorities later announced that arrest warrants had been issued to 196 suspects, of which 51 had already been prosecuted. Police also requested that the procuratorate approve the arrest of a further 239 people, and detention of 825 more, China Daily said.[207] In early December, 94 “fugitives” were arrested.[208]
  • Around mid-August to September, syringe attacks were apparently perpetrated by Uyghurs on Hans (although evidence is weird??)
  • On September 3rd, thousands of Han came out to protest and at least 5 people were killed. 3 Hong Kong journalists were attacked and detained by paramilitary police for filming
  • By October:

14,000 security personnel were deployed in Ürümqi from 11 October, and the next day a Xinjiang court sentenced six men to death, and one to life imprisonment,[210] for their roles in the riots. All six men were Uyghurs, and were found guilty of murder, arson and robbery during the riots. Foreign media said the sentences appeared to be aimed at mollifying the anger of the Han majority;[211][212] the WUC denounced the verdict as “political”, and said there was no desire to see justice served.[211] Human Rights Watch said that there were “serious violations of due process” at the trials of 21 defendants relating to July protests. It said the trials “did not meet minimum international standards of due process and fair trials” – specifically, it said that the trials were carried out in a single day without prior public notice, that the defendants’ choice of lawyers was restricted, and that the Party had given judges instructions on how to handle the cases.[213]

  • As schools opened in September, they were guarded by heavily armed police. From personal accounts, many Han and Uyghur students were sent/moved to their respective schools for fear of the other. Uyghur students were made to go through bag checks to make sure they were not carrying weapons, and generally discriminated against in similar ways
  • By January 2010 there were still police patrolling the streets at least 5 or 6 times a day
  • By February 2010 there were at least 26 official executions, although it should be noted that the Chinese media often understates these figures
  • By July 2010 at least 40,000 surveillance cameras were installed in Urumchi
  • To this day there are still people missing after being taken by the police. They have not been accounted for through official reports. According to the Uyghur Human Rights Project: (click on link for more sources)

“The unrest in Urumchi changed the lives of Uyghurs. The use of live fire on Uyghur protestors sent a clear message the Chinese state has run out of solutions to legitimate Uyghur grievances. Since 2009, we have witnessed tighter controls on religion, loss in status of the Uyghur language, suppression of rights to free speech, association, and assembly, as well as accelerated economic discrimination and marginalization,” said UHRP Director, Omer Kanat.

Mr. Kanat added: “However, for the families of Uyghurs disappeared by Chinese security forces in sweeps of Uyghur neighborhoods after the 2009 unrest, there is a personal loss that cannot be reconciled without transparency from China. It is the responsibility of the international community to speak out for these Uyghur families and tell China it should disclose details of their loved ones’ cases.”

On July 5, 2009, Uyghurs peacefully assembled in People’s Square in Urumchi to protest government inaction over a deadly attack on Uyghur factory workers in Shaoguan, Guangdong Province. The details of what happened that day, and over the following months, have been unclear. What is known is that the city erupted into unprecedented unrest that resulted in the deaths of an unknown number of people. Reports issued by Amnesty International and the Uyghur Human Rights Project described eyewitness accounts of state security forces firing on peaceful Uyghur protestors.

In the eight years since the unrest questions remain over enforced disappearances of Uyghurs. A report issued by Human Rights Watch in October 2009 documented large-scale sweep operations conducted by security forces in two predominantly Uyghur areas of Urumchi beginning July 6. Human Rights Watch’s report recorded enforced disappearances of 43 Uyghur men. Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, called the documented disappearances the “tip of the iceberg.”

In an article dated May 14, 2012, Radio Free Asia described how 36 Uyghur families had come forward with accounts of missing family members since the July 5, 2009 protest. The report on the 36 missing Uyghurs followed a Radio Free Asia article dated May 11, 2012 describing the disappearance of Imammemet Eli. Eli’s mother, Patigul, told Radio Free Asia reporters her son was detained on July 14, 2009 and the last information she had on his condition was obtained nine months after his arrest. For her persistent questioning of Chinese authorities regarding her son’s fate, Patigul was detained for two years. Further troubling aspects of state security actions post-July 5, 2009 are reports of minors arbitrarily detained, tortured, sentenced, or simply disappeared.

Not much has changed since. Every person I know who has gone back there since these events have said they have been harassed by security and have had their IDs, travel permits, bags and phones checked multiple times as more and more security checkpoints were been set up over the years. The region is only becoming more and more of a police state, with soldiers posted basically everywhere.

Annual protests in other countries have been held ever since to remember those who died and those who have disappeared, and to voice our concerns of the resulting policies the government has implemented to force “harmony”. The Chinese government has yet to account for all the questions that have risen from these events. Instead, various officials have been replaced by Party members who are enacting much more stringent security measures and oppressive policies. I outline some of these policies in my article: I Am Uyghur and I Will Protest.

Is there something we can do other than protest and lobby foreign governments? Can we do something other than online activism? In this political climate it all seems a little hopeless. But don’t lose hope. Remember. Remember what happened and who we are. Be vocal. Pray. Nothing lasts forever.

Identity and Mobilization in Transnational Societies: A Case Study of Uyghur Diasporic Nationalism

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Guang, T., & Debata, M. R. (2010). Identity and Mobilization in Transnational Societies: A Case Study of Uyghur Diasporic Nationalism. In China & Eurasia Forum Quarterly (Vol. 8, No. 4). [Link]

This paper begins with a definition of certain terms like “transnationalism” and “diaspora”, gives a quick summary of Uyghurs living abroad through statistics and an outline of the sort of work and culture they partake in, and then focuses on Uyghurs in the US. After a brief introduction of the Uyghur American Association and the East Turkistan Government in Exile, they move on to the crux of the paper: the Uyghur Diaspora Nationalism Movement and Cultural Rights Approach.

The authors state that organisations to preserve Uyghur culture and language have been created, however there are different factions as well as disagreements between these organisations with regards to “strategies to be adopted in their mobilization and the nationalism movement overseas connected with their homeland.” The group they focus on is one that wants complete independence from China. They say that this will be impossible without violence as China would not “be willing to compromise its sovereignty, territorial integrity, and national interests in this case” unless there were immense changes within the current government. They briefly mention a couple more reasons. The authors believe that independence might not be the best idea for Uyghur people because of some jargon about the difference between a cultural nation and a political state – they seem to think independence and nationalism will lead to extremism and ethnic cleansing which, to me, sounds like a slippery slope argument with no factual basis (they didn’t cite any papers either). Anyway, they mention other authors who also believe the best thing for Uyghurs would be to achieve full autonomy while staying within the borders of China, since independence would be costly and unsupported by the international community. Their solution to the problem:

The authors, therefore, propose a cultural rights approach for the Uyghur diaspora communities to consider – in terms of Uyghur political mobilization and nationalism movement. The culture rights-based nationalism requires that national self-determination be based on individual self-determination by legal, peaceful and rational measures at its best. Cultural rights-based nationalism consists of special national rights and national cultural developing rights in terms of national identity. This demands that nationalism must take individual rights as its core value, and regard individual liberation as its end. Collective rights should not displace individual rights.

Hence Uyghur nationalists need not only the task of protecting their traditional culture but also to develop it, which is much more crucial. The uniqueness of the Uyghur national culture should not only be dug out and preserved, but also be promoted to a higher level of cultural identity and refreshment. Thus, it could serve as the basis for the Uyghur nation to get a deal with China. At the same time, Uyghur nationalists should use every opportunity to appeal for cultural rights peacefully, to demand for true national autonomy, and to share the benefits of Chinese progress and prosperity. Both the authors believe that such a cultural-nationalist approach would surely win international sympathy and support.

…and from then on it sounds a little bit like a patronising lecture rather than an academic paper on nationalism in the Uyghur diaspora. The conclusion states:

The Chinese central government, in turn, should be tolerant and flexible in dealing with Uyghur nationalists advocating cultural rights. The central authorities of China should make an all their effort to help integrate the hapless and hopeless Uyghur minorities into the national mainstream, putting an end to all forms of discrimination against Uyghurs and enabling maximum autonomy. This way, the Uyghur goal for achieving cultural rights and Beijing’s aim at securing unity, territorial integrity and stability in Xinjiang can be realized. As long as both sides are willing to enhance cultural rights of the Uyghurs, a win-win situation will definitely emerge.

…which sounds great and amazing but I don’t think the authors realise how impossible that is for the Chinese government. “Tolerant” and “flexible” are words that do not seem exist in the Chinese dictionary.

In general, I agree that having true autonomy would be a vast improvement for Uyghur people and I can see how it could be a strategically smarter move to stay within the economic growth of China. However, based on what is actually happening, this sounds quite naive and I highly doubt the Chinese government will be willing to enable maximum autonomy for Uyghurs without first getting rid of all forms of contradiction against current Party policies, or implementing an ethnic cleansing of their own upon the Uyghur people.

To be fair, this paper was written in 2010, before people like Ilham Tohti were arrested for attempting to do exactly what the authors suggest. It would be interesting to know if their ideas and suggestions have changed in the last 7 years in response to the government’s new policies.

I did hope this paper was going to be an analysis of the diaspora rather than suggestions for how the diaspora should tackle the issue of independence vs autonomy. Oh well.

I Am Uyghur and I Will Protest

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I recently wrote something (a personal essay?) which was published in The Diplomat today. This is officially my first foray into the public debating sphere, if it can be called that, so here it is: I Am Uyghur and I Will Protest. The reaction so far is good. Well, my parents liked it so I suppose that is all that matters. Hopefully this inspires someone in some way, somewhere..!

Ramadan Memories

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I remember when I was little I visited my mother’s hometown near Ghulja. For the first three days of Ramadan, just before Iftar time, the kids would run around to every house holding bags and singing a song to get sweets and snacks from the residents, a little reminiscent of Halloween to my Western-cultured 7-year-old self. It was just before winter, cold, and we mostly used the moonlight to see, but I still remember the excitement and electricity that ran alongside us, lighting a warm path to every wide gate. I remember we received lollies, apples, chocolates, popcorn, some hard bread from a particularly irritable lady, and the most prized snack: shimishka (sunflower seeds). We split the booty between us under the faint light of a lamp outside someone’s house before returning home, giggling in triumph. I believe the ditty went a bit like this:

“Ramzhan Allah, shehri Ramzhan,
xosh mubarek keldiler shu Ramzhan.
Uyungning arqasida tayning izi,
beridu keshmir yaghliq Bayning qizi.
Bu Roza ottuz iken, mehman iken,
Rozini tutmighanlar haywan iken!”

Treating Suffering as a Virtue

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I have been reading a book called Ana Yurt by Zordun Sabir. I have yet to finish it, but *spoiler alert* there was a death in it which bothered me a little. It is a bit of an Uncle Ben, but there was something else about the way it came about that got to me, although I could not at first put my finger on it. Soon after, I saw a Facebook comment that said the phrase “…a culture that treats the suffering of women as a virtue…” in reference to Korean women and that really hit the mark – the author had glorified the suffering of this female character before she was killed “before her time”.

At first I had thought he was providing some sort of social commentary, showing how female characters get the short end of the stick on all fronts of life. However, there was no attempt to ease the suffering, no attempt to nudge the reader in a direction that suggested we should change our culture. Perhaps the author was simply telling the story as it is, perhaps it was the character who thought suffering was something to be looked upon lovingly. Nevertheless, I do think our culture treats suffering, especially the suffering of motherhood, as something virtuous.

I have seen people arguing that in this entitled society of ours, no one treats suffering as a virtue and all believe that affliction should be avoided at all costs. I do not necessarily agree with this, nor do I think people do not value “suffering”. Everyone suffers at some point in life, and some more than others, and suffering can bring about good in oneself – patience, perseverance, some sort of excellence while overcoming that suffering – and in others – empathy, charity, respect, etc. Perhaps some may never overcome their suffering, and so will use it for good, or own it as their lot in life. Perhaps that shows their strengths. Pain, and in extension, suffering, is an essential part of our lives as human beings. No, what I want to argue against is unnecessary suffering, and the glorification of such suffering; the type of suffering that could be ended, but is not because it is so ingrained in our minds as a virtue that we forget that it must be eased away.

Coming back to the book, we see the dilemma that a good husband faces when he sees his wife working so hard. His wife Rayhangul was from a rich family but married a poorer guy out of love, stayed loyal to him until she died despite advances from other men; she is beautiful, feisty, hard-working, the literal backbone of the family (and has 5 kids). She sacrifices her youth for the needs of her family. Utterly unselfish.

She is doing a million things at once while he sits there, taking a break and watching her. He sees the fire under the stove escaping, but does not dare go and fix it. Apparently Taranchi men do not cook: it would be like running naked down the street! Taranchi men should not even touch the dough: it would be like using a chicken to drive a dog sled! They cannot go near the kitchen: women’s work. All women’s work. Feeding and comforting the baby when she cries? Women’s work. He believes it would be easy for him to knead the dough or milk the cow; he is physically strong. But he cannot because he would lose the respect of all the villagers.

The author does point out that when women do “men’s work” like helping them harvest, etc. no one says anything about them “becoming a man”, but when a man is told to feed the child it is like he is being asked to “become a woman”. The author must be pointing out the hypocrisy here, but I am not entirely convinced yet. We do see the husband compromise his beliefs and feed the child, but that is only because he is a good and kind man who loves his family. However, he does not get out of his seat. One might think that the woman is only doing her share of the work and the man has already finished his, but this is not the case. The author goes through a whole list of things the woman does besides cooking that requires people management skills and physical labour. She barely has a moment to herself. Her work, as shown by the author, far exceeds the man’s, but this is just the way it is.

In direct contrast to this, there is another character, a teenage boy, who wants to put himself through hardships and “know what it is to suffer” so that he may overcome it all and become a “giant” of his generation, a knowledgeable philosopher, a worldly scholar. In a sense, he is glorifying suffering as well. However, it is something seen as exceptional, something that this genius boy is doing in order to attain the highest ranks of society. Not all men do what he does; men are to live lives full of “laughter and meshrep” whereas women lead a “tearful, worry-filled” life and then “die before their time”. The author states it as a fact of life rather than something that should happen, so I suppose the reader can come to their own conclusion as to whether this culture should change. In context of our culture however, it does seem like these sorts of superwomen are being placed on pedestals and revered and respected so that when a normal woman acts like a person with flaws, they are blamed and asked why they cannot be perfect. It is an unrealistic expectation, and a heavy one at that. Women should not need to live a life of sorrow. It is not something that was destined for every woman by God. It may happen to women, just as it may happen to men, but it is not something we must do because of our gender.

Regarding motherhood, there is a little argument for whether childbirth and motherhood even needs to be a sacrifice – it should be a celebration; you should not have to end one life to start another. Plenty of parents are overjoyed when they have children, why must we see it as if the mother has now stripped herself of agency and pleasure? In instances where it is a sacrifice (perhaps to one’s health or career or goals) we should change society so that motherhood is not that big of a loss. I do not believe in keeping the status quo on these sorts of issues.

Some say that the virtue of suffering comes from a religious or spiritual place. We do glorify martyrs, after all. But surely Islam teaches us to help others, to make others smile, to ease our mothers’ pains? Surely Islam teaches us that harming ourselves is forbidden, and suicide is one of the greatest sins? We help others to ease their suffering. “Verily, after hardship comes ease” – suffering is meant to be transient, not a contract you enter into that begins at motherhood and ends in death. We are supposed to save the mothers, we are supposed to give back to mothers who spent years nurturing us, we are not supposed to let them continue their suffering; they already did and do more than enough.

So yes, we should respect those who have suffered for the greater good, but we should not turn suffering into a virtue. We should help those women out of their suffering and make it so that our daughters do not have to suffer as much. I do not want to be told to live like Rayhangul. I respect her and admire her strength, but people should not expect me, or any girl, to be like her. If I truly believe in something then I will do it out of my own will, but having social pressures push me into that position is detrimental to the health of society as a whole.

 

  1. While looking for an article online, I came across this thesis(?) called The Cultural Evolution of Suffering. I have yet to read it but the first few pages seemed interesting so I will leave the link here for anyone curious. There is also a funny little paragraph on memes.