Shamima Shaikh memorial: ‘Greatest act of courage is ability of women to survive’

By Tandile Kona

“The greatest act of daring is the act of being a woman in a world that is set up to snuff out the potential of women. The greatest act of courage in this world is the ability of women to survive, to somehow keep finding the space and time, to just be. Because whether it is in a mosque in Johannesburg, or a prison in Saudi Arabia, or the streets of Brazil, it is women who must daily confront opposition to their being. And it is women who daily must craft for themselves a way of being that is not reduced to being the convenient receptacles of the desire of men.”

These were the words of Khadija Patel, Editor in Chief of the Mail and Guardian, when she delivered the fifth edition of the Shamima Shaikh memorial lecture. The event, attended by Shamima Shaikh’s family, friends and comrades, was also briefly addressed by Na’eem Jeenah, Shamima’s husband and comrade, who spoke of Shamima as a steadfast woman who was committed to what she saw as her cause, the struggle for gender justice.

Having had academics like Kecia Ali, Sadiyyah Shaikh, Fatima Seedat and Rabab Abdulhadi as keynote speakers for the previous four lectures, this time the Muslim Youth Movement of South Africa went with the Johannesburg-based accomplished journalist and activist who brought to the lecture an accessible and everyday kind of tone, but no less engaging and thought provoking than the previous ones. The lecture, which was held at the Lifestyle Image Centre in Johannesburg, follows the four previous ones that were held in different cities across the country.

From the onset, Patel sketched the terrain of contemporary struggles for gender justice, beginning with the personal and local and going on to the political and global. She located her struggles, as a woman journalist, against the questioning of her abilities and the latent challenging of the legitimacy of her authority as a black woman editor, firmly at the coalface of the narrative “that holds itself superior to all others, and ultimately holds men superior to women.”

She told of the subtle ways in which she has been subjected to scrutiny like many women in positions of authority.

Patel connected this chauvinistic narrative to the global right wing wave that spans “from India, to Brazil, to Slovakia, to Germany, the UK, the US, and many, many places in between…” to the struggles by local women for access to spaces of worship, against “…the hatred, contempt and prejudice against women, because it is invariably connected to every other kind of injustice.”

Similarly, she linked the struggles for the emancipation of women, by women like Shamima Shaikh, to the broader struggles against homophobia, xenophobia, racism and environmental degradation.

Referencing the Johannesburg incident when, during Ramadaan, a man was video recorded physically preventing a group of women from partaking in tarawih prayers, Patel warned that, “and until we understand that the way we treat the women in front of us, the poor in front of us, the vulnerable in front of us, all those whose oppression we are complicit, we will continue within this toxic spiral of dehumanisation.”

She further called on those present, to, like Shamima “…live full lives as we are meant to do, in order to be on this Earth, as the manifestation of the infiniteness of possibility, we must learn to love anew, we must learn that in the smallness of who we are, there is a greater reason. We must learn to live with the idea that there is above all, a humanity that we share.”

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