Not in silence



Rabab Naqvi
Rabab Naqvi

By Zubeida Mustafa

SHE lives by herself in a beautiful house surrounded by tall trees in Baie d’Urfe on the outskirts of Montreal. Twice robbershave broken into her home.But that has not made Rabab Naqvi any less determined than she is today. Life for a singlewoman can be difficult even in the more liberated and tolerant Canadian society. A few years ago she had a fall and fracturedher leg and she had to fend for herself, depending on some good friends for support. Yet she plans on staying permanently in Canada after she retires. “I might consider visiting the subcontinent, basing myself in Lucknow where my sisters live to study and research the issues close to my heart. But I would never like to give up my links with my friends and professional colleagues in Canada,” she says after a pause.

Two accidental decisions at different points of time in her life have thrown Rabab into her present roles — as an expert in information science and a women’s rights activist. The first decision to change her life was her choice of Library, and Information Science as the subject of study in New South Wales University when she was living in Australia with her husband, a nuclear scientist. She had studied English literature at Aligarh. But she did not want to pursue it any further. Hence she randomly chose Library Science and it made a working woman out of her because she was required to put in a year’s practical internship in the library, before she could obtain her degree.

When Rabab settled in Canada after her husband’s death in 1969, she naturallyturned to this field in which she had some experience. She took some more courses in the Universities of Western Ontario and McGill to improve her skills and was employed by the John Abbott College in Montreal. She established the College Documentation and Library Systems Department in 1972 and has been its head ever since.The second coincidence that made a tremendous impact on Rabab Naqvi’s life was her impulsive decision to respond to the invitation from a parliamentary committee to make a presentation on equality of people. Taking it as her civic responsibility, Rabab went to Ottawa and there she met some members of NAC (National Action Committee, Canada’s mainstream women’s group). They invited her to join them which she did at the regional level and thus became a women’s right activist. In 1988-90 she was NAC’s Secretary and served on several bodies dealing with women and visible minorities.

Working for NAC, Rabab found a focus for her strong sentiments for the women’s cause. She recalls how she had already begun to articulate her feelings against the injustices meted out to women. Once when she had invited friends for dinner, a man praised the soup she had prepared and asked his wife to get the recipe from her. “Why her and not you?” Rabab had retorted.

Being a woman from South Asia, it is natural that Rabab has focussed on the status of women in her community in Canada. Her work won her John Abbott College’s nomination for the 1995 YWCA Women of Distinction Award.

Although she has an incisive understanding of women’s issues (especially Muslim women), Rabab has been studying the Muslim community as, well. She feels that the main problem of the Muslims — not just the women and not just in Canada but worldwide — stems from their failure to look beyond themselves. Their point of reference is the community itself. As a result they fail to identify the factors which backwardise them. That is why they cannot draw up a viable strategy for their uplift.This is basically the failure of the leadership. Community leaders thrive on the sense of insecurity the community nurses which they exploit to the maximum.”They even reinforce this feeling of insecurity and feed into this negativism to strengthen their own position,” Rabab states emphatically.

She is extremely critical of this approach. “At present the outside world is projecting Islam as the enemy and a danger to peace. What is our leadership doing to neutralise this negative image?” she asks.

Since the leadership in the Muslim world rests essentially with men, Rabab blames them for the failure. “Our men have been socialised into believing that the Muslims are an oppressed community. They do not challenge this belief or try to empower the community. not look beyond the confines of the community and their aspirations are limited to then own group. Within this narrow scenario they vie for a position of influence by trying to pull one another down. That is why you find the Muslim community so badly divided, even in Canada where the Muslims number only a few thousands. What would you say about the example of a Pakistani-Canadian who filed his nomination for the parliamentary elections and immediately found another Pakistani-Canadian contesting against him. Not surprisingly neither of them won,” she observes. Rabab is confident that women have greater potential and if given the opportunity could achieve what the men could not. That is why Rabab is so vocal about women’s rights and has made it her life mission to create awareness about them. She is a powerful campaigner and persuasive speaker at seminars and loves to write about women and their rights. Her study is chock full of books on women which she manages to collect from the feminist book stalls in Montreal and Toronto.

“Today our patriarchal society expects women to be submissive to men. They are asked to conform to traditional values and those of us who stand up for women’s rights are condemned as being under Western influence. But Muslim history is full of cases of feminists demanding their rights and asserting their role. We have had women demanding their rights even before the West got down to it. Much before Simone d’Beauvoir we had Ismet Chughtai writing about women’s issues,” Rabab declares vehemently.

She believes that women can make a breakthrough if they can move, out of the suppressive environment they have been consigned to. They are less competitive and under no compulsion to prove their superiority. Herbert Marcuse was right when he wrote that women’s isolation from the alienated world of capitalism enabled them to remain less brutalised by the Performance Principle to remain closer to their sensibility. Rabab brings the book and shows me the passage she has quoted. “Women are better at motivating  people and they are better at empowering people,” she remarks.

Rabab Naqvi was one of the 14 women whose picture and writing were selected for Agenda 1995, a diary published jointly by the Gazette and the Women’s Centre of Montreal. In it she wrote, “I find that people are afraid of change. In the women’s movement we have emphasised change a lot. Instead of talking about change, may be we should start talking about a better world,” she says.

Source: Dawn 21 Feb 1997