Bicultural women speak frankly

by Sabira Qureshi and Jackie St. Joan
Washington, D.C. and Denver, Colorado - The Asian-American Network Against Abuse (ANAA) is a human rights organisation that focuses on issues of violence against women in Pakistan ( ANAA was founded by a group of young Pakistani-American physicians who decided it was time to stop lamenting over the deplorable condition of women in Pakistan and focus on action towards change. This initiative struck a chord with many in the Pakistani diaspora, as well as other like-minded people in the United States, who flocked to join it.

The writers of this article actually “met” on the listserv of the ANAA. Subsequently, when Jackie was asked to chair ANAA’s Public Education Committee that would try to educate U.S. officials about the issues of violence against women in Pakistan, she asked Sabira to join the committee.

Jackie recalls:

Although I’d spent thirty years as a feminist lawyer, judge and law professor, I felt a bit intimidated by the prospect of entering the world of Pakistani politics. I knew from experience that the more I learnt about Pakistan, the more I realised how little I knew.

Intercultural political work can be an upside down experience. With a name like St. Joan, others would assume I was Christian, although I am not; and I myself once made assumptions about a Pakistani Islamic scholar on the listserv who, when I finally met her, turned out to be a “good ole girl” from Iowa, married to a Pakistani! So I have to admit I was a little nervous to finally meet this outspoken Sabira when I travelled to Washington.

She was very late. Finally I looked outside and saw a lovely woman in a shalwar-kameez (traditional Pakistani dress) wandering down the middle of the narrow street. And she was frustrated, a bit miffed, and she was not smiling!

But I needn’t have worried. Seated in the living room, she was warm and friendly, but also all business. She had a lot to say and I listened carefully, hoping I’d find a colleague to work with me on these challenging tasks. Sabira and I quickly entered into our political discussions. She wanted to know why I was interested in these issues and seemed accepting of my replies. I wanted to know about her work in Pakistan.

Sabira reflects:

Having moved to D.C. from Islamabad two years earlier, I brought with me many assumptions about life in the United States, and also carried the many apprehensions and doubts about U.S. policies globally, especially those impacting Muslim-majority societies. With twenty-five years of involvement in the women’s movement in Pakistan and as a long-standing women’s rights and human rights activist, I was particularly wary of “helpful” U.S. citizens wanting to work together to improve the situation. It was not without trepidation, therefore, that I agreed to join Jackie on the congressional education initiative. However, any doubts about a condescending American attitude soon vanished as I recognised a kindred soul.

Every time I am requested to give a talk about women’s issues to different audiences, mostly students at universities across the United States, I am simultaneously struck by the thirst for information and the persistent ignorance, particularly on issues relating to Muslim women. Stereotypes on both sides deepen the schisms, so forcefully reiterating the need for greater dialogue and understanding.


It is our belief that the differences one expects - of nationality, religion, language, culture - often become the very heart of the intercultural experience. This was true for us, and the fact that it is difficult is part of the experience. Of course we also recognise that if it becomes too difficult, i.e. if people are hostile, competitive, backbiting or threatening, then the will to proceed falters and the joint effort fails.

In our case, other things that bridge those differences include our political experiences, our familiarity with feminist processes and philosophies, our education, the fact that Jackie had travelled in Pakistan and immersed herself in its progressive politics, and the fact that Sabira had studied in the United States some time ago, though had returned to find a country very different to that of her student days.

We now look forward to engaging in joint educational efforts on behalf of ANAA and on our own. In the current international environment, where hostilities run high and the divides grow deeper, there has never been a greater need for reaching out beyond the narrow confines of one’s own community. When problems arise and disunity occurs—and they will—we hope that relationships such as ours will help support the bridges we have tried to build.


* Jacqueline St. Joan is the author of “My Daughter Made of Light”, a novel set within the human rights movement of Pakistan, currently seeking publication. Sabira Qureshi, a Pakistani citizen, is an international development consultant focusing on gender equality, with a personal interest in issues of women and Islam. This article is part of a series on diaspora communities and Muslim-Western relations distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews), and can be accessed at

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 13 February 2007
Copyright permission has been obtained for publication.
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Other articles in this series

Persian clubs uniquely placed for American-Iranian dialogue by Shirin Saeidi
An American journey through Islam by C. Holland Taylor
Living with humanity in Jordan by Jenny Ernst
Let Arab Americans help by Rebecca Abou-Chedid
America’s gift: a new tradition in Islamic thinking by M. A. Muqtedar Khan