Dr. Saima Eman
Lahore College for Women
Click here to see Saima Eman’s biography
Saima Eman impressed us with her deep involvement in advocating for human rights, especially related to women in Pakistan. She gave us a bit of a broader societal context before narrowing it down to her endeavours to empower women.
What do you, as a psychologist, face in your work related to human rights?
In general, due to poverty, a colonial mind-set obsessed with hierarchy, and a highly polluted physical environment, I come across a lot of resistance to change. People are engulfed and so deeply engrossed in their own personal problems that they do not have any time to think about the reason for their adversities let alone advocate about change. They have habituated to the daily hassles and each other’s fluctuating moods. Many have become apathetic and desensitized to others’ needs. Every person is struggling for his/her own survival.
In day-to-day dealings with people at the workplace and offices, people have been very tyrannical. You can feel the difference in respect when you simply travel in a huge car and then in a small car. People are ready to die in the name of their country, religion, and for the respect of their flag but ironically they just respect and bow at money, wealth, fame, and power. To get a petty task accomplished, a reference of a governing authority or a dominant person is required.
How do human rights and psychology intersect in in your work?
After being educated from UK twice, I tried to implement the values of democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, mutual respect and tolerance in my home country Pakistan. However, I observed the trickle down effect from the top of the hierarchy (governmental level) to be more influential in negatively/positively altering people’s behaviours than my efforts for change at my individual level. At the individual level, some students expressed gratefulness for helping them out for various matters and respecting their time and one student said that her personality was groomed, while others might have perceived me as a weak and a powerless person because empathy is perceived to be a weakness instead of a strength in Pakistan.
During my Bachelors in Psychology, I observed that adolescents were going through different problems and thus conducted a research project on problems of adolescence. Then at Masters’ level, I observed that students were going through stress and anxiety and therefore I conducted research on Gender differences in test anxiety and examination stress. I further conducted a project on undergraduate and postgraduate students’ attitude towards research methods and statistics. I also conducted research on coping and social support in patients with terminal diseases versus non-terminal diseases. During my PhD, I became interested in psychopathic personality traits and antisocial behaviours. And later, with my students as a supervisor and a research collaborator, I conducted two researches on sadistic tendencies. I also supervised research on dementia, informal adoption, role of emotions in career, cyberbullying, climate change behaviours and emotions, and hierarchical discrimination.
Overall, my psychological research has unveiled multifarious aspects of human rights, which are in some cases subtly and in others blatantly being violated and consequently the human rights’ violation is raising an apathetic, selfish and a cruel generation. The perpetrator to victim and then victim to perpetrator vicious cycle is persistently being repeated. Psychological research is an intellectual voice for human rights that strengthens the basis for educational awareness.
How did you become a psychologist so much involved with human rights?
I was touched by many scenarios in my life.
Corporal punishment was not something extraordinary in the 1980s even in the top elite schools. The teacher used to slap and threaten kindergarten children. Once we were made to stand on the tables, raise our hands, and we were locked in our classroom at home time. The teacher said that we would stay the night in the classroom. All children started crying.
One of my confident classmates copied her during the break. She used to line us up, verbally and physically abuse us and act as a teacher while we were victimised as her students. She gained the teacher’s support and said that the teacher has asked the children of the same section to play together. She did not let me play with children of the other section. From Kindergarten to class 1, I learned that I would become a teacher when I grow up and hit children.
I was forced into extracurricular activities that the majority were involved in. I was encouraged to get blended with the crowd and not get into expressive art activities such as singing, dancing and acting (showbiz).
As a child, I used to write poems and articles on social issues or whatever bothered me the most. I had some letters and articles published in newspapers. I used to watch dramas on women oppression and whenever my mother called me to the kitchen to train me in cooking, I asked her, “Why do women have to work in the kitchen and not men?” At age 12, I was forbidden to bicycle in my street because one day a young boy neighbour had clapped on my skilful cycling (without holding on to the handle). In college, my relatives and friends bullied me for participating in karate classes.
Embarrassment and shame linked to femininity:
It was so frustrating that people expected women to hide their menstruation cycles and pretend to fast in front of the men of the family throughout the holy month of Ramadan. Not going to religious gathering or not praying in the masjid or with other women was embarrassing because it was assumed that the girl is on her period. Menstruation was associated with shame.
Child identity rights:
As a girl child and then as a woman, I did not have freedom to choose my identity as a formally adopted person to associate with my adoptive parents due to religious and cultural taboos.
Human rights of women in matters of marriage:
My parents were keener to see me get settled in a married life instead of pursuing higher education and career. When marriage proposals arrived, I was not allowed to meet the prospective groom/spouse. My parents monitored all my email conversations and in-person meeting(s), which were few and far between. When I asked my father to let me read my marriage contract, he hesitated, slightly resisted, smiled and said that it is a matter of trust. On my wedding day, the section of divorce rights was cancelled out. Before signing it, I questioned my mother, why that section was cancelled out. She and other people asked me not to question and hasten with signing the marriage contract. I was not allowed to leave the stage to meet the guests on my wedding day. I was forced to wear traditional earrings. After my marriage, I struggled with stereotypical housewife expectations alongside my work life. This is not only my story; it is the story of majority of Pakistani women.
Human problems and Psychology of human rights:
Most of the people around me thought that I lived in a world of fantasy. Nobody seemed to understand my feelings, aims, and ambitions. Being a woman in Pakistan, I strived to get higher education. I wanted to understand the psychology of grown ups and the psychology of conflicts in various forms.
Struggle for my educational rights:
Psychology became my passion and I rebelliously (because I had to drastically shift my pathway from bachelors in home economics to a second bachelors in psychology with much difficulty due to strictly hierarchical educational system in Pakistan) pursued psychology. Then despite the opposition of extended family members, I went to the UK for my second Masters degree in Applied Psychology. My mother sold her land to get me educated from the UK. She used to say that education is power. Thus, I wanted to empower myself so that one day I could stand up for my rights as an educated and empowered woman and then advocate for human rights.
Violation of human rights everywhere:
I was educated in a private school for 11 years, so I did not know about the really callous world beyond the private institution’s walls. I learned about the cold-hearted world after stepping into college, work life, and career. I learned that it was not only the relatives, neighbours, and acquaintances, who were playing with human rights but the entire society (schools, hospitals, private, and public organisations) was merged into a sea of injustice, corruption, and hierarchy.
Being an informal adoptee, and a dementia caregiver I faced the music. I experienced the harsh and un-empathetic attitudes of the society, shame, abuse, violence, stigma, social, emotional, physical and legal problems in the society.
The journey of research in and advocacy of human rights:
As I progressed into my education and career, I continuously realised that something was wrong with the society, so I was naturally drifted towards the realm of social psychology and human rights research. I began my own online educational NGO named Khan Bahadur Visionaries based on human rights educational system and developed Facebook pages and groups to talk about human rights. Adoptive Human Rights, Dementia and Delirium Support Lahore, Global Children Association, and Everyday sadistic tendencies treatment are my currently operational Facebook pages/groups.
I am also working on my autoethnography, which includes the gender-based framework. My on-going collaborative research projects are about racism, prejudice and discrimination, dementia, attitude towards COVID-19 vaccine, sadism, informal adoption, and environmental psychology. The scope of my work is not limited to the above-mentioned topics or pages; rather I am open to research on anything in the domain of humanity.
Since this issue of the bulletin is devoted to the International Women’s Day, please let us know more about your engagement in the field of women’s rights.
I advocate for women empowerment through education and online awareness posts in groups such as ‘Kasur Hamara hai’ (translated as ‘the fault is ours’), which is about child abuse and domestic violence mainly about the female gender. I also support the campaigns of the Women Action Forum. I help battered, abused, and victimised women in connecting with the members of Women Action Forum, marriage counsellors and lawyers. I also advise them on domestic matters according to my limited knowledge.
My research paper “Measuring everyday health information literacy: A survey of Pakistani married working women” has been accepted for publication in Libri- International Journal of Libraries and Information Studies in 2021. I celebrated women’s day through compilation of women’s day video messages and disseminated it through social media in 2019. I also participated in Ecosoc Women’s Week (20th – 24th April 2015) – a week focused on events, workshops and discussions aiming to involve and inspire women in 2015. I presented my outreach project proposal of Khan Bahadur Visionaries on educational development in Pakistan at Sheffield International Women’s club in 2015. At Khoj Society for People’s Education, I translated an Indian book on home remedies for village women from English to Urdu. I developed educational materials for literacy development of village women in Pakistan in 2007.
Through my advocacy, teaching, and psychological research, I want to break orthodox and perverse stereotypical images of women. I want to see women empowered as a living being as well as women empowering other women. In this context, the New Zealand Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, impresses me. Empowerment for me is not equality. Empowerment entails equity.
Pakistani women are generally suppressed women and then they expect other women to be suppressed as well. My research in the UK has shown that women have sadistic and affectively dissonant tendencies, which probably makes them victimise other women. Victim blaming is very common in Pakistan.
Suppression is positively presented as modesty and humbleness while assertiveness of women is interpreted as rowdiness, being spoilt, uncouth and indecent. Through research and observation, I have learned that girls and women are expected to be helpless beings while men are expected to be brave at all times. I still hear the popular phrase uttered by a woman when my son cries, “Don’t cry like a girl”. I often tell him that it is alright to cry and express emotions.
What women’s rights are of the top consideration in your work as psychologist?
Education of women is my top consideration. Women need to be educated about their rights. They need to know how to assess a certain situation and then express themselves in an assertive manner at unexpected occasions. Sometimes victimisation occurs in such a elusive manner that one is unable to recognise victimisation whether it is sexual harassment, sexual assault, or some other form of violence. A shrewd person might be able to gauge the intentions of the perpetrator at the right moment and respond to it.
Have you ever experienced any human rights threats because of the work that you have been doing?
I wish that my work was that pervasive! Not yet. But in my personal and work life there were certain instances, when I was threatened in-person, on anonymous phone calls, and in cyberspace when I decided to stand by my principles, talked about injustice or for my rights. I felt like a fish out of water at my workplace and faced negative reactions of people as if I had misperceived different situations.
It is difficult to be vocal in a security state where welfare or wellbeing is not on the agenda and where women are sheltered by their fathers, brothers, and husbands to protect the family’s honour. On top it, if a woman is a public sector employee of the government, her voice is subdued and she is not allowed to research, write, or speak about anything in the media that goes against the government or the country’s reputation.
During challenging research work, we encountered a lot of resistance. Many participants were scared that their identities would be disclosed and thus refrained from talking about discrimination.
You work at the Lahore College for Women University. Does it mean only women are allowed to attend it?
Yes, Lahore College for Women University is a college and a university for women but we also have male teaching and non-teaching staff members. However, only female students attend it. I try to instill the values of freedom with responsibility in students through my classroom management techniques.
Do you include human rights in your teaching? If you do, what would you like to achieve with your teaching?
‘Human rights’ is not a separate component or a course in the curriculum at the Department of Applied Psychology yet but it is taught at the Department of International Relations.
Human rights are gaining attention and momentum at Lahore College for Women University. You can see it here: https://www.lcwu.edu.pk/news-aug2020/2655-celebrating-diversity-a-mega-event.html
While teaching psychology, I talk about and advocate for human rights. I want my students to learn about their basic human rights. I often tell them that access to clean air, a clean noise free environment, and sitting in a normal temperature is their basic human right. Stationery and a fully equipped classroom with technological resources is also their human right. I often mention giving right of the way on roads. I talk about free access to basic healthcare services as their human right. I tell them about their rights as a customer, their value for time and money for quality educational services. I talk about the significance of a woman’s consent in marriage, child abuse, and child rights. However, I am careful not to turn young women against their parents, values or their family system. Yet, I ask them to discuss certain things with their family members in a logical and a respectful way, which does not contradict their religious or socio-cultural values and beliefs.
In the active citizenship module, I talked about citizenship rights. In educational psychology module, considering human rights, I inspired my students to be better school administrators, teachers, school counsellors, and special education teachers in future. In personality theories course, I extended students’ imagination beyond the core theories in the curriculum to incorporate the rights of those with different abilities, transgender individuals, and other types of diversity in personality.
In organisational behaviour module, I mentioned employee’s rights. In clinical psychology course, I talked about the rights of the clients. In behavioural neuroscience module, I emphasized the rights of persons with dementia, schizophrenia and other neurological disorders. In counselling in health psychology course, I talked about the rights of patients before surgery, the rights of aggrieved caregivers and the rights of those who are deaf and blind. In research methods module, I accentuated the importance of research ethics involving human and animal rights. So, above are a few examples of how I teach about human rights through various psychology courses.
I also voluntarily tried to empower women, the students and the staff of the university in refining their research proposals, theses, literary and journalistic writing and publishing skills through online writing retreat and workshops.
How do you hope it will influence women?
I think that amidst the chaotic unstable political and economic conditions, and an unsympathetic society, someone talking about kindness, empathy, love and care is a ray of hope for change. Honesty and respect for others’ time is often celebrated as a rarity in Pakistan.
I do not claim to make a change on a large scale but I think that I might have been successful in touching a few hearts or initiating the beginning of change in mind-sets through my teaching, research, advocacy, and role modelling efforts.
How do you advocate for human rights?
I use social media platforms for human rights’ advocacy. I recently delivered a webinar on the impact of climate change and COVID-19 on children at the Children convention of the Children Assembly. I presented my collaborative research on environmental psychology at the APA convention virtual 2021. I advocate for human rights in the monthly online coaching psychology peer practice groups of The British Psychological Society (BPS). I presented a poster on prejudice and discrimination collaborative research project at the BPS DART-P conference. I advocated for the rights of informal adoptees and informal adoptive parents when I presented my research project at the APA Minority Fellowship Program Psychology Summer Institute. I also write and publish poetry on issues such as diversity, race, class, adoptive human rights, oppression of women and women’s rights. I have signed more than 100 petitions of change.org for human rights.