I recently came across an article in The Guardian titled ‘How to have a feminist wedding’ by Laura Bates, June 28th, 2014. The piece opened with this little nugget:
“Let's face it, feminism can be exhausting. Not that I've ever doubted that fighting for equality is the right thing to do in the midst of sexism, discrimination and abuse, obviously. I'm just saying the Onion had it right when it recently published an article entitled “Woman Takes Short Half-Hour Break From Being Feminist to Enjoy TV Show". It's not easy to go about your daily feminist business without encountering multiple dilemmas.”
Seeing as I am currently teaching a course titled ‘The Reluctant Feminist’ at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS), I can personally attest to the fact that yes, feminism can be exhausting and it is made all the more important for exactly that very reason.
At the beginning of the course, I had already anticipated most of the qualifiers and deflections that were sure to come my way and come they did.
‘I believe in equal rights but I don’t call myself a feminist’
‘I believe men and women are equal but not in every way’
‘I think feminism is a Western concept and Islam already allows rights for women’
‘Feminists are mostly just man-haters’
The greatest concern my students had related to feminism being ‘Western’ and anti-men, nearly impossible to reconcile with Islam or Pakistan.
Also read: 'To be a feminist...in Pakistan'
Over the course of …the course, we have tackled various strands of feminism, schools of thought and movements and most have now concluded that while many feminists propagate a monolithic view of the movement, the cause itself allows for so much more under diverse strands such as transnational, postcolonial and Islamic feminism.
According to one of the most widely accepted definitions of feminism by Bell Hooks,
Feminism is a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation and oppression,
And by this stretch, everyone ought to be a feminist.
‘But the term is so messy now’ my students and the media often remind me, which only serves to bolster the need for saner voices to enter this debate, rather than leave it at the ever pervasive mercy of the monolith.
That said, it is still…exhausting.
Precisely because one finds themselves constantly qualifying perfectly rational opinions under a perfectly rational label that often appears to have been hijacked by extremists in the movement.
Bates’ article is especially interesting for Pakistani women, I feel, because it touches upon themes that we would do well to reconsider and re-evaluate in our own contexts.
When it comes to marriage, what are the concerns that any rational woman ought to concern herself with?
How does one strike the very necessary balance between compromises in marriage and independence?
To what degree must a couple conform to societal expectations and why? Let us count the complications.
What are the criteria for a ‘successful’ marriage today? And why is this not consistently held up as the most important barometer for success for any of us looking to get married?
After asking three different generations of women, namely my grandmother, mother and a cousin the same question, I received the same answer:
Because that isn’t the goal. A successful marriage in Pakistan is one that lasts.
Marriage, as an institution, is rendered a painfully pedestrian enterprise when the litmus test for its success is longevity rather than happiness.
Happiness, isn’t some new-age moniker for ‘fluffy feelings’, it is a staple of wellbeing and by many, considered the primary drive for all human endeavor. Why then, should it be sidelined as a worthwhile goal in a lifetime union between a man and woman for either party?
In her article, Bates elaborates upon quite a few themes including, among others, the engagement, the dress and the wedding ceremony. Transliterated for Pakistani society, feminist choices in all these spheres should be better expressed as ‘common sense’ choices rather than ‘how best to put on a show’ choices.
How easily we forget that we still rank ourselves globally as a ‘poor country’ unless it comes down to a wedding.
Look through: 'Happy” feminism'
Engagements are supposed to be about commitment not carat sizes, and while many a time the very act of ‘saying yes’ in our society involves a carefully detailed survey of liquidity assets and extensive background checks on ‘khandaans’, it is perhaps more effective to use this time period to focus on the couples mutual goals, that they envision for their life together.
Sure there are outfits to plan and family members to appease and a photo-op awaiting facebook likes from all the people you always wanted to make jealous in college but there are some big questions that also need asking.
Will we both continue to work?
If so, how will we divvy up our earnings?
Will we have joint bank accounts?
Will we split household chores?
When will we have kids and how do we want to raise them?
Where do we want to live?
As for the damned dress, yes many-a-woman plans her wedding dress before she prepares for her O' levels and yes many-a-designer count and capitalise on that very proclivity but any woman with an ounce of common sense ought to keep her wits about her, even in the face of a dream dress. Technically, this is an outfit one is only likely to wear once in their life, unless one has more siblings than sense and plans on recycling the same outfit for multiple occasions featuring the same family audience.
Dresses can be made cheap, with some originality and a little effort at that good old-fashioned ‘adda’ with the same good old-fashioned tailors who are good enough to outfit you the rest of your lives. Let us play down our nationalism by actually copying Bollywood dresses for a fraction of the cost rather than doling out a fortune shopping for our trousseaus in Delhi. Better yet, play up the sentimental factor and opt for your mother or grandmother’s wedding dress redone with a twist. It will be both original and economical, which is more than can be said for most weddings today.
Explore: 'Five ways Pakistan degraded women'
A basic barometer, I feel, is that if your wedding dress costs more than a car, you seriously need to rethink your life choices. One of the sanest options I’ve recently encountered in this department is the ‘Rent a Dress’ idea.
As for the wedding, let’s go back to our roots and focus on what a Muslim marriage is really about, shall we? It is about the contract.
So, let us all do ourselves a favour and actually read our nikahnamas before signing them. Let women demand their Haq Talaaq (right of divorce) and Haq Mehr, which contrary to popular opinion, are not just ‘suggestions’ and gifts’ but are - as the title suggests - ‘haq’ (rights).
A woman asking for both documents is neither demanding nor belligerent; it is exercising a basic right granted by her religion. Many women hesitate to do so because asking for the right to divorce requires asking for this right to be placed in the nikahnama in advance and no one wants to talk about such things during ‘happy times’.
The same principle is extended when it comes to mehr. So many just call it a ‘gift’ and dismiss both its value and its intent, which is to provide a woman with financial security in a society that constantly threatens both.
Only last year I attended a valima where all the guests were driving themselves into a frenzy trying to identify the cost of the food and the fact that the brides dress ‘must have cost more than a Civic’. The mehr she signed for, however, was Rs 10,000.
Call me contentious, but if someone is willing to dish out a small fortune on the festivities but value their spouses security along the cost of an iPod, that should tell you something.
If prospective in-laws ditch the nuptials because of a woman demanding her basic rights, trust me she dodged a bullet and she’s better off.
Bates opens her piece by hinting that most of her feminist friends thought marriage and feminism to be inherently divergent concepts. I often tell my students the opposite.
Whether a radical or reluctant feminist, I tell them that most of their feminist choices will probably take place in the context of their marriages. That will be the first time, they will take matters into their own hands, and both men and women will have to work out how to run their own households; share the house work; treat their servants; split their time and work out their issues laterally, hopefully without collateral. They will have to work out how best to raise their children, teach their girls to realise their potential and their boys to appreciate ones who do.
As Bates puts it:
Doesn’t being a feminist mean forging new paths through old traditions?
This is what young couples need to work on today, forging new methods to marriage, methods that do not necessitate typical gender roles of catering to who earns how much and who spends how much time in the kitchen but rather on how couples navigate their choices together. How they split duties without splitting hairs…and often, egos.
These are the ‘feminist’ choices that we need to be focusing on where marriage is concerned and they are just as rational and beneficial and feminist for men as they are for women.