Every time a male Pakistani politician offers his two rupees on gender equality and the highly-debated ‘question of women’ — that, too, often unsolicited — I know enough at this point to scratch out surprise as an appropriate response.
After all, the very people ordained with the responsibility of protecting us are the ones who form the elite kingsguard that protects this bastion of misogyny we call our country.
Recently, when Imran Khan offered his buzzword-filled, uninformed, and completely unsolicited take on the women question on an interview for Hum News, I was once again reminded that the faux white hats our male politicians parade around are damp with the blood and toil of women all across the country.
Questioned about the personalities of his two sons, Khan spiralled into a response with his take on motherhood and feminism that sparked an uproar against him.
Khan went as far as to differentiate between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ mothers, but never got around to explaining the distinctive features of either.
Repeatedly emphasising the notion that there is a specific benchmark to be met in order to enter ‘good’ motherhood (‘agar wo sahi wali maa ho’ or ‘waqai maa ho’), Khan seemed to boast himself as a true expert and judge on the experience and merits of motherhood.
Housework is work
It’s important to note, however, that Khan’s views on motherhood don’t exist in a vacuum.
Most mothers are incredible, yes, but not for the reasons Khan and his likes would want us to believe.
It doesn’t take much of a lesson in feminism to observe the burden of responsibilities mothers, willingly or unwillingly, find themselves under.
Most of us have seen our mothers do the grunt work when it comes to raising children — from childbirth to childcare, women are disproportionately held responsible for taking care of their children along with all other housework.
Their never-ending domestic, unpaid labour is granted no social visibility nor merit, and economic remuneration is, of course, always out of question.
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Our conception of fatherhood, however, is limited to the visual of the breadwinner that must, in some capacity, be feared and respected.
While our mothers bathe, clothe and feed us, fathers can simply love from afar and still earn a pat on the back for, well, not being worse.
Like Khan, it is true for a lot of us who grew up within nuclear families that we have a stronger relationship with our mothers, and, consequently, that they have a greater influence on our lives.
But mothers never asked for it.
Mothers never asked to become solely responsible for children that are not just theirs. If fathers were more involved in their children’s lives, to the nitty-gritty detail that mothers are, perhaps that may not stand true.
There is no intrinsic quality within women that determines that they are to, somehow, magically influence their children more — it is all a product of nurture, and most of us fail to see that.
In families where men are the sole breadwinners and take part in paid employment for a few hours a day, women’s work is constant, never-ending labour — physical, emotional, and psychological, and even sexual.
Moreover, it baffles me that men think most women enjoy the constant grind and extremely ill-distributed nature of domestic work.
Can mothers only be honoured when they are made to sacrifice and give endlessly to their family?
Have we no room for more balanced ideas of childbearing that could involve and prioritise the personal fulfillment of all members involved?
Class and motherhood
It is for working women, especially those from lower socioeconomic strata, that my heart hurts most when I hear motherhood experts like Khan disparage women who don’t fit the archaic model of motherhood that Pakistani men just cannot seem to rid themselves of.
Khan claims that the feminist movement in the West — of course, he would never acknowledge our local feminist movements — has degraded the role of the mother.
Khan never really seeks to explain how or why, yet it is obvious he’s alluding to the rise of women pursuing paid work outside of the home.
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To Khan’s surprise, working women still carry the unadulterated burden of housework and child care, sometimes even elderly care, despite pursuing paid employment.
Called the triple shift, working women are made to perform their paid employment and unpaid housework (also known as the dual burden), but are also undertaking a constant third shift where they are the key channels through which the emotional health of the children, husband and other family members is maintained.
And, not to mention the constant societal taboo that they encounter by their decisions to join the workforce and the gendered nature of hindrances they face at work to succeed and perform well.
If Khan believes this is the degraded role of a mother, there isn’t much left from which to argue from.
None of this is to forget the class dynamics underpinning the economy of motherhood. It is no hidden secret that, for centuries, lower-income women have shared and eased the burden of middle-class motherhood while simultaneously increasing their own workload.
Even today, caregiving and housework in Pakistan — and the rest of the world — are commonly staffed by migrant and lower-income women who leave their own children at home so that middle-class women can have it easier and/or leave the home to pursue paid employment.
Moreover, there is no system in Pakistan to regulate wages — usually equalling or less than minimum wage — for female labourers in the caregiving and domestic help industry, despite the widespread nature of the phenomenon.
Some women are forced by circumstance to offer their children up for child labour as well. In Pakistan, rampant child labour feeds off children in the lower-income strata.
Are they, then, the children of ‘bad’ mothers? Is Khan going to point fingers here too instead of asking critical questions about why things are the way they are?
Khan conveniently forgets that motherhood in Pakistan is not always a choice. It is an expectation, a chore. Sure, some enjoy it more than others. Some even hate it, believe it or not.
Romanticising women’s ridiculous amounts of sacrifices is not how one atones for an issue so systemic, and yet, seems to be the course of choice for most Pakistanis.
Feminism is not an import
Perhaps the most excruciating part of Khan’s entire spiel is his complete erasure of organic feminist movements that aren’t Western.
The problem with our men, politicians especially, is their complete inability to reckon with the idea that Pakistani women’s consciousness could ever emerge on its own.
Such men continue to be in complete disbelief that us Pakistani women — who bear the painful brunt of the patriarchal onslaught every single day — could ever recognise, on their own, that the systems in place are never going to be in our favour.
We do not need to be schooled by the West to understand our own situation. We have our own rich history of women resisting for centuries.
It is this misguided make-believe and, frankly, a perpetuation of the historical erasure of our women’s resistance, that lets these men pull out the ‘Western feminism’ card at their convenience.
It isn’t ‘Western’ feminism that Khan disagrees with, it’s women’s battle against oppression everywhere that he takes issue with, and that, too, without realising it.
All misogyny is the same
Khan’s defenders are quick to disagree with what they call a grand assumption on the part of us offended lot. Defenders say Khan doesn’t hate women, that he’s just ‘politically incorrect’. After all, he named a hospital after his mother.
I am prepared to give him the benefit of doubt; sure, maybe Khan doesn’t hate women. But, I’m afraid that just doesn’t cut it. The fact is that he let down all women with his derogatory remarks.
But, instead of entertaining the prospect of an apology, the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf and its supporters wish to convince us that their misogyny isn’t as bad as the rest.
The men in our country continue to get away with pointing their fingers at others, while the blood of our women boils and spills across.
“Look at what the other party does to women,” they all beckon back and forth as if misogyny is a competition.
There are no good or bad levels of misogyny: it does not matter whether one reaches threatening extremes while another is able to exercise a more palatable disdain for women. It is all the same to us: disgusting.
No vote for sexism
Interestingly enough, five years ago, I was part of that swarm of teenage youths that were invigorated by the PTI’s call to rally against the establishment.
I did not care, much like my other young comrades, that you, Khan, and your party were inexperienced and could not comprehend the lay of the political landmines, as critics suggested.
“It’s better than reinstating known, convicted crooks,” was the celebrated retort.
I suppose I was already playing the game of picking the lesser evil before I even knew what it was.
But in 2013, I did not have a vote — I was not 18 then.
Red flags were quick to emerge in the aftermath. As anticipated and much to our dismay, the party wasn’t that great at or interested in doing its job, much like all the other political parties Pakistan is currently plagued with.
Five years later, the devastation remains, but, now, it stems from the realisation that all of these politicians are really out to get us women.
The only time they will agree with each other is when they need to bring us down. We are the battlegrounds upon which they all fight their elections — slut-shaming one, mansplaining to another, discrediting a third, threatening a fourth.
None of them play for us. None of them want to. Gender policy is one small paragraph in the end of their manifestos. Their inclination to include women in the political process starts and ends with quotas.
While our politicians are busy spouting uninformed opinions and practicing a complete disrespect for women’s plight, women still continue to be murdered in cold-blood, regardless of age.
Mothers from all backgrounds continue to be exploited. Only five days ago, Irum was murdered by her husband over a domestic dispute in Ghaziabad. Just last week, Mehwish, a female bus attendant was shot dead by a man because she refused his marriage proposal.
In the past year alone, 345 newborn baby-girls were found dead in the trash in Karachi alone. Pakistan’s Missing Girls crisis is still 105:100 girls to boys, meaning there are five boys for every girl.
According to the 2017 Census, the sex ratio in Pakistan is about 108-122 males for every 100 females, with the ratio consistently higher in urban areas as compared to rural.
Pakistan is termed the third-most dangerous country in the world for women, and the Women, Peace and Security Index slots Pakistan as 150th out of 153 countries, with only Afghanistan, Syria and Saudi Arabia scoring lower on the index.
I’m not forgetting the names of these victims or these statistics because, five years later, I do have a vote. And, you best believe it is not about to be wasted on casual primetime sexism.
The feminists will come for all of you, and it won’t be pretty.
Illustration by Zoha Bundally
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