FOR most men, the notion that women are subject to male domination in almost every aspect of social life and that men must give up some of their privilege as part of the struggle to transform patriarchal structures is hard — if not impossible — to stomach.
The very nature of men’s socialisation is such that women who call out male domination are generally considered a threat, no matter where they may be found. In the home, educational spaces and the workplace, men tend to react defensively when they are confronted with evidence that they subjugate women, out of (unconscious) habit or otherwise.
Many of us might agree on the depravity of physical — including sexual — violence against women, but we are less agreeable when subtler everyday forms of harassment and oppression are highlighted. This is why feminists speak of the deep internalisation of male domination across genders; women and girls are as likely to reinforce patriarchy as the men and boys to whom they unconsciously or subconsciously defer.
Today women, girls and transgenders on paper enjoy many of the same rights and freedoms that men and boys do. It is easy to forget that they had to struggle monumentally to secure even these formal concessions. The right to vote, the right to marry or divorce of one’s own will, the right to occupy public space, the right to education and occupational mobility, equal pay and decent working conditions — all of these have been secured over many hundreds of years in the face of immense resistance from those utterly committed to maintaining positions of privilege.
Men do not own feminist struggles as their own.
When one scratches even a little bit beneath the surface, it is evident that the grant of formal freedoms on paper does not translate into actual freedoms on the ground. Pakistan is of course one of the most patriarchal societies in the world. We read and hear about women, girls and transgenders being violated on an almost daily basis. In actual fact, what we hear about is only the tip of the iceberg; a majority of girls and women are condemned to suffer everyday injustice in silence and shame.
Take arguably the most innocuous example of all; men and boys occupy public spaces in Pakistan without impediment. Of course it matters if the man in question is rich or poor, hails from a religious group that is designated as non-Muslim, or belongs to a relatively excluded ethnic-linguistic community. But the constraints faced by women and girls vis-à-vis the occupation of public space are of an altogether different magnitude. Even walking down the street anonymously is a luxury for girls and women that boys and men simply take for granted.
Today is International Women’s Day, and events are being organised all over the world to commemorate the struggle and sacrifices of women, girls, transgenders and many others for a free and equal world. In many Pakistani cities, aurat marches will remind us of the ongoing struggle to transform structures of patriarchy.
For at least some of the reasons I have noted above, men do not own feminist struggles as their own. It is certainly true that there are very many different strands of feminism, and both men and women of different persuasions may or may not be moved by the principles that motivate any given feminist movement.
But today at least, it is important to bridge differences and stand up and be counted in the struggle. In its genesis, March 8 brought together revolutionaries committed to the wholesale transformation of society, and a dismantling of all exploitative and oppressive structures; the German communist Clara Zetkin the most prominent name advocating more than a century ago that International Women’s Day be celebrated every year on March 8.
Pakistani feminists have a long history of joining together with the struggles of others, and it is a testament to their vision that this year they are highlighting injustices of all kinds, from the anti-poor drives in the name of clearing encroachments to the dastardly practice of enforced disappearances. The fact that women, girls and transgenders bear the brunt of most such excesses committed by the rich and powerful (including state institutions) confirms just how important it is for progressives of all stripes to speak as one on this day.
This applies perhaps most of all to men, because any meaningful political project with the aim of constructing an egalitarian and sustainable social order cannot be to preserve only a particular segment of society. It is true that there will always be men who resist change, but by the same token there have always been men who have been willing to see how patriarchy privileges them and have committed to struggling against it. To the women, men, transgenders and everyone else who wants to build a genuine alternative to this increasingly brutalised world: join hands and march together!
The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.
Published in Dawn, March 8th, 2019