FREEDOM is an extremely powerful idea, glorified by those who want it, reviled by those who want to keep status quo intact. We Pakistanis have a particular affinity with the word. Most of us relate viscerally to chants of ‘azadi’ whenever they ring out in Jammu, Kashmir or Ladakh, on account of the state’s public patronage.
Yet the same sloganeering evokes almost diametrically opposed sentiments when the protagonists are different. For most of Pakistan’s history, demands for azadi have emanated from ethnic-nationalist and leftist political circles. Officialdom, and a large segment of society that has imbibed state ideology, has decried such demands as traitorous.
A closer reading of history makes clear that the vast majority of those who have raised such slogans want emancipation from material deprivation, violence, state repression and more; put differently, they have simply demanded the rights that are due to all free citizens regardless of race, religion, creed, class or caste.
Throughout this long history of struggle – both for basic freedoms of life and against incessant propaganda – the question of women’s emancipation, and gendered power more generally, has been relatively underrepresented.
Those demanding ‘azadi’ are moving society forward.
In Pakistan, every day is a new horror story of girls, women and transpeople being subjected to all kinds of discrimination, abuse and violence; what makes the news is but the tip of the iceberg. Quite simply, the struggle for women and oppressed genders is as significant as any other progressive movement in our history.
From its earliest beginnings, the women’s movement has been criticised for being limited to elite, liberal and urban spaces. The relatively superficial nature of such attacks aside, mobilisations of women in the peripheries by organisations like the Sindhiani Tehreek and the contemporary Baloch movement speak for themselves.
The critique of elitism extends to the most prominent gathering of contemporary feminists, the Aurat Azadi March, organised for the past few years on International Working Women’s Day (March 8). I doubt any of the organisers or supporters of the AAM, which is again taking place this year in multiple cities across Pakistan, will insist that the participants are entirely representative of the prototypical working class Pakistani woman. Yet the very fact that these marches coincide with March 8 — which commemorates the Russian women who effectively triggered the 1917 Bolshevik revolution in Moscow — speaks volumes for the politics that informs the AAM.
Which brings me back to the slogan of ‘azadi’. The caricaturing and vilification of left-progressives and ethnic-nationalists for espousing emancipatory politics over the decades has come to be matched in a very short time by that to which the AAM organisers have been subjected. For a woman to demand azadi in this society, it would appear, is nothing short of sacrilegious.
This is not surprising. Most Pakistani men and boys are socialised to believe that they are gatekeepers for women and girls, who, in turn, are naturally endowed with lesser traits. Patriarchal attitudes about segregated private and public spaces, life choices, and institutional arrangements like marriage are imbibed by most women. So it is that, alongside boisterous men, some women and girls also level charges of impropriety against the AAM.
The segment of women and transpeople demanding azadi is claiming freedom from material want and hardship, and also contesting internalised patriarchal norms. They are moving society forward, however much opposition there may be. The AAM does not constitute a threat to every aspect of our social life, any more than the azadi demanded by leftists and ethnic-nationalists cannot be automatically equated with conspiracy against the state. Resistance to, and ultimately transformation of, our depraved, alienated and violent male-dominated society, nevertheless bears a heavy cost. The challenge that all progressives face, AAM organisers not least of all, is not be taken over by the hate of those who resist change.
Which brings me in closing to the proverbial elephant in the room: men. All men, myself included, are beneficiaries of structural arrangements that grant us power — however conscious we are of it — over women and other genders in this society. But despite its seductiveness, power can be relinquished. Harsh lessons and help from women helped me realise that many of the patriarchal habits I imbibed since childhood made me miserable. To be one-dimensional, unable to do ‘feminine’ things like express empathy/emotion, or simply listen rather than talk, is not a badge of honour.
As educationist Paulo Freire insisted, the objective of all emancipatory struggle is freedom from oppression, so as to abolish the very categories of oppressor and oppressed. It is thus that the AAM asserts: ‘Aurat azad, samaj azad.’
The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.
Published in Dawn, March 5th, 2021