To be a feminist … in Pakistan

January 03, 2013


As I set about being an upwardly mobile, modern, young man in a big city I knew I had to be a feminist.

For one I’ve always been attracted to words, concepts and ideas starting with ‘femin’ as did the most fashionable ism in those days. For two, feminist gatherings provided the only opportunity to meet girls (and of course women and aunties), without having to spend money on chai samosa. And for three, I found feminism practically useful and wholly suited to my lifestyle.

I am, by nature a lazy person. OK, maybe it’s my choice but I like to believe my choice is also determined by nature. I view and value my laziness in a scientific way. I am living proof of Newton’s law which states that a man at rest will remain at rest until an outside force acts on him. I am also born without a single chivalrous bone in me. The two qualities put together made me a reluctant gentleman who is expected to treat females in prescribed manners – opening doors, not smoking in their presence, always picking and dropping them, never letting them pay, spreading one’s jacket over mud so the lady doesn’t soil her shoes … Feminism gave me the liberty to be my mean, miserly and Newtonly self. As a feminist I was required not to offer my seat to a standing woman only because of her gender, and it suited me alright. I wasn’t going to offer it anyway.

Above all, I found feminism liberating. I grew up in a nondescript locality in a small city where every woman was khala ji and had the right to slap you in the face if she heard you swear or caught you smoking; two of the khala jis ran home-based businesses to boost household income; where every older girl was a baji who could ask you to fetch a frog or two for her biology experiment and in return would let you watch her cut them up; where some girls wore burqa to college of their own wish, simply because they felt comfortable; where a woman used to routinely shout at and often beat up her husband in public, with her hands and once with slippers. There was the nonagenarian Amma Jantay who wore two-inches thick glasses, chewed coal, occasionally helped with household chores and once a month took off her only shalwar qameez in our courtyard to wash it while she bathed, and then lay down on a charpoy stark naked to dry herself while her clothes dried on the line.

I grew up with all these characters without trying to understand, much less judge or question them. But I couldn’t explain why a pretty girl would want to hide behind a burqa, a housewife would turn into a business‘man’, and a withering old woman would use my home as a naturalist resort? Their behavior seemed too low brow to my English-medium school mores. And the worst was, no one in the neighbourhood seemed to mind. The husband beater was considered as much in the wrong, but in a way right, as a wife beater. No more, no less. Both were administered the same advice: if you have to beat your spouse, do it in the privacy of your home. Gender was never mentioned as a factor in this or most other issues. The only gender difference I was aware of was that girls at a certain age stopped playing with boys.

When I heard the vision of big city feminists – of a girl child treated equally or better than her brothers, of a young woman making her decisions independently and confidently, of a mature woman in control of her life and helping others around her control theirs, of a female living her life to her full potential – I knew that they did not know the woman they were talking about lived in every house in my mohallah. And that liberated me from the embarrassment of owning all the khala jis, bajis and Amma Jantays of my childhood.

After all these years of association with people who eat and excrete feminism, however, I have come to the realisation that I don’t like their company. They are generally humourless people with a hooded outlook. They listen to every conversation and read every piece of writing, only to point out latent misogyny in the speaker or writer. They despise anything said in a lighter vein about women; jokes are absolutely forbidden. They see a woman only as the wronged party and not as a human being with her own aspirations, pleasures and pains, challenges, failures, and achievements. The ideology – if it can be termed one – has no resonance with my own adult experience. I have not known women in Pakistan to be oppressed, weak, or subjugated, any more than all Pakistanis are. If anything, some women in my circle of family and friends are stronger, braver, and more intelligent than men.

Neither have I known men in Pakistan to be oppressors and violators of rights of women, any more than they oppress and violate other men, transsexuals and children, when they have the will and means to do so. Conversely, I know men who share household chores, lovingly raise children, and treat men and women with equal civility.

Demanding ‘women rights’ before human rights is what dehumanises women. It is also a convenient ploy to ignore the wholesale violation of human rights in our beloved motherland which is not made up of fiendishly powerful men and miserably powerless women only. Seeing and painting one-dimensional reality is what puts genders on path of confrontation: if feminism stands for the rights of women, then we need another ism to safeguard the rights of weak, meek and geek men, yet another for persons of indeterminate sex … and who do they fight against?

My feminist friends borrow their ideology from another world, another reality. In my world, in my reality men, women and transsexuals have to unite against discrimination of any kind against any individual or gender if we are to make this a society of equals. In pyara Pakistan there is oppression galore. We can either fight against this overarching oppression by powerful men and women against the weak, or we can help the oppressors by pitting one gender against the other.


Masud Alam is an Islamabad-based writer, columnist and journalism trainer. He can be reached at


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