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Reclaiming the “F” word: Being a Pakistani feminist

January 11, 2013

As we begin a new year with a new set of resolutions to follow, it appears that the world is reacting negatively to the small victories won by feminists around the world in 2012. While women rights advocates throw their collective weight behind struggles for equality in education, health care and the workplace, others decry the “irrelevance” of feminism in third-world countries such as ours. Why care about women when we should be caring about humans? Why affix the dreaded label of “feminist” which conjures images of bra-burning circa 1960s? Why cry about the status of women in South Asia where the matriarchal figures of grandmothers and great-aunts hold so much power in popular culture? There is no women’s problem; there is just a developmental problem, right?

However well-intentioned such arguments may be, they betray a deeply flawed understanding of what feminism is, why it exists and why it remains important in Pakistan in 2013. Feminism is not the belief that individual men do not love their wives or fail to champion their rights. It is not the belief that women are incapable of defending themselves or standing up for their rights to be educated, to dress as they please and to proclaim their equality. Feminism does not equate a sense of victimhood and it does not assume women need special protection. Women do not need (or ask for) protection; what they need is empowerment, which can only be gained through social and institutional equality. It is wonderful and encouraging that there are individuals who respect women, but that does not change an inherently patriarchal society unless more people are willing to identify it as sexist.

One article that recently appeared in referred to the author’s own village as an example of why women are not oppressed and why urban Pakistani feminism is irrelevant. He questioned how the shrill cries of women rights activists in metropolitan cities could be in touch with reality in a country where elderly women could lie about in the nude while their clothes hanged to dry and angry wives are at liberty to beat their husbands. He characterised the world as one where domestic abuse, whether inflicted upon a man or a woman, is censured but left as a “private matter” for families to deal with themselves.

Moreover, he associates the existence of progressive couples enjoying equality in relationships with the idea that feminism no longer matters, the battle has been won and it is time to focus on other issues. Opinions such as these are deeply saddening because of their insistence on ignoring starker realities in favour of sentimentalised examples. It is true that a number of wealthy, urban Pakistanis tend to be more in touch with western societies than their own, but that does not make the fight for women rights any less important. The truth is that a wife who smacks her husband with a shoe may be tolerated, but only as a somewhat comical stereotype.

However, serious domestic violence against women, including rape and life-threatening beatings, are a common phenomenon precisely because society treats it as a “private matter” between husband and wife and institutions such as the police remain notorious for not taking action against it. Similarly, while an elderly woman may have the liberty to flaunt her aging body without raising eyebrows, a young girl caught wearing anything deemed socially inappropriate is likely to be censured to a point where eve-teasing and physical harassment would be considered just punishment for not abiding by with the norms (one need only view the comments on news stories reporting incidents of rape).

As for the existence of equal partnerships between spouses, while it again points to an encouraging trend among men who are embracing progressive ideals, it does not relieve society of the burden of patriarchy. And at the end of the day, most middle class Pakistani households struggle to put together acceptable dowries for daughters, very few families remain comfortable with their daughter’s right to divorce (and in fact many do not grant this right in the nikah nama). Along with that, nearly no one sees men as equally responsible for the task of parenting.

I urge all those who are afraid to call themselves feminists to transcend the negative stereotype and own the label. Women rights are human rights and investing time and passion in the promotion of women’s literacy and earning potential, enabling their access to birth control and ridding them of sexual objectification is a struggle that will pay dividends for centuries to come.

Were it not for the original feminists, whether at home or abroad, women would still be writing under male pseudonyms, denied scientific education and suffrage and expected to submit to unequal partnerships in love and in business. The fight is far from over: we are earning 75 per cent of what men earn in the same roles with the same qualifications; we are denied the right to press charges against marital rape in most countries (and discouraged from doing so in our own); we are less likely to be allowed to enter or finish school when there are male children in the family; we can still be censured or even imprisoned for seeking abortions and most of all, we are asked to remain silent because our anger is not justified or “feminine”.

This is not a war on men, this is not a neat dichotomy where males are the oppressors and females are the victims; this is an appeal for men and women to call themselves feminists and be proud to advocate equality for those who hold up half the sky. It is not difficult to begin: next time you see sexist depictions of gender roles in the media, hear someone blame a victim of sexual abuse for what happened to them or encounter pressure to be a submissive woman or an emotionless man, speak up. Do that and your sons and daughters will thank you for creating a fairer world for them to live in.


The author is a world history teacher and yoga instructor; passionate about education, women's rights and animal welfare. She blogs here.


The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.