The changing – and competing – meanings of feminism in Pakistan.
Transgressing Boundaries, an art installation by Karachi-based artist Nisha Pinjani, depicts several women in various positions all tied together by their hair. A thick black braid grows out of each woman’s head and proceeds to get in every woman’s way. In binding them together, the braid also creates divisions; it curls itself around their feet, chains their ankles, weighs down on their backs and prevents them from getting too close to one another. Each woman stops mid-action for the fear of crossing over the boundaries the braid has created. The braid mediates them. It keeps them in place.
It is impossible not to stop and think about these boundaries, and how they sum up the state of feminism in Pakistan, a term that presumably liberates but in practice can also serve to bind – and limit – Pakistani women. In a country where ‘feminist’ has historically been used as a slur and where few women in the public eye identified as feminists at all, several celebrities today openly identify as feminists. Negative connotations around ‘feminism’ have somewhat dissipated, but there still exists a general anxiety about the word in Pakistan and a desire, even amongst those who embrace the term, to qualify their use of the word ‘feminist.’
The ‘F’ word
During a television interview for the BBC Asian Network in March 2018, when the popular Pakistani actor Sanam Saeed was asked if she was a feminist, she replied, “We are feminists. We do believe in the equal rights of men and women, the pay structure, particularly in work.” But despite being a feminist, she added, she did not support “man-hating, bra-burning or underarm hair-growing.”
Like Saeed, Pakistan’s global icon and Nobel Prize winner Malala Yousafzai, too, admitted to initially seeing feminism as a “tricky word” in her interview with Hollywood actor Emma Watson. But she had now come to see it as “just another word for equality – it means equality and nobody would object equality.” Due to her support for girls’ education, she argued, she has always been a feminist. Though Yousafzai acknowledged that the term was controversial, she did not explain why this was the case.
So why is it still so contentious to call oneself a feminist in Pakistan? Momina Mustehsan – a musician who made it to the BBC’s list of 100 Influential Women in 2017 and has been part of numerous UN Women campaigns – answered this question in a video she released earlier this year on feminism in Pakistan. Mustehsan claims that the term feminism has been widely misunderstood in Southasia as a woman’s decision to “wear fewer clothes, to renounce her culture and traditions, and that it’s synonymous with immorality.” Instead, she describes an alternative feminism for the country, one based on productive endeavour. Feminists, she argues, should channel their energy into women’s education and their ability to contribute to society. Feminism should not lead to Pakistani women renouncing their culture and traditions, but should instead allow for women to become equal and productive, while remaining staunchly ‘Pakistani’.
But what are the cultural politics through which this new feminism is mediated? If feminism means equality, then it transitions from being a ‘tricky word’ into a more acceptable term. It becomes a cause that nobody can object to, under which figures such as Yousafzai can continue to support equality and female education. However, what then happens to the feminisms and feminists who are less conciliatory in tone and more radical in their understanding of society?
This question is not unique to the Pakistani experience, but is central to the cultural politics that runs through all of Southasia. In Colonialism, Nationalism and Colonised Women: The contest in India, historian Partha Chatterjee looks at the role of women within the Indian nationalist movement. Nationalism offered a way out of colonialism, which was built around a separation of culture into two spheres: the material and the spiritual. To overcome colonial domination, the colonised would have to imitate their masters in the material sphere. But the spiritual sphere was sacred; it was what kept the East distinct from the West. This discourse on nationalism had a far more powerful social analogue: between the outer and the inner, writes Chatterjee. The outer, or outside, was the sphere of men while the inner, the house, was represented by women. To the nationalist mind, the world was where the coloniser had won, but what could not be colonised was home, which embodied “the distinctive and superior spiritual culture” of the East.
The nationalist paradigm was not a rejection of modernity but allowed for a selective approach to it, in a manner not unlike Mustehsan’s or Yousufzai’s as they attempt to define a feminism for Pakistan. For instance, while it was inevitable that women would enter the material sphere (for education or work), it was emphasised that they must not lose their spiritual virtues. The new Indian woman, in the nationalist ideal, was distinguished from “common women who were coarse, loud, vulgar, quarrelsome, devoid of superior moral sense, sexually promiscuous,” writes Chatterjee.
In a spirit eerily similar to how Mustehsan describes productive feminist work, postcolonial nationalism claimed it could also reform the common woman – maidservants, peddlers, prostitutes. “Once the essential femininity of women was fixed in terms of certain culturally visible spiritual qualities,” Chatterjee explains, “they could go to school, travel in public conveyance, watch public entertainment programs and in time even take up employment outside the home.” These spiritual qualities were made visible through their dress, social demeanour and religiosity. Therefore, the concerns surrounding women’s education, employment and respectability are hardly new ones. And they are clearly not concerns that are specific to feminism.
Increasingly, however, these concerns are framed as the ones that ‘good’ Pakistani feminists should be speaking out for. A ‘good’ Pakistani feminist embodies ideals that are supported by dominant social and cultural institutions and validates pre-existing notions of what is ‘culturally appropriate’. She repeatedly clarifies that feminism is no more than a synonym for equality and actively chooses not to support disruptive feminists and their campaigns.
This is a feminism that panders to existing narratives and does not seek to create new ones. It is of limited use because it is a feminism that is inherently anxious, mirroring the worries around defining what it means to be a ‘good’ Pakistani woman. ‘Good’ Pakistani feminists do not transgress boundaries. The braid, as thick and unrelenting as ever, coils around them and they must contort themselves into various positions for fear of tripping over.
‘Bad’ Pakistani feminists
Perhaps, what is most telling is when this culturally appropriate feminism has to contend with feminists that are culturally disruptive. When Qandeel Baloch, a social-media star and model best known for her sexually suggestive videos, was murdered, Mustehsan took to Twitter to write “#QandeelBalouch was not an epitome of women empowerment. If anything, she was portraying the opposite: the only asset a woman has is her body”. The fact that Baloch identified as a feminist did not matter to Mustehsan at all, because she did not contribute to Pakistani feminism in the ways that Mustehsan deems necessary.
In contrast, the 2018 Aurat March (or Women’s March), organised by an independent group of feminists largely based in Karachi and Lahore, did not concern itself with defining what Pakistani feminism should and should not look like. The organisers’ decision to call the protest Aurat March is significant. The word ‘aurat’, referring to women, often suggests weakness, docility or a compromising nature. Organising an Aurat March allows for a reimagining of the word aurat, moving away from its deferential connotations.
On 8 March 2018, women in Karachi and Lahore rallied together with a series of demands which included not only an end to violence against women and increased economic opportunities, but also reproductive justice. According to the organisers, over three thousand women were in attendance. Neither Mustehsan nor Yousafzai publicly acknowledged the Aurat March despite its impressive turnout and significant press coverage.
But it would be inaccurate to say that ‘bad’ Pakistani feminism merely concerns itself with performance and rhetoric. The protestors at the Aurat March called for a resolution to many of the issues that ‘good’ Pakistani feminists believe to be important: jobs, education and respect. However, the march went beyond these demands and emphasised how economic and legal restraints on women are tied to politics of the body. Hence, the organisers of the Aurat March brought women together in a public space, where many – from activists to health workers and university students – were given a chance to speak onstage. Women were encouraged to bring posters, shout slogans and dance in public, to disrupt cultural expectations of how they should be in public spaces.
The rally also paid homage to activists of past generations who occupied public space as an act of resistance. In the 1980’s the Women’s Action Forum, founded in 1981, took to the streets to challenge martial law, with several protestors infamously proclaiming they were against “men, money, mullahs and the military”. In Sindh, resistance movements such as the Sindhiyani Tehreek have facilitated women’s occupation of public space for years, and women have protested in public against honour killings and forced conversion as well as unequal distribution of land. But such narratives of resistance have largely been erased from public memory, partially because they do not align with cultural expectations of Pakistani womanhood. Today, these are not the women who are generally thought of as the frontrunners of feminism in Pakistan. ‘Good’ Pakistani feminists do not publically cite them as inspirational nor do they emphasise how integral they have been to the feminist movement in Pakistan.
One poster from the march caused an uproar both on and off social media precisely for defying those expectations. Emblazoned in black upon a bold orange background, the poster read “Khud khaana garam karlo” – heat up your own food – an unflinchingly feminist statement that disrupts the stereotypes of a woman’s primary role: a caregiver. In an article for Dawn Images, the feminist who came up with the slogan said that it was “a demand encompassing many realms beyond just men heating up their own food. It’s a call to change the very nature of male-female relationship in our society.” The poster is not simply commenting on the division of domestic labour but also calling for a radical shift in the cultural expectations of a woman’s duties. ‘Good’ Pakistani feminism would say that women can do it all: work, raise a family and make dinner. This is an argument that simply validates the notion that men are the main breadwinners and that when they come home, to “the inner” as Chatterjee would say, then anything they do to help is an act of benevolence.
But men should heat up their own food, the poster reasons, because women have other things to do. ‘Bad’ Pakistani feminists know that the personal – who heats up the food, who stands in the kitchen after a long day of work, who sets the table and serves dinner – is in fact political. Khud khaana garam karlo serves as an example of how a feminist demand that requires such a shift is met with vitriol and scorn. The poster transgresses a boundary in a manner that ‘good’ Pakistani feminism simply cannot justify.
For Sheema Kermani, a classical dancer, activist and one of the organisers of the Aurat March, the point of feminism is to “link the personal to the political and to the social, economic and sexual.” When asked about some of the scorn the march has received, she responded: “If people are still talking about it and if it managed to provoke dialogue and debate then this is a very positive reaction.”
In 2015, a group of young feminists residing in Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad started Girls at Dhabas, a feminist collective which encourages women to access public spaces such as dhabas and parks. The collective regularly organises public events such as bike rallies, reading circles and group walks. Girls at Dhabas also runs a Facebook page that encourages women and non-male bodies to send in pictures of themselves spending time in public spaces. Over the years, the Facebook page has become an archive of Pakistani women from various parts of the country walking around, stopping for tea, playing cricket and using public transport.
Since the collective does not curate its submissions and posts regardless of how ‘culturally appropriate’ the content is, their Facebook page is often attacked by those who take issue with women loitering in public space. Interestingly, the prevailing sentiment of those who do not support the collective is not that women should not have rights, but that feminism should be about the very things that prominent voices like Mustehsan and Yousufzai emphasise: education, employment and respect. In contrast, culturally disruptive feminists and their work consciously creates new narratives for Pakistani women that go beyond what it means to be a ‘good’ Pakistani woman or a productive member of society. They encourage women to loiter, to seek pleasure, to rally behind each other. But they also ask women to be wary of terms such as tradition and culture, and to be critical of the notions that have historically been used to contain women; modesty, honour and respect.
They have also consciously chosen to organise outside institutions for the most part. Girls at Dhabas, for example, is a collective and not an organisation. The Aurat March was organised by an independent group of Pakistani feminists. Hence, there is little to no institutional support or mediation of their organising. Many would say that this limits their power, that this means their activism is confined to social media. However, the turnout at the Aurat March is proof enough that ‘bad’ Pakistani feminism is not limited to or by the internet. Organising outside institutions may mean less funding, but it does not prevent feminists from opening up the possibilities of what feminism can be in Pakistan.
As feminism becomes an increasingly acceptable part of the Pakistani lexicon, reflecting upon what it is and can do is vital. Feminism encourages us to look at the world critically and to question the structures that bind us. Depending on the benevolence of existing institutions produces, at best, feminist talking points but ‘good’ Pakistani feminism cannot fundamentally change society. A polite negotiation will not lead to transgressing the boundaries that continue to control, and domesticate, women. ‘Bad’ Pakistani feminists are aware of this. They want more than a revision of the terms and conditions of Pakistani womanhood. The rest of the country will just have to catch up.