I was asked to take part in a campaign produced by Uks Reasearch Center on women’s rights and the feminist movement in Pakistan. There are many misconceptions and somewhat of a backlash against feminism in Pakistan: the project, called “Understanding Feminism in Pakistan: Dispelling Misconceptions, bringing forward Realties,” will run from February 12 to March 8.
Here are the questions I was posed, as well as my answers, reproduced below:
1. What is feminism?
Very simply put, feminism is the concept that women are not inferior to men, and men are not inferior to women. Your gender should not define your status in the world.
Feminism is a timeless concept. Thousands of years ago humans organized themselves along matriarchal societies. History is replete with women leaders and rulers. In our households today, we revere our mothers, grandmothers, aunts and look to them for strength, guidance, wisdom and inspiration. However, the upending of gender roles began in the West and has spread around the world in the last century. Much of the academic language, phrases, and concepts surrounding this modern revolution originated in English. Therefore feminism can feel like a borrowed movement, but its universal appeal is why Pakistani women feel emboldened enough to seek out empowerment and improve their lives.
Pakistani women want balance in their lives, not extremism. This means that they want to participate in traditional family life and also pursue personal ambitions, whether educational, career-related, or something unrelated to either. They want space and time to do both things and they usually do it very well, when given the chance. They don’t really want to break apart and create radical female-only communes, or turn men into slaves, or any of the other wild (and often vulgar) things that are alleged against them.
Our society is deeply patriarchal but this is no different than any other society in the past. The Pakistani context has an added complication of religion: the religious right bring their cultural and social biases and prejudices against women to their interpretations of Islam. They claim that rigid gender roles and the segregation and disempowerment of women are part and parcel of the religion. Because they have been given so much public space, their message dominates and is what gets absorbed by the majority of Pakistanis. The voices of feminists are fewer by comparison.
I am challenged on feminism all the time by young people in Pakistan, especially through social media. Only this morning a young Pakistani man asked me to help him understand feminism “logically.” It made me understand that there are so many misconceptions about what feminism is, and so much backlash against Pakistani women’s attempts to empower themselves, that we have to tread very carefully and sometimes go back to the basics when it comes to understanding feminism as a whole and the different issues and aspects related to it. Young women are starving to hear that their ambitions, desires and hopes for their lives are legitimate, that there is nothing wrong with wanting to be empowered.
At this point in the 21st century, where our youth seeks answers to everything on the Internet, it would be best to harness the power of social media and spread the message about feminism. One of the best mediums I have seen so far is Sabahat Zakariya’s video series on feminism, as The Feminustani(I’m the Feministani on my blog, not to be confused!). And Tahira Abdullah’s clip speaking about feminism while Khalil ur Rehman was staring down angrily from a screen, unable to interrupt her, went viral with good reason. These soundbites and short clips that break down challenging concepts into the language of Pakistanis helps to take away some of the apprehension about feminism and make it relatable for our young people.
I was leaving the doctor’s office at DHA Clinic (a medical center, not a hospital) when I saw a commotion just inside the boundary gates. A police van had drawn up and people, including policemen with guns, were milling around as two ambulances lined up behind it. I passed by the police van and heard a long sad moaning. I feared the worst, a shooting victim or someone hurt in a car accident.
I saw a man being taken out of the back of the van in a white sheet — his face hidden from my view, but his belly exposed, his shirt ridden up. A doctor was holding up an IV drip while he was being lifted into the ambulance. In the other ambulance, already a corpse had been put on the stretcher inside.
It turned out these were two electricity workers who had been electrocuted while on the job. They’d been brought to the DHA Clinic because it was the closest medical center, but they needed to go to the hospital, one for lifesaving treatment and the other to the morgue.
What haunts me is that I still don’t know who was moaning: the victim or perhaps his wife, still inside the van.
I often hear this phrase among people in Pakistan (or Pakistanis in America) who have had experiences living in other countries, where they live and work among Jewish people and have Jewish friends. “I’m against Israel’s genocidal policies/occupation of Palestine/the existence of Israel as an apartheid state but I’m not anti-Semitic.” It is a way of establishing one’s position vis-a-vis the Israeli-Palestinian conflict while still assuring our Jewish friends that we are not against their religion or them as Jews.
Does it work? Is it believable or credible? Or is Israel so indivisible from Jewishness that this is an impossible position to take?
I don’t have all the answers. I do feel, though, that we need to tread carefully when we talk about being “anti-Israel but not anti-Semitic” as Muslims, Pakistanis, or anyone else who is not Jewish and feels an affinity with Arabs and Palestinians because we imagine Islam compels us to do so.
Imagine this: that a friend comes up to you and says, “I’m against Pakistan/its oppressive policies against the Pashtuns/the genocide in Baluchistan but I’m not against Islam.”
Would that make sense to you?
Pakistan is so deeply identified with Islam that it would be a Herculean task to separate one from the other. If an outsider were to make the statement “I’m against Pakistan but I’m not against Islam” you would immediately feel alienated and on the defensive, as if your identity as a Pakistani Muslim was being threatened or called into question. However, if a Pakistani talked about opposing policies espoused by the Pakistani government, you would know they were speaking with an insider’s view, with an understanding of context, and with a deep love for the country despite its mistakes and missteps.
So too it is with Israel: when we speak of being “against” Israel but not against Judaism, we are not realizing what we are saying and how it is perceived (Please note that I am not saying a pro-Palestinian stance is undesirable or that we must not call out nations that engage in occupation and oppression). But trying to hedge your bets, as someone who is not Jewish, may strike someone as insincere at best, dishonest at worst, and agenda-driven regardless.
It is probably best to give the space to those Jews and those Israelis who understand the system and religion to lead the movement and protest against its oppressions and injustices. And there are many Jews and many Israelis of conscience who do understand and who do oppose those policies and who do lead the protests. We as Pakistanis, Muslims, and non-Jews, can support those Israeli voices and amplify their message, while remaining pro-Palestinian in a political sense.
But we must always bear in mind that Jews around the world still hold the idea of Israel, a homeland for their people, dear to their hearts.
Tread carefully, because you tread on their dreams, to paraphrase Yeats.
“Because I Watched” is a Netflix podcast that looks at how people and communities are positively impacted by Netflix series.
“Because I Watched Delhi Crime” is the story of how I watched the show on the Delhi bus gang rape, then wrote a column in the Dawn which was noticed by the President of Pakistan. The essay is by Rabia Chaudry of Serial fame and narrated by Indian actress Shefali Shah. You can hear it on Spotify, Apple Music, and across other streaming services.
Following on from my post about Aurat March 2020, it might be helpful to talk about the slogan “Mera jism meri marzi” (My body, my choice).
This slogan was first used in its original English by women who advocate for reproductive rights and autonomy over their bodies. That is, the right to decide whether or not they will carry a pregnancy, not leaving this decision to others — individual men or the state.
The organizers of the Aurat March in Pakistan translated this slogan into Urdu and it became Mera Jism Meri Marzi.
Immediately, men, mullahs, misogynists seized upon this slogan and twisted it beyond any logic. Pontificating on what Mera Jism Meri Marzi means, I have heard these responses to the slogan coming from men and boys:
- You want to have sex with your father
- You want to walk naked down the street
- You want to be a prostitute
- You want to have sex with anyone you want
What a low opinion Pakistani men must have of Pakistani women if this is what’s going through their minds! No wonder they feel they must control every action, police every movement, otherwise Pakistani women would break free and run around uncontrollably, destroying what’s left of society.
What’s especially sad is how men and boys say, “Fine, if you want mera jism meri marzi, tau phir I have the right to rape you. My body, my choice.”
Alhamdullillah! Brain stunting is a real phenomenon in Pakistan, but its real cause is not malnutrition, it’s patriarchy.
The real meaning of Mera Jism Meri Marzi boils down to a single word: consent. Giving permission for something to happen. The women who talk about this slogan are referring to women having control over their own bodies. Not being pushed or forced into:
- Sexual harassment
- Forced marriage
- Sexual trafficking
And so much more. In Pakistan, the understanding of consent has been limited to a silent bride at her own wedding, while men speak for her, agree to her marriage, and sign away her rights on a piece of paper. The women of Pakistan deserve so much more than this. Islam promises Muslim women consent over every aspect of their lives, but we in Pakistan like to only listen to Islam when it promises men four wives, unlimited concubines, and 72 hoors in Heaven. When it comes to women and their rights, we suddenly develop amnesia.
It is always a woman’s decision to get married, to have sexual intercourse, to have a baby or not, to allow a man to touch her. It is also always a woman’s decision to get an education, leave the house, come back to the house, take care of her children, go to work, not work. Somehow, in our deeply controlling and misogynistic society, we have decided women are to have no control over any of these things: she is little better than a child whose life must be ordered and decided by her husband, father, in-laws, older brothers, uncles, grandfathers. If a woman is to do anything her heart desires, it is only because she has been given “permission” to do so by the men in her life, the guardians of Islam, and the state.
Mera Jism Meri Marzi may not be the most subtle of slogans. It may not even translate very well to Pakistani culture and society. But it is direct and honest. A woman has the right to decide, to have autonomy over her life and her body. A man does not have the right to tell her what to do. A man does not represent Islam, God, or the angels: he is a man, with rights and responsibilities, but those rights and responsibilities do not extend to every woman in society, only the ones he is bound to through marriage and blood ties.
The organizers of Aurat March 2020 made a public announcement inviting everyone to join their inaugural meeting and become a part of the groundbreaking women’s rights march across Pakistan.
The march calls for women, trans, gender fluid, gender nonbinary and other marginalized gender groups to “shake up the patriarchy and raise their voice for injustice.” Cis men are allowed to attend the march but not be on the managing committee.
The responses to the call have been … interesting. As the Aurat March organizers said in a later post, “Aurat March’s open call for an organizing committee meeting received a few thousand misogynist messages, which included rape threats, death threats and threats of blowing up the venue.”
Indeed, looking at the comments after the march post on Facebook, one would think the people organizing the march were suggesting a naked march down the main streets of every city in Pakistan. The responses from boys and men — laughing, mocking, taunting, threatening — suggest that they are feeling very threatened by women showing up and claiming space. The more helpless they feel, the more exaggerated the responses get. A deliberate misunderstanding of what feminism is (by now it’s maliciously deliberate, not even simple ignorance), a distortion of what women are asking for (dignity, safety, autonomy) and threats of violent repercussion against the marchers complete this triumvirate of fright and agnst.
As the comedian Ilisa Schleisnger said in her recent Netflix comedy special, “You can be pro-women and not anti-men.”
You can be pro-women and not anti-men.
When young women say “men are trash” they are referring to the men who disrespect them, who hurt them, who discriminate, who put them down, who oppress and who beat, rape and kill. If you don’t count yourself among those numbers, what are you afraid of?
If fear is your first response and anger your second to the Aurat March, might I suggest you think about why your masculinity is so easily threatened.
Do you live in UK, US, Canada, Europe but are an expert on everything that happens in Pakistan?
Do you constantly explain the way things work in Pakistan to resident Pakistanis?
You might be an “expatsplainer”* or suffering from EXPATITIS
How to recognize the symptoms of EXPATITIS
EXPATITS-A = American resident, strange accent, convinced fintech will solve Pakistan’s problems
EXPATITIS-B = Britain resident, hates Southall for “ruining” atmosphere
EXPATITIS-C = Canadian resident, tries to convince you Justin Trudeau is Muslim
EXPATITIS-D = Dubai resident, talks non-stop about property boom, calls Emirates flight attendants “friends”
EXPATITIS-AU = Australia resident, unintelligible accent, married to kangaroo for Australian nationality
EXPATITIS-E = European resident, pretends to not speak English, argues against circumcision
Get help now
*TM Talat Aslam
Yesterday the Express Tribune published a news story about an interview with television writer Khalilur Rehman Qamar, who is well known in Pakistan for writing and directing PTV television dramas Boota From Toba Tek Singh and Landa Bazaar. More recently he teamed up with Humayun Saeed of Six Sigma Entertainment to produce Punjabi Kangauni and Kaaf Kangana, among other dramas for private Pakistani cable channels.
Mr. Rehman fancies himself as having his finger on the pulse of Pakistani society. Unfortunately, his track record of writing shows that purport to show real Pakistani family life, but are instead paeans to misogyny, sexism and women’s victimhood, with a healthy dose of male violence against women, doesn’t exactly qualify him as an expert on the subject of women’s rights.
Rehman was asked in a recent interview on a podcast called Boomerang for Entertainment Pakistan about his views on women in society. In Urdu and English, he explains his philosophy, in the process exposing the type of mentality that allows him to produce the kind of anti-women programs that have become “hits” in Pakistan.
The famed television writer speaks with the confidence of a man who knows he’s supplying the drug his customers need — the drug of hatred for women. In the podcast he was asked to speak about his latest offering, Mere Pass Tum Ho (I Have You), about a woman who cheats on her middle class but loving husband with a man who is rich and powerful.
He says that he “sends laanath” (curses) on “those” types of women. What types of women exactly? Well, those who cheat on their husbands. Those who break up families without a thought for their poor husbands and children, their souls, or God. No curses for the men who cheat on their wives? No– according to Rehman, “when a married man betrays his wife, he feels guilty. He feels embarrassed.”
So it is this “embarrassment” that saves men from Rehman’s censure, although he provides absolutely no proof whatsoever for his anecdotal assertions, and worse, generalizes based on what he claims to have “seen” without considering whether his own anti-woman bias may have influenced his beliefs.
“I’ve observed when a married woman cheats, she doesn’t feel ashamed at all. The reason behind her not feeling guilty is because she has been backed by another man. When an unmarried woman cheats, she feels guilty.” (Not really sure how an unmarried woman “cheats”, but let’s go on…) Worse, he claims that “Allah has given” him the strength and opportunity to write on “a very different issue”.
The interviewer, a young woman clearly starstruck by her subject and unable to do anything but giggle and stroke his ego, doesn’t even attempt to question him or check him for the incredible nonsense he’s spouting.
Here’s another gem from this disaster of an interview (I was not even halfway through it and already losing my will to live):
“Like it or not, I don’t call every woman a woman. To me, the only beautiful trait a woman can possess is her loyalty and her haya (modesty). If a woman isn’t loyal then she is not a woman. Register an FIR (police report) against me for if you don’t subscribe to my point of view but I won’t budge. Get someone to try me under #MeToo, but I won’t care about that either.”
He goes on to say, “I swear to God I’m the biggest feminist, but I’m fighting for good women.” (This is the point where my computer burst into flames).
“Women have the ability to say no, men don’t have this ability.” (We could talk about Prophet Yacoob who resisted the most beautiful woman of all time, Bibi Zuleikha, but oh, Pakistani men can never be like that)
“Why does a man go to another woman? First, a dissatisfied marriage. And second, when the woman is there, and she’s had 50,000 rupees of makeup done from Depilex, a man looks at her, and she says yes. THAT’S A FACT.”
He goes on to say that men who go out to work, leaving their wives at home guarding their honor, go through so much humiliation that women can never understand it (never mind that Pakistani women also work, and go through worse humiliation because of sexual harassment, but hey, that doesn’t happen in Rehman’s universe).
Now here’s the part where things get really interesting. Rehman decides that his expertise in women and their psychology qualifies him to speak about sexual assault.
“If you wish to strive for equality then kidnap men as well. Rob a bus, gang rape a man, so that I can understand what you [women] mean by equality.” (Interviewer giggles, says, “Tauba tauba”) “No, look I know what happens in other places! But you women will never understand your own rights. You want equality, that’s it. You want to wear shorts, I promise that will never happen in the Subcontinent!”
It is very hard to ignore the gleam in his eye as he asks the interviewer if she has ever heard of men gang raping women. It is very hard to ignore that talking about this with a young woman constitutes sexual inappropriateness, and that the subject makes her uncomfortable. It is very hard not to have the idea that he has thought a lot about four or five girls “gang-raping” a man, surrounding him and having their way with him.
It is impossible to ignore the fact that this interview exceeds the limits of decency.
He already predicts what will happen after this interview: “Some girls will make 50,000 tweets and that’s it. They can’t do anything else. You can never change a man’s mentality. But if you try to accuse men, YOU’LL BELONG TO NOBODY!”
Gang rape a man. Wear shorts. Good women don’t do these things, bad women do. Honestly, I thought listening to this dumpster fire of an interview would make me more angry than when I’d read its summary in the Tribune, but it had the opposite effect. It convinced me that Rehman is a very sad man. A rapidly aging man, born in 1961, but desperately struggling for relevance in the 21st century. Perhaps that’s why he decided to wade into the issue of #MeToo and feminism in Pakistan. Perhaps that’s why he thinks his views have so much weight and importance. You can see that relevance means everything to him by his black-dyed hair, which gives him the look of a desi Elvis, bloated and past his prime but still hanging on to every last vestige of attractiveness he can.
I’m not worried about men like Rehman. You know why? They’re going to go the way of the dinosaur. They already look like anachronisms when compared to the brave men of today, like Jami, who confessed recently to having been raped (BY A MAN) and coming out with his story to support the #MeToo movement in Pakistan.
Keep churning out your dross to the masses, Mr. Most Famous Writer of Pakistan. Women don’t need you. You’re irrelevant. Soon you’ll be in the trash heap of history. And we will still be around to make sure nobody cares about you when you’re gone.
The forced closure of Adeela Suleman’s exhibit at the Karachi Biennale was a difficult situation for Adeela Suleman and the Karachi Biennale. Should the KB curators have been more thoughtful and placed her artwork in a different space so as not to attract the ire of the authorities? Was KB’s statement afterwards capitulating to the viewpoint of law enforcement wise or foolish? Considering that the entire show, participants (many of them foreigners), and visitors still needed to be protected as the Biennale continues, should KB have taken a courageous stand or been strategic? These are all hard questions to answer but they must still be asked as we consider our tenuous artistic freedoms and the continuous pressure from the state to limit them.
As an artist, I would argue that censoring art is wrong, unless public endangerment results (which is rare). But the art scene in Pakistan has always been subject to state censorship (think back to Ayub’s times and how poets and writers were harassed), so it was not surprising. It is naive to think we operate in a space of complete artistic freedom. Nobody in Pakistan or anywhere else in the world does, when they bring that art out into the light to be seen by other people. What was surprising was that Suleiman’s work was approved by the KB curators in the first place, if it didn’t fit the ecology theme. I would argue that it did, in the sense that violence and murder are an assault on Karachi’s mental health, which has knock-on effects on our environment, but that the connection was not clearly made, and certainly brushed aside when it came time to “unjustify” the decision to include it in the Biennale.
Withdrawing support for an artist is a painful decision, one that is being taken as cowardice of the organizers. But festival organizers do get intimidated by threats of state reprisal; they’re only human after all. The Karachi Literature Festival has also been forced to alter its program over the ten years it’s been happening in Karachi. KB itself engendered controversy in 2017 with the damage done to the Pioneer Bookstore, accusations of elitism, and so on and so forth.
As the Dawn editorial in today’s paper states, art shows do get shut down, as in Turkey, South Korea, Cuba and the Venice Pavilion at the Azerbaijan Biennale. No art exists in a vacuum, and we would be naive to think it can never happen in our quasi-dictatorial society. If it isn’t the authorities, it’s conservative or religious elements that threaten artists. I wouldn’t want to be in the shoes of the KB organizers and have to make these decisions. And under pressure, anyone would be hard-pressed to get it right.
In a world where artists struggle against state censorship everywhere, perhaps this incident at Karachi Biennale is the most powerful illustration of that dynamic, even stronger than if the original exhibit had been allowed to remain open. What could be more poignant than the sight of the tombstones in Suleiman’s symbolic graveyard knocked down to the ground, as if they themselves had been killed in cold blood? It is the death not just of the 444 people killed that Suleiman was evoking, but the death of art itself in the face of censorship.
People have been making the statement that “all art is political”. That’s a very pretty thing to say, but I tend to stay away from the fancy statements, preferring instead to let my art do the talking. Still, consider the case of China, where Ai Wei Wei gets censured for his art but Mo Yan is accused of pandering to the government. Artists engage with politics, because politics is a part of life and artists engage with all of life around them. Sometimes politics engages with the artists, when all they want to do is create art. But the artist who survives is the one who knows how to navigate politics and the system, especially in countries like ours. Some people call that “self-censorship”, others, “survival”. Only when you are an artist living and working in a repressive society do you realize that attaching a good or bad label to any of this is unrealistic.
There are many artists who ostensibly strive to stay away from politics. Would you consider Rembrandt’s art political? Not at first, but Rembrandt was patronized by rich and powerful figures, some with political connections. Even today, art is political, but not in the way the innocent believe: the fellowships that you accept are funded by donations from business people; the art shows are funded by multinational corporations. Galleries are owned by millionaires. We are all making political choices in everything that we do, so to say that “all art is political” and yet believe that all artists are divorced from the politics of the art scene, or untouched by the politics of their environments, only creating art in a pure, untouched space that will remain forever protected by the state, is naive in the extreme.
Still, art will continue to be made in Pakistan, and Pakistan’s artists will continue to push the boundaries of what is acceptable to our authorities. That’s what you sign up for when you become an artist. That’s why artists are considered revolutionaries. That’s why artists are considered dangerous: we say things that shouldn’t be said, according to good taste, common sense, and polite society. That’s why we know instinctively that censorship is harmful to the flourishing of creativity. That’s why we get called irresponsible and subversive and obscene and all the other things designed to keep good citizens in their places.
The authorities will be congratulated for doing their jobs and maintaining peace and order. The artist will be congratulated for being courageous. The KB organizers will be congratulated for a successful Biennale, but for this unpleasant incident. The show will go on. This will never change, because art is the enemy of the system. But all artists, who are cannier than you think, know very well the artistic compromises they make before anything of this magnitude ever gets to the eyes of the authorities, or the front pages of the papers. </p>