Why I am a Feminist in Pakistan

My name is Bina Shah and I am a writer, essayist, and feminist.
Feminism is really nothing to be afraid of, even though in Pakistan it is a dirty word, a sign that you’re an atheist, a Western agent, a threat to the system. I’m neither an atheist nor a Western agent. But I am a feminist. I am a threat to the system, to the status quo that dictates where women “should be” in our society. I decided a long time ago that the system was rotten, and that feminism was the best way for me to upend that system. In my talk with you I’m going to explain to you why I made that decision and what I think is at stake.

Continue reading “Why I am a Feminist in Pakistan”

Feministani on Medium

I’ve decided to publish stories, essays, and more on Medium. If you’re a member, these stories are free to read. If not, you can read up to five stories for free before you have to register and become a paying member for unlimited access.

Here’s my Medium channel, where you can check out my profile and some of the stuff I used to post before taking this seriously…

And here are the four stories I’ve posted since becoming a member, unabridged or original versions of essays I had published elsewhere previously.

I hope you enjoy these essays. I’ll post more in due course.

15 Essential Novels of the #MeToo Movement

What else can I say but that I’m honored my book Before She Sleeps is on this list from Bustle. Along with Margaret Atwood, Idra Novy, Leni Zumas, Anna Burns, and other women to whom safety and security matter so much that they have written entire novels about the subject.

Why is my novel on this list? Perhaps because Before She Sleeps embeds a sexual assault in its plot, which was personally very hard for me to write. But I felt it was important to have it in there, for reasons that will be clear when you read the book.

You always remember your first time

I’m watching Gurindher Chadha’s new movie “Blinded by the Light” based on the memoir by Sarfraz Manzoor about Javed, a Pakistani-British boy growing up in Bury Park, a go-nowhere town in the United Kingdom.

Javed wants to be a writer. He writes poems and a diary, but doesn’t think he’s any good. Until his teacher Mrs. Anderson reads them and tells him, “You could be a writer if you put the work in.”

The look on Javed’s face as he hears this acknowledgment of his talent reminded me immediately of the first time anyone told me the same thing. In the same way, a teacher handed me back a short story in class. At the bottom of the paper she’d written, “You could go on to be a writer. It would be a good career.”

I was fourteen and in tenth grade. The words set off an explosion in my head. I hadn’t even realized writing was a career. I hadn’t made the connection between the books that I devoured, like a diabetic fulfilling a sugar craving, and the work of the person writing the book. Until I read those words at the end of my essay, I didn’t even know this was what I wanted to do.

But the explosion went off and couldn’t be undone. Although I buried the dream for a very long time, it came back, twelve years later, and then I got down to do the work of becoming a writer.

EI’m sure every writer has an origin story. When was the first time someone told you that you could be a writer?

On Aatish Taseer’s Profile of Imran Khan

In certain quarters and certainly in the domain of glossy magazines, celebrity confers credibility. This is the basis of Aatish Taseer’s profile of Imran Khan for Vanity Fair, which went online last night and immediately became the subject of discussion on Pakistani and Indian Twitter.

I read the profile twice, just to confirm my initial impression: that Aatish Taseer has written a sophisticated, complex piece of journalism: a fairly comprehensive psychological portrait of a man who has attained the heights of personal and political power and yet still does not know what to do with himself, the man, when the masks drop and the doors to the chambers of power are closed for the day.  Taseer’s analysis of Pakistan the country through Imran Khan is incisive and intuitive, based on his travels to the country and his intimate knowledge of its workings through his father, the late Salman Taseer.

But this is not a profile of Imran Khan alone: it is a profile of Pakistan, examined through the lens of its biggest celebrity. This is a clever journalistic device that Aatish Taseer deploys with confidence and expertise: taking what he finds to be true of Khan and using it to say profound things about the country which everyone is thinking, but nobody has yet put into words. Out of fear, out of lack of perspective, out of deference, or maybe just out of discretion.

Taseer has none of those things to lose. He is the perpetual outsider: the son of an Indian journalist and a Pakistani politician, born in London, living in America now (I am not gonig to enter into a debate about Taseer’s personal life or his origins beyond these most basic of facts). Most writers can attribute their powers of observation to that outsider status, but Taseer makes use of all his insider status and powerful connections to speak to the people who are closest to Imran Khan: his childhood friend, his pop star devotee, his cricketing colleagues (except for Khan’s ex-wife, Reham, who’s happy to talk to anyone about her former husband).

Those who say that the profile only repeats what has already been said before are missing what Taseer has done: taken all these various fragments, thoughts, beliefs, and synthesized them into a whole. He builds a compelling argument: the conflicted man is a product of, as well as the portrait of, a conflicted country. There are some lines that truly sing in the piece: “He was one of those rare figures, like Muhammed Ali, who emerge once a generation on the frontier of sport, sex and politics.” Another one: “Unlike other populists in the developing world, “Khan is a man guessing at the passions of people he does not actually represent.” And this one was the literary equivalent of a clean bowl: “Here, I remember feeling, was a man who had dealt so little in ideas that every idea he now had struck him as a good one.”

Taseer does a good job of exposing the contradictions in our fevered, hypocritical society, through the parable of the playboy turned Prime Minister, married to a religious clairvoyant (were I writing the piece I would have made the comparison to Macbeth, not Game of Thrones, but the latter is far sexier than the former). “Religion in Pakistan is the source of dystopia, a world turned upside down,” describes exactly the flummoxed feeling many of us have in Pakistan and how religion has been used against the people of this country, where killers are celebrated as saints.  I’m not too interested in the allegations of drug taking or of Khan’s louche past, as we’ve heard all this before. Attempts at amateur psychology, as in the line “I was struck by that mixture of narcisissm bordering on sociopathy that afflicts those who have become famous for far too long” is not an original take either. But for a man to become a national leader based on both refutation of this life and the social and political capital which it built him is indeed schizophrenic, and Taseer captures this perfectly.

At the same time, the profile is not without its flaws. Taseer portrays Khan as empty-headed, simplistic and juvenile, his black and white view of the world one shared by fascists and autocrats. At the same time, he recognizes that Khan appears honest and upright to millions of ordinary Pakistanis who admire him for those qualities, seen very rarely among Pakistani politicians. People far more pious than Khan have made the amazing decision to ignore Khan’s bedroom shenanigans as if we were citizens of France, not a conservative Muslim country. How exactly did this happen?

Maybe we would have found out if the very people that Taseer relies on for his story were not merely a select group of elite Lahoris, many of them celebrities in their own right, contain many of the same qualities. So the personal portrait that ensues consists of somewhat vapid quotes that repeat the common mythology surrounding Imran Khan, with perhaps a few sensationalist details that perhaps were not common knowledge before. Taseer goes to the rarified environs of the 1% to make an assessment of Khan that will challenge Western readers, but only strengthens the idea that celebrity confirms credibility.

The article dwells at length on Khan’s reputation as a playboy and his failed marriages, and the strain the current one is under. But Taseer missed a great opportunity to delve deeper into this part of Khan’s psychology: how do his troubled relationships with women play out in the public sphere; why has his government chosen to deliberately exclude women from all sorts of decision-making positions; how does his religious conservatism affect Pakistan’s efforts to empower and improve the status of women? These connections were left unmade by Taseer, which was disappointing to me. He had the opportunity to get into this when he said of Khan, “never was there a greater mansplainer.” But this would have required a more in-depth analyses of gender and power in Pakistan than Taseer’s Vanity Fair editors or readers probably wanted.

Another disappointment for me was to see the prominent space given to Ali Zafar, who has been accused of sexual harassment; it would have been appropriate for Taseer to mention this and address the issue of harassment — which has even reached members of Khan’s government as Pakistani women assert their #MeToo stories — perhaps analyze how some of these harassment cases have affected people’s impressions of the PTI government. Also, the women he chooses to speak to all have a personal or political axe to grind against Khan: ex-wife Reham, former Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar, Imaan Hazir, Shireen Mazari’s daughter, who has faced extreme abuse and threats from the PTI trolls, especially at the hands of Farhan K Virk, who Taseer also gives space to in explaining Khan’s appeal to “the youth” of Pakistan. By speaking only to the chief troll, Taseer fails to explore how Khan has weaponized his own sexuality and used it as a political tool to harness the vote for PTI (there is a lot of infatuation from both genders, not just admiration for his “emancipatory virility”) — and how those trolls have used death and rape threats against women in Pakistan who dare criticize government policy, as if jealously committing a virtual honor killing for the sake of Imran Khan’s honor.

The end of the piece discusses the uncomfortable tension between the military and the civilian government, but only quickly, and then returns back to the personal conflicts of Khan. Taseer writes that he “does not clarify reality in Pakistan, but rather adds to the fog with Jekyll and Hyde confusions of his own.” And that “Like so many people who have lived across diverse cultures, Khan seems to have found no internal resolution to these competing [cultural] forces.” Maybe we in Pakistan don’t necessarily resolve them, but we certainly do struggle to balance them. But (and here’s another reference to pop psychology), perhaps we suffer from a sort of multiple personality disorder, and the voices that call to us from the depths of our own mind are the ones that keep us dancing even though there isn’t any music to hear.

Books & Censorship

A few years ago, I went to a supermarket that had a books section and I saw Hitler’s Mein Kampf on sale there. I complained to the management; seeing the title there offended me hugely. “But people want to buy it,” was the answer I got. I was furious, but there was nothing I could do. Apparently people’s rights to buy a book were more valuable to the bookseller than the principle of not peddling hate speech. This is South Asia, Hitler is considered a hero by a lot of people who should know better and many who don’t.

Recently I got news that a man went to a bookstore and complained about a title called Gay Icons of India, and that the bookstore’s response was to apologize profusely and remove the book from the stores and the Web site. Not only did he make repeated threatening posts on the bookstore’s Facebook page, but he tagged people to whip up a vigilante anger against the bookstore and bullied them into taking down the title. Of course, he used the word “Islam” and condemned the bookstore for trying to spread homosexuality in the country. The bookstore had no choice but to remove the book; the threat of fundamentalist violence is too frightening for any company operating in Pakistan to face.

The backlash against the man’s actions came from brave individuals, most of them NOT gay, but incensed by the idea that one person could throw his weight around and violate other people’s right to read whatever they chose. Yet the bookstore did not brook any discussion about this. I myself went to the bookstore and asked about the title. The salesman rebuffed me in a very rude way. “This book has been withdrawn and it will never be sold here.” I understood the tension on his face; who wants an incident over a book about gay people? (Gay people, by the way, do not exist in Pakistan).

Do books about gay people have any place in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan? If the answer is no, then do books about vampires having sex with people (Twilight), unmarried straight people having rough sex (Fifty Shades of Grey), or books about genocidal maniacs promoting killing every Jew in Germany (Mein Kampf)? What about textbooks which portray Hindus as evil? Do these have a place in our country?

What we ban is what we are afraid of. What we ban serves to show us our insecurities, as surely as if we were looking at an X-ray of ourselves. I guess I was the only person afraid of Hitler’s ideology, and most people in Pakistan are more afraid of queers. At least we can go to bed at night, proud that we have our priorities straight in the 21st century.

Les écoles: mixtes ou separés par sexe?

Est-ce qu’il vaut mieux séparer les filles et les garçons à l’école? C’est une question compliquée parce qu’il y a des avantages et désavantages dans chaque système: mixte ou séparée. À mon avis, la question plus importante est: si les écoles sont séparés par sexe, est-ce qu’il serait possible de garantir un niveau d’éducation égal pour les filles et les garçons? 

Mon expérience personnelle était de l’éducation dans un école international mixte a l’âge de 5 ans jusqu’à 17 ans. Je me souviens biens que les garçons ont dominé les classes de la mathématiques ou la chimie; les filles restaient silencieuses, intimidées par les garçons. Par contre, dans les classes de la littérature ou de la langue, c’était les filles qui parlaient la plus. Les professeurs de classes de la science ont toujours demandé les réponses aux garçons. Ils ont encouragé les garçons, pas les filles, de discuter, d’argumenter, d’aller plus loin que les filles. C’etait le meme cas dans la classe de sport: les profs se concentrataient sur les achèvements des garçons, pas des filles. 

À la même fois, j’ai vu un sort d’harcèlement des filles commencent à l’âge de 13-14 ans. C’était le début de l’adolescence, quand les filles sont devenues plus timides à cause de la puberté. Et les garçons ont vraiment les dérangé, ils ont passé les remarques sur leurs corps, leurs hanches et seins, ils on meme essaye de les toucher de manière inappropriée. Les professeurs savaient rien, même les femmes. Les filles disaient rien. Toutefois, j’avais des amis, des garçons, que nous protégeaient de cet harcèlement. Ils étaient comme des frères. Si je n’avais pas étudié a un ecole mixte, je n’aurais pas eu ces amis, qui font partie de mes amis les plus proches, les plus anciens aujourd’hui. 

Après avoir terminé mon éducation secondaire, je suis allée a une universite de femmes aux Etats-Unis. J’y ai étudié quatre ans; c’était une expérience incroyable. J’étais parmi les autres femmes douées, dans les classes de la biologie, la chimie, la psychologie, où on a trouvé une vraie confiance dans ses pouvoirs intellectuels, sans doute, sans être comparer aux hommes. J’ai jamais perdu cette confiance, même 25 ans après. 

Mais la chose la plus important c’est que mon éducation a cette université était d’un niveau très haut. Ce n’est pas toujour le cas pour les écoles séparés par sexe. Dans mon pays, Pakistan, on voit que les écoles uniquement pour les filles souffrent d’un négligence criminel. On ne trouve pas les bons profs pour enseigner; les aménagements pour les filles et femmes sont exécrables. On parle d’un manque de toilettes pour les femmes, une vraie problème pour les filles pendant leurs règles qui empêche l’education de millions des filles partout dans le monde en développement.

Donc, est-ce qu’il vaut mieux de séparer les filles et les garçons à l’école? Non, pas forcément. Est-ce qu’il faut s’assurer que l’expérience d’éducation pour les filles soit d’une qualité égale à celle des garçons? Oui, absolument, soit mixte ou séparé. Et cela est la vrai challenge pour les éducateurs aujourd’hui. 

 

Updates: Before She Sleeps in Turkish, FAZ essay in German, Reading list on Kashmir

  • Before She Sleeps is to be published in Turkey by the end of August. Here’s the cover, a slightly different version of the US cover. My publishers are Eksik Parca Yaniyevi, (Missing Parts) a small publishing house in Turkey which specializes in fantasy and science fiction.

Screenshot 2019-08-19 at 1.52.28 PM

 

  • A long essay I wrote about feminism in Muslim countries was published in the FAZ Quarterly, the magazine for the Frankfurt Allgemeine Zeitung. They’ve just re-run the article in their debate section of the newspaper which is available to read here in German. In it, I make the argument that conservative, patriarchal men use Islam to justify physical violence against women by twisting and distorting the interpretations. There is no real Islamic reason why domestic violence cannot be abolished legally. Ignorance and miseducation about women’s rights perpetuate this. But it is the women in these countries who use feminist and progressive interpretations of Islam to bravely counter this long-standing phenomenon. As Susie Meehan (@meehansusie on Twitter) said in a tweet to me, “Patriarchy and misogyny is the basis of the oppression of women. Laws, religion, culture, language etc is the means in which it is legitimised. Russia is not an Islamic state but has decriminalised domestic violence thereby legitimising rape and violence in marriage.”

 

  • In my column for Dawn Books and Authors, I published a reading list of books by and about Kashmir and Kashmiris, available online here. It is limited to fiction, and includes Mirza Waheed, Arundhati Roy, Siddartha Giggoo, Basharat Peer, and Shahnaz Bashir (who I unfortunately thought was a woman; apologies for the inadvertent sex change). If I’d had more space I would have included non fiction from Victoria Schofield and many other eminent authors. Possibly Shalimar the Clown by Salman Rushdie would have been included in the fiction list, too.

Pakistan Ka Matlab Kya?

These days, I’m voluntarily editing a catalogue on Pakistan’s famed writers, philosophers, poets and thinkers for a special exhibition at the National History Museum in Lahore, which will be run by the Citizens Archive of Pakistan.

I’m learning so much about these great thinkers and intellectuals, men and women, who laid down the basis for our nation’s ideological and philosophical framework. I know that ideology gets a bad rap these days, but a country without a philosophy or a raison d’etre is like a ship without a sail that can only go around in circles before it sinks altogether.

Reading about what these intellectual giants thought and envisioned for our country is a great refresher in what Pakistan’s purpose was, and goes so much further than “Pakistan Ka Matlab Kya” could ever encompass. These are people who were educated to the highest level at home and abroad, who gave up comfortable lives, who sacrificed their lives, who migrated to Pakistan amid the conflagration of Partition. They were fully invested in Pakistan, they dedicated their lives and hearts and souls to the young country, caring for it as if it were an infant with whom they were all charged with educating, nurturing, and teaching right from wrong.

I’m so grateful CAP and Sharmeen Obaid and the entire team at the National History Museum has decided to give us a look at what Pakistan really stood for in the 20th century, and should stand for in the 21st century and beyond.

On abortion laws in Pakistan

Most people think abortion is illegal in Pakistan, but according to an amendment in the law from 1997, abortion up to the first trimester is allowed if it is considered “necessary treatment” to preserve a mother’s health or life. The phrase is deliberately broad so that it covers emotional, mental, and physical health issues that threaten a mother’s well-being. And abortion is also permitted in the first trimester if it is a pregnancy resulting from rape or with gross fetal abnormalities. After that, it is permitted in order to save a woman’s life.

The previous law which criminalized abortion completely and punished providers with fines and jail terms was a remnant of the British Penal Code from 1860.

The current law was amended after consultation with Al-Azhar University by the government of the time, to make sure that it follows the Sharia. The scholars at Islam’s foremost authority deemed abortion in the first trimester permissible not just to save a mother’s life but also to save her health — an important distinction that also follows Islamic injunctions to privilege the mother’s life above that of an unborn fetus.

Medical science confirms that in the first trimester, a fetus has no heartbeat, cannot feel pain, and is not a sentient being in any way. What is astonishing is how compassionate Islam is towards women facing heartbreaking situations but who still need to have autonomy over their bodies.

Furthermore in Pakistan, while a service provider is allowed to voice a conscientious objection to providing a safe abortion, she or he must refer the patient to another provider. This can be found under Standard 26 of those guidelines, in article 8 under Conscientious Objection. If that isn’t possible, the service provider must provide the abortion, even while objecting. This is in both the federal and Punjab provincial guidelines on abortion services. (It is important to remember that there are two types of abortions, spontaneous, which is commonly called miscarriage, and induced)

Where we fall down is in the medico-legal textbooks, that omit mentioning this change in the law. As a result thousands of medical students and doctors do not realize that abortion is legal and also permissible in Sharia. In fact, most people use the term “illegal abortion” incorrectly. It does not refer to an abortion carried out on an unwed woman; but rather to an abortion carried out by someone who is not a licensed medical professional or health services provider.

However, the arrival of the abortion pill in Pakistan is a game changer and is revolutionizing the way Pakistani women are accessing safe abortions. Fewer D&C procedures are being given, with even midwives and dais are giving medication-induced abortions to their patients. And while family planning is the only way to reduce the number of terminations in Pakistan, the need for the service will never completely vanish.

Even now, 2.2 million women get abortions in Pakistan every year — that’s 350 abortions every hour. The vast majority of those women are married, with three or four children already, who cannot and do not want to have another child. Women will always find a way to have an abortion. It is up to us to decide if they will be able to do that safely and with dignity, or in a way that keeps the maternal mortality rate so high that the ratio between men and women in our population becomes even more unbalanced — it is already unequal because of maternal mortality, including death in high-risk pregnancy and childbirth.

And with women suffering from nightmarish complications from unsafe abortions, such as perforated uteruses or sepsis, and with backstreet abortion methods like stuffing rags dipped in sulfur into women’s vaginas, it should be pretty obvious what our responsibilities are towards women and their health.