Feminism in Pakistan Matrix

After reading this excellent article by Rubina Saigol in the Herald on the Past, Present and Future of Feminist Activism in Pakistan, I made a matrix to showcase the information in the first half of the piece.

This information outlines the time period, major actors, major issues, and method of action of feminist activists in Pakistan from Partition to the present day.

It’s fascinating to see how feminist activism has evolved over the decades. I would add, however, that in addition to the issues of today, Pakistan’s present-day feminists are dealing with all the issues of the previous eras as well as the ones of this century and decade. The past issues  — women’s education, income, basic rights — have never been satisfactorily resolved and are still contested by patriarchal elements in our society. In fact, there has been so much opposition and backlash to women’s gains that some of them have even been reversed. For example, recent statistics show that of all married Pakistani women between the ages of 18-49, about 50% of those women are uneducated, and that number rises to 60% or more in rural areas.

Countering one assertion in the article that feminists of the 70s could not talk openly about sex and sexuailty, history shows that those activists did address issues of bodily autonomy and sexual violence as evinced in the poems of Fehmida Riaz. However, the 1980s and Zia’s puritanical regime drove those discussions straight back into the realm of the taboo, at least for discussion by women.

(Saigol in her smart article notes that open discussions of women’s bodies and of sex were conducted with hearty enthusiasm by religious right wingers and clerics. You can go on the internet and find speeches by religious figures describing in great detail the sexual act as it will be experienced by martyrs in paradise with hoors, for example. A similar openness was not to be found in women’s religious right wing movements; this talk is almost always dismissed in conservative women’s circles as “dirty talk”.)


14 juillet at Alliance Francaise de Karachi

It was wonderful to celebrate the French National Day in Karachi this Sunday at the Alliance Francaise de Karachi. We welcomed 300 guests to our beautiful campus, a unique institution that has been conducting educational and cultural activities to promote the French language and culture in Pakistan since 1953. The Alliance Française de Karachi is registered as a Pakistani non-profit organization and runs entirely on self-generated funds. We operate without any financial support from the French Embassy in Pakistan or the French Government.

Our mission is to promote the French language and culture, but we do more than this: We also

  • promote friendly ties between Pakistan and France
  • encourage learning and education
  • build community through peace and tolerance
  • serve vulnerable and underserved adults and children.

We also partner with local organizations that serve special needs children, and children from vulnerable areas of Karachi. We have impacted on these and many more children from underserved areas of Karachi, giving them access to activities and programs in which they would never ordinarily participate.

  • Lyari Girls Boxing: We brought boxing trainers and dancers from France and Germany to teach and train girls from Lyari in both boxing and dancing, increasing their self-confidence and self-esteem, and strengthening links between Pakistan and France. One of the participants, Sarah Baloch, now hopes to become Pakistan’s first female Olympic boxer.
  • AURA Annual Picnic: Our yearly picnic for Al-Umeed Rehabilitation Association brings children with cerebral palsy and street children to the Alliance Française garden for a day of music, activities, and fun.
  • Deaf Reach School: We support the Deaf Reach School for Karachi’s Deaf boys and girls; their visible participation in our concerts, bazaars and other cultural activities raises the profile of Deaf people as fully-contributing members of Pakistani society.

Our excellent team of teachers and staff, a mix of French and local hires headed by Director Gilles Pascal, has welcomed thousands of Pakistani students have learned French on our premises, and French and Pakistani artists, musicians, poets, and scholars present cultural, educational, and scholarly programs free of cost to a wide audience of students, ordinary citizens, intellectuals, diplomats and the business community.

The Alliance is a safe space for dialogue and discussion, for openness and tolerance. We are all engaged in building a better city for future generations. I have been president of the board for the last two and a half years and with eight other members from the intellectual, business and cultural community, we have worked hard to guide and nurture what is known as Karachi’s premier cultural center. It is such a pleasure to be a part of this cultural diplomacy. Building bridges between countries is the surest way to peace.

France and Pakistan dosti zindabad!


Please, if you are interested in supporting our institution, get in touch. We are seeking to expand our programs and activities, improve our premises, including full-scale renovation of our cafeteria and library, and continue to offer space and support to organizations that serve underprivileged communities in Karachi. There are several ways in which you can support the Alliance Française de Karachi and its activities.

  • direct donation, which will fund our classes, cultural and charitable events, and other projects related to the maintenance and improvement of our building, grounds, and facilities, and is tax-deductible.
  • corporate sponsorship, in which your company can sponsor classrooms, cultural events, and other projects related to the maintenance and improvement of our building, grounds and facilities; your branding will be highly visible on our premises and at our events.
  • We are specifically seeking support in 2019-2020 to build a Pole-Residence, a residence center on the AF Karachi campus to house visiting scholars, educationists and researchers who wish to come to Karachi. This will facilitate their ability to conduct research, workshops, and other pedagogic activities which will enhance the functioning and activities of AF Karachi and increase educational and scholastic ties between France and Pakistan.


What do Pakistan’s women need? Guest Post by Sadaffe Abid

Sadaffe Abid is the founder of Circle Women, a Pakistani organization she founded to develop leadership in Pakistani women. Currently, Sadaffe is on a journey to five cities — Karachi, Quetta, Lahore, Islamabad, Abbotabad and  by train, where she is organizing She Loves Tech Pakistan. This is a competition to find the best women-led startups in Pakistan and send them to Beijing for the She Loves Tech worldwide competition.

I’ve always found Sadaffe to be an inspirational figure and a great motivator for Pakistani girls and women. Here, a guest post by her where she outlines the biggest thing Pakistani women and girls need to become successful.

Sadaffe Abid:

As I began planning for She Loves Tech, the world’s largest startup competition for women, now in its third year, I asked myself: why am I doing this? What message was I really trying to convey?

Of course, I wanted to find startups run by women who are solving Pakistan’s challenges — wanted to watch them go from strength to strength: raising investments, scaling, creating impact.

But the truth is that something much simpler needs to happen first.

Girls and women in Pakistan need to believe in themselves.

They need to realize the potential of their dreams: dreams that have the power not just to transform individual lives but the fate of our nation.

I want girls to believe in themselves enough to say: “I can do this” whatever it is that “this” may be. I want them to chase and embrace opportunities. I want them never to underestimate themselves. I want them to be willing to fail, and I want them to rise afterward, with the resilience and stamina not only to stay in the game — but to thrive.

Self-belief is not just important — it’s critical.

Research shows that women around the world: underestimate themselves to the point where they feel they are not ready for a promotion. So they don’t apply for promotions.

Research also shows that women are over-mentored but under-sponsored. For all the advice they receive, they are still under-promoted, and ultimately kept back from high-profile assignments and opportunities. Globally, women receive under 5% of investments. That’s a staggeringly low number!

So, how do we change the status quo? How can we start seeing more women thriving in the spotlight? The responsibility of not holding back shouldn’t fall on girls alone: as a society, we need to work together to encourage girls and to give them the resources they need to succeed.

Here’s a little story: just yesterday, while riding the Karakoram Express to Lahore from Karachi, my team and I stopped for chai at the station in Faisalabad. “Aap foreign say hain?” he asked me.

“Hum sab Pakistan say hain,” I replied. He proceeded to tell me that his daughter had passed her Matric exams, and he wanted her to progress further. And then, he asked if she could call me — if I could offer her guidance, suggest opportunities. I gave him my number instantly.

And I received a call from his daughter today. That made my day!

It’s a story that reminds me of my own father, who passed away last winter. How supportive he was of everything I sought to achieve, how proud — no matter what the outcome was. He was proud of me for trying, always cheering me on. He was a passionate supporter of women.

Our country can’t progress without leveraging half its talent. We have one of the lowest rates of female participation in the formal economy in the region. Sixty-two percent of female graduates do not join the workforce. This has got to change. Technology offers unprecedented opportunities for women to learn new skills and leverage them for financial gain. It also offers unprecedented opportunities to create groundbreaking new businesses.

One competition may not change the course, may not single-handedly pull us out of where we find ourselves stranded. But it can begin a discourse, and it can inspire. And this is not an avenue just for girls — it’s a call, too, for boys and men to celebrate the women in their lives and to encourage their sisters, wives, and daughters to take charge and reinvent the wheel.

#SheLovesTech Lahore Round has a terrific energy A BIG thank you to COLABS team our partners for truly collaborating with us to bring She Loves Tech to Lahore More news to follow on the startups!

Improvements in Pakistan’s rape laws

Although sexual violence is endemic in a country like Pakistan, recently there has been some good news on the legal front: laws have been fine-tuned, and in some cases, changed, in order to help victims of rape with the legal process of reporting the crime and taking it to court.

This was the crux of a recent news article by Mahim Maher, who had gone to Hyderabad for a WAR (War Against Rape, one of Pakistan’s most critical women’s organizations) conference on rape and sexual assault. There, Sarah Zaman, who headed WAR for six years, elaborated on these changes to the laws, which I will summarize here:

Rape no longer falls under General Zia’s notorious Hudood Ordinances: Rape has been deemed a separate offence from adultery since 2006, when the Protection of Women (Criminal Law Amendment) Act was passed. It now comes under the ambit of Section 375 in the Pakistan Penal Code. Ten years later, in 2016, the Criminal Law (Amendment) (Offense of Rape) Act 2016 meant that women in Pakistan no longer go to jail for reporting rape and being accused of adultery. The significance of this change cannot be stressed enough: it means the culture of refusing to report rape cases out of fear of going to jail has been recognized as an obstacle to legal recourse for rape victims.

Negligence of public servants refusing to register a rape case can result in jail time for the official: Neglecting to investigate a rape case can result in a three year jail term for any medico-legal officer, police officer or any other government servant under Section 166(2) of the Pakistan Penal Code.

A formal judgment on a rape case must come within three months of the case being filed, and an appeal has to be adjucated six months from the original rape conviction. Under the Code of Criminal Procedure  Section 344(A), if this does not happen, the case is then sent to the Chief Justice of the High Court.

Rape cases can no longer be settled through “compromise,” jirga, or any other extra-judicial, parallel legal system. This too was abolished in 2006 under the Protection of Women Act.

The rape victim’s identity must not be disclosed: the Code of Criminal Procedure  Section 352 states that a rape trial must be conducted “in camera”, that means in a judge’s chamber or private place. The victim’s identity can be concealed using screens or a video link for her testimony. Her identity is not to be broadcast anywhere without the court’s explicit permission.

Right to legal representation and female supervision: The victim must be informed of her right to legal representation, and an investigation officer (IO) will register the case in the presence of a female police officer, or female family member. The presence of another woman is a vital change: it is common knowledge that many rape victims have gone to register their cases, been separated from their family members, and assaulted again. This happens a lot to trans women who go to the police station as well. Sections 161A and 164A of the Criminal Procedure Code cover these requirements.

DNA in rape cases: although men have fought hard against this change, it is now a requirement that DNA be collected in a rape case within 72 hours, to prove that sexual intercourse took place. A medico-legal examination can prove that the said intercourse happened by force. (Maher’s article elaborates on the difficulties of collecting DNA in rape cases in Pakistan). This is covered by Section 164B of the Criminal Procedure Code.

Previous sexual history no longer relevant: You cannot bring up a woman’s past sexual history in a rape trial in order to destroy her credibility as a victim, after the deletion of the Section 151(4) Qanun-e-Shahadat (Law of Evidence) 1984. It has always been the thinking that if a woman was not a virgin, she could not claim rape. This law is meant to counter that chauvinistic assertion. Neither can a woman’s past history be used to assert that she is immoral, and somehow invited the alleged perpetrator to rape her.

We have a long way to go in Pakistan (and indeed the world) in terms of how well rape cases are prosecuted and how frequently rapists are convicted. Around the world, conviction rates for rape are shockingly low, because men have created the legal systems. But thanks to the untiring efforts of women activists in Pakistan, these absolutely vital changes have been adopted in Pakistani law. Procedural implementation is another story, but all stories have to start somewhere.

We need to work now on eliminating the humiliating two-finger test in the medico-legal procedure of medical examination after rape, which is meant to prove that a girl or woman is not a virgin. I remember looking at a friend’s medico-legal textbook and seeing images of a woman’s vagina with and without a hymen. The absolute barbarity and inhumanity of such a qualifier of a woman’s purity has no place in the desperate and delicate hours and days after a woman or girl has been raped. It is, in the words of the Times of India, “unscientific, illogical and illegal” (it was outlawed in India). It is also another type of assault on a woman’s body, and can lead to bleeding, the transmission of disease, and psychological trauma.

I urge Pakistan’s lawmakers to eliminate this from the medico-legal textbooks and procedures. We must restore the dignity of those girls and women who have been raped or otherwise sexually assaulted, and an invasive, unnecessary test that reinforces our medieval thinking about women and purity has no place in our lawbooks and medical schools in the 21st century.

What improvements we have may seem so little to those with Western eyes. But every change to our laws, every improvement, is a chip knocked out of rape culture in Pakistan, and a triumph for women’s rights, which are so desperately needed in our country. Let me make it perfectly clear once more: Islam may give women their rights, but men have taken them away.

We need feminist action to pressure lawmakers into creating mechanisms that protect the rights of girls and women. Just like these improvements in the laws, and the mechanisms that make it easier for women and girls to report rape and to bring the rapists to justice, they will come about through women’s work, not the empty mouthings of religious men, who have traditionally tried to block all pro-women laws in Pakistan and still oppose a domestic violence law and a law raising the age of marriage for girls from 16 to 18.




Suicide by Smartphone

Everywhere I go, there is a group of young women engaged in an endless photoshoot: screaming with laughter, posing for group photos, selfies or taken by waiters or other hapless staff. At cafes. Libraries. Concerts. Funerals. It is Dante’s 11th circle of hell.

Certainly there is fun in capturing a joyful moment, but I did not see much joy on the many occasions I observed a group of women doing this. Twenty plus minutes of fidgeting, adjusting clothes, posing from this way and that, retaking the photo, looks of frustration, displeasure, anxiety… this is not fun. This is work. For whom? For what?

Why must young women perform happiness in public, to show to others how happy they are? Is happiness the only emotion they should display? Does there need to be a display?

When I was young, I thought my friends and I were the center of the universe. But we kept one eye trained on the world, readying ourselves for the sucker punch, the assault, the attack. We knew the world was not kind but we still wanted to take it on.

Today’s young women risk simply disappearing inside themselves, instead of orienting themselves to the world. In their fear and anticipation of the outside attack, they carve out pieces of themselves and offer it to the world in pixels and bytes, hoping the world will be kinder. It won’t.

This is what others have called the Selfie Generation. Always posing, always performing, never a moment out of the lens or the limelight. “Look how young and beautiful we are! See how we throw our heads back and laugh! Everyone envies us, wants to be us, wishes they were amongst us. We have taken the power of beauty into our own hands. We deal in the currency that men have always made out of us; we set the rate and determine the price. We are master and slave, goods and services, owner and property all at once. Are you watching me? Are you watching me? If you don’t watch me, do I even exist?”

Beauty bloggers, health and fitness and wellness influencers, role models and inspirational figures drowning in the “poetry” of Rupi Kaur and Lang Leav. Drenched in self-regard, growing smaller instead of larger. The continuous inward look, the self-scrutiny. They think the world is watching them. It isn’t. It is merely waiting for them to get over themselves before offering its own gifts and poisons to them.

Men kill themselves instantly and brutally with guns; women do it slowly, with smartphones trained on themselves like precision weapons, pointing out every flaw. They pore over their pictures later, devouring themselves like self-eating pythons. One in five girls in the UK self-harms because of an inability to cope with the stress of life. An empty stomach awash in its own digestive acid will start to consume itself.

The Instagram filter is the most anti-feminist device I know. It has turned today’s young women into their own pornographers. They do not deal in the pornography of the body, but the cannibalization of the soul. They give away that which cannot be redeemed through popularity and influence. There is a reason people from tribal cultures feared having their photographs taken; they feared the camera would steal a piece of their soul.

They were right.

EDIT: Since publishing the first paragraph of this very short essay on Twitter, I have received a lot of pushback from people — women, mostly — telling me that I’m policing young women, that they’re having fun, that they should be loud in public spaces without fear, so on and so forth. I’m afraid that wasn’t the point of this essay.

It was also pointed out to me that men and middle-aged women also engage in these moments. Yes, they do. But I would argue that the camera gaze affects young women in the early stages of identity formation in vastly different ways.

I wonder what the reaction to my thoughts would be if I identified those women as “aunties,” “begums,” “upper class,” “designer-clad”, or anything else…

AND FINALLY… This is just an essay. Just an opinion. It is not a recipe for solving all the world’s problems. These are my thoughts, metaphorical and philosophical. Interpret them literally at your peril.

On being fired for abusing someone’s mother on Twitter + Guest Post by Hareem Sumbul

Earlier this week, a furore erupted on Pakistani Twitter. The editor of Dawn’s Eos magazine, filmmaker Hasan Zaidi, made a negative remark about the delay in broadcasting Prime Minister Imran Khan’s budget speech. In response, a bank manager at Bank Al-Falah by the name of Fazeel Tajammul responded: “He was waiting for your mother to shut her brothel.”

Zaidi was infuriated by this insult to his mother. He reached out to his personal contacts at the bank with a complaint. As a result, the employee was fired.

Twitter went mad with talk about this situation. Why fire the man? Hadn’t he made a mistake? Hadn’t he exercised freedom of speech? Hadn’t Zaidi made similar abusive statements on Twitter? Why shouldn’t Zaidi be fired from the Dawn in return (people dug up his old tweets to prove that he too had been doing the same thing, and was nothing better than a hypocrite). Should discharging a man from his duties be the appropriate punishment for letting loose on Twitter from a personal media account? Wasn’t the punishment excessive?

Well, I don’t think so, even though a couple of years ago, I encountered a group of right-wing racists in America got after me on Twitter because I told a white woman to shut up and stop spouting her misconceptions about Muslim women. They all started tagging the New York Times and saying I should be fired for being racist.

The Times is used to this sort of attack on their journalists as most newspapers are and of course, did not fire me. That was their policy. Banks and other corporate organizations have different policies, requiring employees to be much more discreet, even if tweeting in a personal capacity. So do European and western Foreign Ministries, whose ambassadors and other diplomats have to be very careful what they say on Twitter. Some are not even allowed to have a personal Twitter account.

So, it is absolutely correct to say that different organizations have different standards, which should be made clear to employees. However, you as an individual could always err on the side of caution and try to be responsible, especially if you have a social media presence not restricted to Twitter — a LinkedIn account, as in the case of this Bank Al Falah employee. A bank is not really known for its support of freedom of expression, but newspapers and the media are — within limits, but those limits differ for each profession.

Imagine coming home to your family and having this conversation:
You: I got fired today.
Them: WHAT? WHY?
You: I called someone’s mother a prostitute and said they run a brothel.
Them: YOU DID THAT? You said that? To whom, a customer? A colleague? YOUR BOSS? I CAN’T BELIEVE IT. WHAT KIND OF PERSON DID I RAISE?
You: Oh, no, I said it on Twitter to a famous journalist.
Them: Oh, that’s okay then.

We love to tell everyone that Islam says heaven lies at the feet of your mother, but we don’t bat an eyelash when someone calls your mother a prostitute? Hypocrisy runs both ways.

Admittedly, I have told people to f*** off when they have trolled me in the past, or sent me death or rape threats. I don’t think twice about it, because I’m not “employed” by anyone. There is a lot of provocation aimed at those of us who have anything to do with the media. I’ve lost count of the number of times someone’s accused me of being a “lifafa”, that is, a journalist who takes payment to write in favor/against political parties, even though I don’t write about politics and I’m barely a journalist. Add to that the factor of my being a woman and you can imagine how the abuse increases exponentially: gender as well as profession are now grounds for being threatened with violence, online and offline.

People like Tajammul make Twitter an extremely unsafe space for women. I realized this when I read a post by Hareem Sumbul. Her impassioned Facebook post about this incident really got me thinking about the sexual politics of this incident. I am reproducing it here with her permission. It is long, it is heartfelt, and full of pain. And it is powerful testimony to how men like Tajammul make Pakistani women feel, every day of their lives, in every walk of life, in every situation and circumstance and social milieu.

There’s a magical thing that happened yesterday.
Someone got slapped for being rude.

Let me elaborate

A qualified Chartered Accountant from ICAP was laying out abuses for everyone and their mothers and a Bank fired him for doing that.
Let that sink in.
A man. Born with the appendage that gives them a privilege that is so deep set, NO ONE even notices any more.
A Chartered Accountant that qualifies from one of the most prestigious governing bodies in the country that uses relative marking and the world loses its crap at the controlled number of candidates they pass every attempt.
At a senior/ managerial post at a prestigious bank.

Got fired.

At calling a stranger’s mother a prostitute over Twitter.
And retweeting mentions of vag*na widening as a metaphor.
And tweeting more such masterpieces.

Makes sense? Deserved it? Well. They came in hoards, to protect him and cheer him on.

Not the guy who got him fired. But the one who proudly dragged every inkling of a woman close to anyone out by the hair, stark naked, painting them with allegations of his choice. Just as a figure of speech. Casually. Every now and then.

I’m trying very hard to keep it apolitical and discuss just the men and not their political affiliation for once because I don’t want this to get lost in the political drama. Needless to say there is one.

Freedom of speech they say. He wasn’t on duty they say.
This is the first time ever that a privileged man has been checked and penalised for being abusive on social media. At least the first that made as much noise or one that I know of.
That clarified that

Freedom of Speech does not mean you can be rude

There is still decorum. There is still civilised behaviour that needs to be kept in mind. There are respectful ways to disagree or options to take if you really don’t like someone instead of resorting to abuse.

Has anyone ever seen the gutters that open up under pictures of celebrities or even public news posts over social media? The filth that boils over?

The impunity that comes with Internet has empowered a lot that would piss their pants in real life if they stood in front of me yet, have the audacity to send me twenty inboxed messages a day telling me all they want to do with my genitalia.

It was bad with cellphones when they were launched. This was a personal phone that daddy or brother dear won’t answer before the women of the household. This was direct access to the Laydiss!

I’ve had abusive callers that spanned over years, I call them that because they aren’t pranking anyone. They’re abusing my right to my personal space every time they wont quit calling or messaging disgusting stuff at odd hours.

Some would lay off if I would hand the phone to a man. A husband or even a colleague. Somehow men seem to be like magnets, proximity to another similar pole is the only thing that’ll unhinge them from the disgusting behaviour they have internalised as an integral part of “being a man”. Some were even broken at that.

Then came the era of the “blocking option”. So much more women-friendly. Quiet, clean, no fuss no muss. So here is someone jerking off to the things they’re typing out to you and had their day nicely ending while after you’re done vomiting in your own mouth, you demurely click ‘block’ while he turns over in bed planning the next day’s session of text messaging another girl with their stuff.

So appropriate.

With Social Media, I feel most men confuse it with Live Option for P*rn.
They think they can say all sorts of things and it’ll get lost in the cyber world and their mummy wont see it.
It’s like the cigarette they smoked in the bathroom with their a** hovering over the pot while they stick their face in the little window.
It’s the Bhangra in the middle of the road with your current and most of future families AND Employers watching.

So this one time this man gets whacked and all the masturbating murghaas come to his rescue. Let me correct that. Come to his support. Not rescue. Because he can’t be.

Do they realise that every time they type “We are with you bro”, they aren’t supporting freedom of speech. They’re supporting someone who is continuously hurling abuse at women he doesn’t even know. God help those he works with or actually knows. I can’t imagine how they would feel had they known this is how he tweets? From his Twitter. Pun intended wholeheartedly.

(I have nothing against masturbation. I think self pleasuring is great. As long as you’re not doing it at the expense of someone else’s respect in the middle of Naagan Chowrangi.)

The fact is, I know these types. Sadly. Being affiliated to Accountancy as a career, I have seen this lot. I have choked on my own tears, I have spoken up against it and eventually I have curbed it in teams.

They will usually not say anything in the presence of a woman but the second you turn your back, the train of mughallizaat (abuses) that follows as “casual boy talk” will make your eyes water and ears bleed.

In my two decades of corporate work experience, I have cried in bathrooms at the language being casually used around me right up to throwing back similar misogynistic abuse in their face.

I’ll tell you one thing. Nothing worked.

I. As a working woman. Suffered. Not at the surface but it broke something inside me that stands irreparable perhaps.

Why do I as a woman get damned to bear witness to so many of these everyday? Do I as a woman make a man as uncomfortable going about his life or routine in a public space?
Why is public space so hostile towards me as a woman, physical or The interwebs?
These are the questions we have lost any sensitivity to even PERCEIVE, let alone ask.

Yet this one time. This man gets shot down. By another man. Which is what is good and sad at the same time.
Good because we need more men who stand up to protect women, acknowledging their privilege over space yet still giving respect to all, including women.
Sad because if it were a woman speaking up against him, she would’ve been ripped naked over social media by now and nothing would’ve happened.

This. My friends. Is the reality we live through. Every single day.

Raise your sons to be a Hasan Zaidi. Not a Fazeel Tajammul

— Hareem Sumbul

Feminism in Muslim Countries

I’ve published a long essay on the topic of feminism in Muslim countries in the FAZ Quarterly (that’s the magazine of one of Germany’s biggest newspapers, the Frankfurter Allemagne Zeitung). It’s not online yet but here’s a sneak peek at some of it. Thanks to my agent Dorle Kopetzky and the editors at FAZ Quarterly for giving me the chance to present the argument that Islam and feminism are indeed compatible.


At first, I did not exist. I was not, and then I was.

Someone said “Be!” and I was.

I did not choose this. My mother did not choose this. My father did not choose this.

And yet it happened. I happened. Be!

And I was.


Who decided that I would Be?

To whom did I give my consent

To become that clump of cells, the leech, the clot

I did not have a mouth with which to form words. I did not have a brain

With which to form thought. And yet, I was

Poured into my mother’s womb like honey from the hive

My father’s semen, dumb things, wagging their tails

Obedient drones, flying toward the Queen



At first, I was not, and then I was. Forty-six.

Two became four, four became eight, eight sixteen,

The first atom, encircled by electrons and positrons

Satellites orbiting the center.

Who told them which way to whirl,

Clockwise or counterclockwise,

like pilgrims swarming the four-sided hive

Who wrote the formulae that summoned the cosmos into existence?


Each day I rested in her womb, my mother spun me like Scheherazade spinning

Tales for the sultan to prolong her life.

My mother spun me like a tale to give me life

Each day adding a new chapter to the book.

Hour by hour, day by day I took shape. Alaqa to Mughdah

The leech, the clot gave way to the chewed up piece of meat.

The teeth marks clearly visible, each indentation a grain of rice

We are all chewed-up things, the universe does not differentiate

Between the largest whale (Jonah’s abode) and the smallest spider (Ankabut)

We are all tales waiting to be told.


When it came time for me to be ensouled,

My bones knitting together, my organs taking shape

Muscles clothing the bones, then skin knitting over the muscles

The pain of labor does not compare to the pain of ensoulment

Of being imprisoned in the body: A trap, a snare, a web, a black hole,

The three veils of darkness covering this crime,

Who is its perpetrator?


When it was decided I would be born, it was a violent expulsion, a nakba

Pushed out from the womb with blood and sweat,

I crossed the waters of my mother’s amniotic fluid in a leaky boat

Made a refugee, I was an immigrant into this world.

Forgetting the darkness, I  remember only that I do not belong here,

this body, this life is only a holding cell.

I am here for reasons I cannot fathom, at the will of one whom I do not know

At the mercy of those who do not know what they did

To deserve me.


Yet I was not, before, and now I am, and

Now, bereft, blind, wordless and helpless, I am here,

And now what do I do? Without knowing why, I struggled to be here, yet

Nobody is ashamed at what has been wrought upon me

Even the sword feels shame when it is asked to behead the innocent.



A poem inspired by the passage of the anti-abortion law in Alabama. This poem utilizes imagery in Islam that describes the conception and development of a fetus in the womb.

Women and Power in Game of Thrones

** slight spoiler*


So people are getting upset that the GoT writers took a major female character who they were building up as the great white hope for the Seven Kingdoms and turned her into a demonic fire bitch mad queen. Bree Newsome said this was typical of white feminism — saving oppressed brown folk, letting the Black woman die in her place, destroying everything when she couldn’t get what she wanted (I avoid using the term white feminism, I find it unhelpful).

However, throughout history, female leaders of any color have been ruthless and often burned everything down to the ground. Catherine the Great is the best example. She wanted to be “defender of oppressed innocence” but was opposed to educating commoners. She put down a Cossack rebellion and crushed a Polish one. She drove her army on a bloody war against the Ottomans. She annexed Crimea. Thousands died under her reign.

How about Elizabeth I who beheaded Mary Queen of Scots? Or, in modern times, Indira Gandhi who ordered the storming of the Golden Temple which caused the deaths of 3000 people, including Sikh pilgrims? Golda Meir, who was derogatory towards feminists and promoted the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians? Aung Sang Suu Kyi, the world’s biggest disappointment?

So  Daenerys Targaryen’s turn into madness, cruelty and insanity is only a slight exaggeration of what has already happened when women are at the reigns of power. History bears us out on this one, and I think the GoT writers made the right choice in allowing Daenerys to be human, rather than a woman on a pedestal.

To hold women to some sort of ideal, to expect them to remain moral and just simply because of their gender is as much an idealized vision of women as it is contrary to human nature.

I think the Mother of Dragons’s lesson is this: she wants love and she wants power, but she cannot have both, because ruling people absolutely means crushing dissent. And this is something that gender cannot allay; it is the way of the world.

The last paragraph of this short essay by Josie Glausiuz on the nature of women and power says it all: “It is, indeed, a stereotype to dismiss women as inherently peaceable. As Swanwick wrote in The Future of the Women’s Movement (1913): ‘I wish to disclaim altogether the kind of assumption … in feminist talk of the present day.’ That is, ‘the assumption that men have been the barbarians who loved physical force, and that women alone were civilised and civilising. There are no signs of this in literature or history’.”



(Recommended reading: Women and Power by Mary Beard)