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.
** 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)
This is an important news story, highlighting efforts by progressive lawmakers and politicians to end child marriage in Pakistan: Pakistan passes bill to end child marriage amid anger from religious parties – The National
Efforts to pass a nationwide law raising the legal age of marriage of all Pakistani citizens – not just men – to 18 have usually been met with stiff opposition from religious parties. Two previous bills were tabled by Senator Sehar Kamran in 2017 and MNAs Marvi Memon and Dr. Attiya Inayatullah in the National Assembly in 2010. Those bills failed; only the province of Sindh has been able to make it illegal for a girl under 18 to be married, thanks to efforts of the PPP, which in this aspect remains one of the most progressive political parties in the country. Still, implementation remains a major challenge, while every other province in Pakistan has rejected similar measures.
These bills have always been defeated by religious parties who claim restricting marriage is against Islam. Our religion does not define any set minimum age for marriage; it only requires that people be of age physically, emotionally and mentally. No surprise that religious clerics (and many conservative Pakistanis) only choose to look at the physical aspect of maturity; they cruelly argue that as soon as a girl begins to menstruate she is ready for marriage. They completely ignore the scientific evidence that shows how early pregnancy is a complete disaster for a teenage girl’s health. They also ignore the statistics that show how Pakistan has one of the highest rates of maternal mortality because of early pregnancy. They cling to a medieval vision of Islam rather than opting for a modern, progressive version that could propel this nation into the 21st century.
Even though this has been done in other Muslim countries — the Saudi Shura has set the age of puberty at 18; Al-Azhar University in Cairo, the major seat of Sunni Islamic scholarship, has passed a similar fatwa; in the UAE, Turkey and Oman, Morocco and Bangladesh it is illegal for a girl to be married before 18 — our religious scholars wish to go against the grain and cling on to their desire that a girl should be ripe and ready for marriage even if she is as young as 8. I do not think their interest is in allowing a 60 year old woman to marry a 16 year old boy, but that could just be the cynic in me.
There is another element to why the bill continues to be defeated, and it is related to political rivalry in Pakistan. If a senator or legislator from one party raises the bill, members of rival parties will try to sink it. In the case of this bill, the House Committee, which comprised of members of various parties including the PPP, PML-N and PTI, approved the bill, but when it came to the entire Senate, the ruling party PTI (Imran Khan’s party) abstained from voting, while the two major religious parties JUI and JI opposed the bill and said it should be sent back to the Council of Islamic Ideology, which is an advisory body with a great deal of influence over Pakistani lawmaking.
Even in the past, when PML-N Senator Sehr Kamran moved her bill in the National Assembly in 2017, the standing committee headed by PPP’s Senator Rehman Malik was the one to strike the bill down and declare it against Islamic injunctions. This is not a clear-cut issue of men versus women: female members of the religious parties have in the past opposed bills banning child marriage; women will betray each other for a share of power, it seems. Nor are these tactics restricted to child marriage: religious parties oppose any idea of family planning, even though Pakistan is facing a population bomb of immense proportions. But so do nationalists, who want a huge population in order to show strength as a nation.
This current bill must now go to the National Assembly, where it will be met with much opposition. Even the PML-N, which touts women’s empowerment as one of its key principles, is divided on the issue of whether or not girls should be stopped from getting married before the age of 18. One wonders whether the opponents of the bill — the rich and elite politicians of our country — are eager to get their 12 and 13 year old daughters married to 30 and 40 year old men, or whether this is just something they reserve for the most poor, deprived, and uneducated people of Pakistan.
As Pakistanis, we have an outdated idea of protecting girls. Many people among the lower socio-economic classes, especially during times of war and conflict, believe that the best way to protect their daughters from the vicissitudes of the world is to get them married off quickly. We must abandon this concept and realize that in today’s world, protecting our daughters means allowing them to complete their education and their childhood in peace and tranquility. We must also move away from the idea that girls’ parents can take any decision he or she pleases, even if it is an oppressive one that infringes on a child’s human rights, because as a parent she or he possesses complete authority over a girl’s life. This is the same kind of thinking that leads to child labor, child trafficking, and honor killing.
A 2017 World Bank study found that ending child marriage could result in a $6229 million rise in earnings and productivity. Imagine what this could do for our future as a nation. But that should not be our main impetus for banning child marriage. Our girls’ lives matter more than money. Just ask the girls of Pakistan whether they would like to get married at the age of 14, or be allowed to continue to study. In all the brouhaha over child marriage, why have none of these politicians, lawmakers and clerics asked the girls what they want to do with their lives?
Je me souviens très bien la seule fois que j’ai rencontrée Benazir Bhutto. 1992: une soirée, une grande réception au consulat Américain. J’étais étudiante aux Etats-Unis, mais je revenais à Karachi chaque année pendant les vacances d’été.
Je suis allée à la soirée avec mon père, qui était ministre. Il parlait à une dame grande, belle, charismatique. Il m’a appelé pour me presenter à ce personnage. «Bina, dit-il, je te présente Madame Benazir Bhutto. Madame Bhutto, voici ma fille, Bina. Elle est étudiante à Massachusetts, comme vous l’étiez.
J’étais abasourdie. C’est Benazir, la femme la plus connue du Pakistan, peut-être du monde, après la princesse Diana. Premier ministre élue en 1988, la seule et la premiere femme d’un pays musulman à accéder à ce poste. Eduquée à Harvard et Oxford, fille du premier ministre Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, qui a été pendu par le dictateur le Général Zia. En tant que jeune femme elle s’est mise en danger pour renverser le dictateur. Elle a réussit à gagner sa place dans les annals. Elle est en face de moi. Elle a 39 ans.
Je ne pouvais rien dire. J’étais comme un poisson, bouche ouverte, jeune, naive, maladroite comme tous les ados.
Son visage s’est égayé. «Ah oui? Vous êtes à quelle université?
—À Wellesley College, madame, j’ai dit, en bégayant.
Elle m’a gratifiée d’un grand sourire. «Eh bien, quand j’étais à Harvard, tous les garçons adoraient les filles de Wellesley, me dit-elle, amusée. Moi aussi, j’ai rit. —Et quel spécialisation avez-vous choisi? Vous voulez devenir quoi dans la vie?
«Je me spécialise en psychologie. J’aimerais bien devenir psychologue.
—Mais c’est super! Vous pourriez devenir mon psy. J’en ai tellement besoin!
Je ne suis pas devenue psy, mais écrivaine. Une quinzaine d’années après cette rencontre, lorsque Benazir a été assassinée, après être revenue au Pakistan pour renverser un second dictateur, le Général Musharraf, nous étions dévestatés. Cette femme incroyable, avec son grand coeur, sa fidélité pour son pays, son intelligence et son expérience de la politique mondiale, ses espoirs pour la démocratie: elle me pouvait pas mourir. Mais elle a été éteint comme le lustre à la fin d’une grande soirée. Et mon coeur est, et reste, cassé.
J’ai imaginé une petite partie de sa vie dans mon roman «La Huitième Reine». Je regarde sa vie comme celles des sept reines mythologiques de Sindh, qui ont sacrifié leur vies pour l’amour de dieu, pour leurs amants, et pour ce pays. Il n y aura plus une autre comme elle: tout est dit avec la traduction de son nom: Benazir, «sans égal, incomparable».
Now that the Aurat March has taken place successfully, many are striking back against what they see as women’s obscenity, vulgarity, need for attention, and even therapy in public. The Internet has been awash with comments from men and women attacking the marchers, and focusing on the placards they carried rather than for the reasons they marched.
Here is a very well-reported news article on why the Aurat March took place. Organizer of the Karachi march Sheema Kirmani stated the objectives: “Our issues remain the same today. We have organized the march to raise voice against gender violence, sexual harassment, social norms and gender roles that oppress women from getting access to educational, health, employment opportunities and rights. We are contending to create a just society that does not discriminate against women and exploit them.”
But it’s easier to ignore the truth when you don’t want to face the reality that we all participate in such a vastly unfair system. And what better way than to distract from the march’s real aims than by focusing on some posters and placards, rather than the demands of the women who marched, in Karachi, Lahore, Islamabad, Quetta, Faisalabad, Hyderabad, Peshawar, and Gilgit?
Last year’s most controversial placard told men to “go and warm your own food.” That one inspired meme after meme of men telling women to go out and work (they do) and change their own tires (they do). This year’s controversy-starter was a placard that portrayed a (fully-dressed) young woman sitting down with her legs splayed. “Here, I’m sitting properly,” read the caption on the poster, a wry take on the injunction every Pakistani girl has heard from the beginning of time: to sit “decently” with legs together.
Another poster which disturbed people was this one, which made many male detractors question whether they too could draw a picture of their genitals and march around with it. Which only goes to show you that most people in Pakistan really need to learn the difference between female genitals and the female reproductive system.
Understanding of biology aside, I interpret these slogans and placards as a strong statement for women’s freedom of expression, their rage, their anger. These placards signal to society that women have had enough of inferior and unfair treatment. They don’t want to be policed, to be threatened, to be harassed or punished for the same behaviors that men and boys enact without even a second thought.
The slogans may appear crude to some but many were witty, funny, clever, sarcastic, and some were very touching and straightforward. The woman holding the “Now I’m sitting properly” poster was in full hijab and it is doubtful that she has ever or would ever want to sit like that in public. Her point was easy to understand, though: it criticizes the vast and almost insurmountable double standards we have with regards to what’s allowed for men and for women. Men can sit like that or even lie down in public, relieve themselves, scratch their crotches, and nobody will say anything to them. But should a woman or girl sit like that and she will be reprimanded by anyone and everyone, called a slut, indecent, and so on and so forth. And should she dare to challenge that by drawing a picture of a woman siting freely…
Most of those posters were pointing out the sexist double standards that we have fully accepted in our society. I found them full of energy and intelligent observations about the hypocrisy of our misogynist and patriarchal society. It is truly ironic that few in our society feel the need to challenge violence against women, honor killings, domestic violence, sexual harassment (and they attack those who do) but a poster and a women’s march is what has gotten them up in arms.
There are those who think that the woman and girls who marched were spoiled, privileged, liberal “aunties” who have no clue of what is really going on in society with women and their “real” problems. This is only an attempt to divide women, to roll back the power of women and men uniting across ethnicities, social classes, genders, and demanding change.
It is very therapeutic to reclaim public space, to be loud, crude, and angry after years of repression and intimidation. To be badly-behaved when one has been told how to behave all one’s life. The collective gathering together of women and their allies to express themselves is how political change occurs — when a people’s movement galvanizes attention and focus on a pressing issue. Perhaps this is new for Pakistanis to see women gathering like this in such strength and such numbers, but it is refreshing and inspiring to many. And the fact that it has upset so many means that it is working.
As Pulitzer Prize winning historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich said, “Well-behaved women seldom make history.” Pakistani women are tired of being told to behave properly, discriminated against in every sphere regardless of their behavior, and punished societally, professionally, and physically for even an imagined infraction of that behavior code.
Pakistani women are standing up for themselves, demanding justice. They want to rewrite the rules so that they are fair and equitable for all genders. If you understand this, then a few placards, written with the enthusiasm and fierceness of young women excited by the possibility of change, should not blind you to why they really marched — unless you truly don’t want to get the message.
For once, Pakistani women, instead of behaving “properly”, trolled men as hard as they could – and it was awesome.
Recently the BBC made a program about being a woman in Pakistan. Accompanying the main program is a quick clip with soundbites from some young Pakistani women about how they live their lives here:
In turns hopeful, frustrated, angry, proud, determined, these women describe what they face in Pakistan:
- “I’m covering my head, not my brain.”
- “I get to prioritise my goals but I’m called selfish if I want to pursue them.”
- “No matter what, if you aren’t married, you haven’t achieved anything.”
- “I can be independent and choose any career I want to work in.”
- “I don’t have autonomy over my body, or my city.”
- “I can get a degree but my family restricts me from stepping out into certain places.”
- “I can cook whatever I want but I can’t wear whatever I want.”
- “I must have a white skin tone, but the chai I make should be brown.”
- “Everyone is entitled to have an opinion about my life except me.”
I absolutely love the wry seriousness with which these women speak about their lived experiences in a country that doesn’t give them their due. They are completely clued up and aware of what society is denying them, and that they deserve more.
Young Pakistani women are the momentum behind some of the most significant changes taking place in our society today. That’s why I’m excited about the second edition of the Aurat March, the Pakistani Women’s March that took place last year for the first time in Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi to coincide with the women’s marches all over the world on March 8th, 2019. This year, organizers are planning to make the march bigger and better than before: they will march for “economic justice, reproductive justice, right to our city, and environmental justice”. Special focus will be given to the anti-encroachment drive in Karachi, which has been seen by many as anti-poor.
Sheema Kermani, feminist activist, dancer and performance artist, and one of the original members of the Women’s Action Forum, says, “We at ‘Hum Aurtein,’ proudly announce Aurat March 2019. Every year, on International Women’s Day (8th March), we unite women and individuals from gender non-binary groups to celebrate and strive for the spirit of inclusion, dignity, and respect.” (Hum Aurtein, or “We Women”, is a feminist organization that takes its name from Kishwar Naheed’s revolutionary poem “Hum Gunagar Aurtein”, or “We Sinful Women”)
But the efforts aren’t restricted to Karachi or Lahore alone. The Women Democratic Front, a Pakistani leftist feminist women’s collective, is working to dismantle patriarchy and capitalism in Pakistan and will demand a minimum working wage for women as part of the Aurat March 2019. They will celebrate the International Women Workers Day in Hyderabad, Quetta, Islamabad and Mardan, and are going door-to-door, meeting with working women in these cities to mobilize them for the march.
— Women Democratic Front (@wdf_pk) February 23, 2019
They will also commemorate the Kashmiri Women’s Resistance Day in observance of the mass rape of 40 women by Indian armed forces in the adjoining Kashmiri villages of Kunan and Poshpora in 1991.
Pakistani women will join hands with all feminist allies to show their strength in numbers on March 8, to show their righteous anger, and to celebrate their womanhood in furious joy. Everyone is welcome at this inclusive event: gender non-binary, trans, LGBTQI, female identifying folk and men.
Kermani adds, “Our march isn’t funded by any political party, corporation or NGO. We collect money from other citizens to bring the march together. The march celebrates women’s struggles and gives us a platform to all women to show case our issues and struggles.”
The momentum that began from last year’s march is swelling into something even bigger, even more urgent and even more wide-reaching than last year’s march. It is harnessing the energies wakened by MeToo in Pakistan, the ongoing activism for girls’ education, and a growing anger at the lack of inclusion in the Pakistani government and businesses across the country.
Don’t be on the wrong side of history: come out and participate, or at least witness what happens when women decide to act. There is nothing more exciting or powerful than when women get together to agitate for their rights, to make their voices heard, to make the world aware that they want change. And we will make the world listen.
(Islamabad poster by Lubaina Rajbhoy)
Very happy to have this personal memoir essay up at Granta now. It’s always a risk to write honestly about one’s own life, and I’ve hesitated up to now, but I decided to give it a try. I wanted to illustrate how a child’s pain occurred concurrently with the depression and pain of a nation in those years after 1971 and all the way up to the coup in which Zia overthrew Bhutto. I wanted to shine a light on the strange, cloistered world of Sayed women coming from rural Sindh, raised in privilege yet oppressed in so many ways. And I wanted to put down those memories of my earliest years, reinforced by subsequent visits, by photographs and storytelling. Whether or not I succeeded is another story.
I was delighted to find out that Before She Sleeps is shortlisted for the Getz Fiction Prize being awarded at the inaugural Adab Festival on February 1, along with Mohammed Hanif’s Red Birds, Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire, and Zarrar Said’s Pureland. That’s some illustrious competition!
It made me think about Pakistani writing in English, which I think now has been around long enough to be characterized in this way:
Pakistani writing doesn’t always have the technical excellence or the meticulous attention to craft that you will find in British or American novels. But what it does have is an exuberance and energy that isn’t always contained in the novel form. That’s why our books seem to burst at the seams with irrepressible characters, beyond-belief plots, and big bold vision. There’s always a laugh hiding behind the pathos, and tears close to the surface behind the slapstick. Our writing captures Pakistani life and Pakistani attitude in all its messy glory and ugly truth.