Of Desi Feminism And Identity Crisis
“I don’t think women trying to be men is feminism.”
This was stated by the Bollywood actress Lisa Haydon, when she was asked, during an interview, with the Times of India, to define the term ‘feminist’. According to some other details, she also opined that women are inherently maternal and nurturing, meaning that motherhood is or should be their primary role.
In my view, most of the feminists, belonging to upper strata of society (one can hardly find any feminist from the lower middle/ working class) still conceive or define feminism in terms of renouncing local culture and traditions (including religious views) and adopting/imitating so called modern/Western/Hollywood culture.
So, in this context, and for deeper insights into the position, status, and struggles of women in Pakistan, we must not only go back to the days when demand for a separate homeland for the Muslims of subcontinent was gaining traction, but also need to know what “F” word actually denotes for Pakistani women. And how much successful they have been in the light of their understanding of this word.
In the British India (pre-partition days), most Muslim women of subcontinent were leading secluded lives within the confines of their homes, and were not active or visible in public spaces. However, with the advent of western nationalism and its ancillary ideas including feminism, a war of ideologies broke out between the Muslim social classes represented by Sir Syed Ahmad Khan (the reformist) and Deputy Nazir Ahmed (the conservative and author of Mirat Ul Aroos and Tauba Tun Nasooh).
And the boundary lines started to be clearly drawn between the women of upper middle/ privileged class (and vanguards of Western or modern feminism) and those belonging to middle/lower middle class (or vanguard of Islamic feminism?) As women of privileged class, were being given, and still continue to have, the opportunity to learn English and thus enjoy a “secular intellectual space” to explore new and unconventional ideas and, hence achieve success in different walks of life without running the risk of being labelled “anti religious” or “un-Islamic,” common Muslim women still led secluded lives within four walls of their homes as mothers/wives.
In this backdrop, 100 years ago (1919) with the emergence of Pan Islamic movement for the restoration of the institution of Caliphate in Turkey (within the subcontinent it was called Caliphate Movement), and afterwards the large scale movement by the Muslims of subcontinent under the leadership of M.A. Jinnah, the Muslim women began to emerge on the scene to play their vital role in the socio economic and political arenas.
Among the pioneers was Bi Amma, the mother of Maulana Muhammad Ali and Shaukat Ali, who addressed the public gatherings from behind a sheet. Although some feminist consider it the beginning of the melting of chains of oppression and discrimination against Muslim (afterwards Pakistani) women, but in my view it was also the beginning of the melting of one identity and then reshaping/reformation of different/conflicting identities of Pakistani women and the resultant confusion and identity crisis that lingers on even to date.
One also must keep in mind that Bi Amma belonged to India and was not the product of Western influence. She also had stated that all the men in the meeting were her brothers and sons.
When the Pakistan Movement was gaining momentum, a sort of social change (or can we say it revolution?) in the name of emancipation and empowerment of Muslim women, especially of those belonging to middle/upper middle classes, was becoming visible. It was also needed and encouraged by the Muslim political leadership of subcontinent. M.A. Jinnah, leading the struggle of Muslims of subcontinent, repeatedly stressed the importance of treating women not only with dignity but also as equal partners of men if the dream of separate homeland for Muslims had to be achieved.
However, Muslim women’s new role and claims or demand for equality can’t be seen as an isolated phenomenon. Traditional role of women had already begun to change in 1800s as a result/demands of industrial revolution in the West and its effects were gradually spreading outside Europe and America.
The early feminist movements (that were actually meant to achieve the goal of economic equality as women working in factories and other workplaces were being paid less than men) emerged out of this time period and still continue to define feminism in terms of equality to men. In fact, industrial revolution had a profound effect on the lives and movements of women all over the world. Resultant ideologies of Western Nationalism and Feminism had close connections as ‘nation’ rather than patriarchy seemed to emerge as the subject of prevailing feminist discourse in the Global South.
Actually ‘nationalism’ and ‘feminism’ were like twins that were the product of industrial revolution and were necessary for sustaining of western hegemony in the guise of liberal and enlightened values.
World War II proved another powerful impetus for feminism as women, especially in America, were being assigned new role to perform with entering professions and jobs left behind by men who were being recruited in the armed services. So the women had to fill a vast vacuum created by the men joining the army.
The war provided an unprecedented opportunity for American women, particularly in the defense industry. Parallel to these developments, Muslim women in subcontinent were also being assigned a new role and a new identity by the male Muslim political leadership.
However, the problem was that Muslim conservatives/revivalists, represented by the likes of Akbar Allahabadi, Deputy Nazir Ahmad, and some Deobandi scholars who were also called nationalist Muslims (as they were against the partition of India) as opposed to Muslim nationalists (wanting a separate homeland for Muslims after the departure of British), were also against the western feminism. They emphasised the kind of education for women that will make them ‘dutiful wives’ and ‘good Muslim Women.’
The stance of these conservatives/revivalists seemed to have been vindicated after the emergence of Pakistan on the map of the world, as Muslim women (who had migrated to Pakistan) were once again in a fix because they were no longer needed to join men outside the confines of their homes.
Similar situation was also being faced by American women after the end of World War II. When some women didn’t return to the role of homemakers, film producers, in America, began producing films during 1950s to encourage them to once again accept the role of homemaker and follow the etiquette of service to husband.
Keeping this in view, we can say that women are mostly called to join men and participate in the social/political struggles to serve socio-political interests of the men of their times.
However, this was always considered a temporary measure for the period of war, and despite the steady increase in women’s employment rate since 1920s, a married woman’s place was still considered to be in the home. A strange paradox (or absurdity) was that in order to assure men that demand of the war would not make women too masculine, some factories gave women lessons in how to apply make-up. Government initiated a propaganda campaign centred on a figure know as “Rosie the Riveter.” Rosie was tough yet feminine.
Hence after the creation of Pakistan, like other women of the world, situation for Pakistani women or feminists was not the same again and colonization of the mind, before the creation of Islamic Republic of Pakistan, had already become one of the root causes of identity crisis that is being faced by them even today. During their reign, the British not only influenced the Indians politically, economically, and socially, but also influenced the minds and culture of the natives to such an extent that even the subsequent generations keep on absorbing the influence and women are no exception.
However, it is also a fact that colonization only affected and continues to affect the privileged class women as was the case before partition, when only privileged class women had the opportunity to learn English and thus enjoy a so called “secular intellectual space.
Similarly, as pointed out by Shahnaz Rouse (a teacher of sociology at Sarah Lawrence College, New York and author of various articles on women), Pakistani women’s history fails to provide any meaningful context to determine their new role/identity after the creation of Pakistan.
She writes: “Pakistani women’s history (until very recently) has also been written in conjunction with the history of nationalist movement itself. The historical women we read and hear about are largely those who move in public arenas, often related to known male figures, using dominant languages (literally and conceptually). Other women, other voices, tend to be drowned and suppressed.”
Hence it is a fact that before and after the creation of Pakistan (as happened in other parts of the world including West and America) only bourgeois women (and struggles) gained centre stage and that too under the visible or not so visible direction and support of men. There are some rare examples of lower/working class women activism, such as peasant women struggle in Okara and movement for the rights of lady workers, but these are exceptions and not the norms.
However, the tragedy is that, rural and working class women as well as women using local vernaculars are not only ignored and silenced in public histories (the reason, perhaps, is that they don’t serve or seem to serve any political aim to be achieved by men) but, on the contrary, continue to be the victim of oppression by their own gender belonging to the privileged class.
So where does the feminism (of any category (Western, Pakistani or Islamic) stands when the abusers and abused both are women? For instance, there is a horrific tale of brutal murder of a poor maid by the mother-daughter duo belonging to rich class. According to a report by Samaa News, “in January, this year, a woman and her daughter were arrested for violently murdering a 16 year old domestic worker in Lahore. As per statement issued by police, two women killed the minor domestic worker –Uzma- on January 18 (2019) in Iqbal Town and dumped her body in a nearby drain. Her only sin was that she took a little food from her daughter’s plate.”
Therefore, as pointed out earlier, after the creation of Pakistan, while privileged class women continued to occupy the secular intellectual space to express and assert themselves, the middle class women were back to the square one . As their new role was still not defined, a vacuum had been created that had to be filled.
During Z.A Bhutto’s rule, women were given some ceremonial liberties or rights (such as opening the doors of government services which had earlier been denied to them, reserving 10 % national assembly seats and 5 % provincial assembly seats for them, assurance of gender equality under the 1973 constitution as well as full participation of women in all spheres of national life).
But the divide between privileged and middle class women was becoming sharper than ever (especially during and after Zia-u-Haq’s regime’s so called Islamization of society and then with the emergence of neoliberal ideology in 1990s creating extreme economic inequalities), and it manifested itself in a new phenomenon called female radicalization in Pakistan.
Although in the beginning, chains of Islamic schools like Al-Huda were not taken seriously, many middle class families welcomed the growing conservatism of their women. So within the days of Malala Yousafzai being named United Nations ambassador of peace, a woman named Naureen Leghari was arrested in April 2017 in Lahore, for carrying out a suicide bombing against a Christian community on the eve of Easter. Many other women were also found to have become radicalized, married to militants and willing to murder dozens (Can we call it a new sort of women empowerment?)
So, unless the Pakistani women have the guts and gumption to come out of the quagmire of confusion created by messing up/amalgamation of the ideas of Western, Pakistani, and Islamic feminism as well as projection of distinct hybrid identities that are dichotomous and conflicting, they will keep moving in circles and, in spite of all the struggles and movement, will always be back to square one.
And, though, the emergence of multiple, conflicting identities can’t be exclusively attributed to external western influence, the fact is that feminist politics in a “nation state” carved in the name of Islam or Muslim nationalism is still trying to grapple with the issue of fragmented and polarizing identities including traditional and religious ones. It should e kept in mind that Pakistan is not just another nation state, but an Islamic republic too.
Lastly, what can we conclude from the fact that after having seen the images of international women politicians bringing their children to their workplaces – including New Zealand’s prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, lauded in Pakistan for her feminine (as opposite to masculine) style of politics.
Ms. Mahjabeen Sheran (an MPA from Balochistan) was asked to leave the assembly premises by her colleagues after she brought her eight month old baby there during an assembly session. As per newspapers’ reports, her son was feeling unwell on that day and it was difficult for her to leave him at home. Although Ms. Sheran thought there would be no issue in her doing like the Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, but she was shocked to see the reaction of her fellow parliamentarians.
To sum up and clear some of the mist surrounding the issue of feminism in Pakistan, we can see the problem of identity from another perspective too and that is: Identity is a spectrum and not a unit. Some feminists or proponents of gender issue are of the view that understanding of gender continually evolves. In the course of a person’s life, the interests, activities, clothing and professions that are considered the domain of one gender or another are evolved in ways both small and large. A 2015 fusion millennial poll of adults aged 18-34 in USA shows that majority see gender as a spectrum, rather than a man/woman binary.