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Why Is Feminism Considered A ‘Cancer’ In Pakistan?

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I have been thinking about feminism lately. About what it means to be a feminist and what it takes to be one. How the movement started, the purveyors of the movement and the types and waves. I am not well-read in feminist literature: someone who has read Simon De Beauvoir, Mary Wollstonecraft, or Virginia Woolf for that matter. Nevertheless, I bristle whenever I see how a sizeable majority in this country thinks about feminism. Feminism has been dumbed down to a benighted extent where it is being destroyed in video clips of a few seconds.

Ask any commoner their opinions on feminism and get yourself enlightened on the type of ‘cancer’ the movement is. We regularly see how men trifle the feminist movement on social media. How it is called a hoax, a danger to society, and a trojan horse used by the elitists to further their obnoxious vested agendas. What is particularly gobsmacking is the sheer non-seriousness and nonchalancy with which feminism is talked about. An acquaintance recently told me that feminists were misandrists masquerading as activists. Someone else was unable to grasp the sarcasm when I told them that the only freedom women in Pakistan don’t have is the freedom to go around nakedly. The person thought that this was a very poignant remark by me elucidating the trivial movement that feminism was. Meanwhile, I was left overawed and flabbergasted. This occurrence helped me realize the reasoning behind our collective antipathy to feminism.

The lack of nuanced thinking makes us susceptible to any unhinged narrative. Moreover, we obliterate critical thinking in our political and sociological discourse by having strong opinions about paradigms we know next to nothing about. The reason I write this is to elaborate on how an ‘ostensibly’ crazed movement can be driven by a plethora of complex animuses resulting in the confusion we see around us.

The onset of first wave feminism is marked by the fin de siècle decades. During the tumultuous modernist years of 1890-1920, the First Wave Feminism emerged. The suffragettes (feminists avant la lettre) were notoriously militant in their activism. They smashed the windows, burnt the houses of their opponents, and vandalized public property. They were anti-imperialists and abolitionists who wanted to bring the patriarchy down in a complete smash-the-machine style. After 1910, due to an incident where the suffragettes were assaulted physically and sexually outside the British Parliament, they went completely ballistic and retorted to destruction and vandalism. Their slogan was “Deeds not words”. The activism won them voting rights in Britain in 1918 and the passage of the 19th Amendment in the US.

However, African American women were left out of the mainstream movement and they remained disenfranchised. In all candor, for Black suffragettes, the year 1920 was only a start of a long arduous struggle towards voting rights. Similarly, Latin, Mexican, Chinese, and Native American women didn’t get to enjoy voting rights up until 1965. African American suffragettes never felt comfy with the traditional white suffragettes. The liberal lot of the first wavers was also divided on the passage of ERA (Equal Rights Amendment) to the US Constitution.

Fast forward to the second wave feminism where the debate now encompasses contraception rights, reproductive health/rights, legal inequalities, societal inequalities, legislation against marital rapes, and divorce laws, etc. In 1971 France, Simon De Beauvoir signed a petition with 344 other activists which said “I have had an abortion”. This petition was when the feminists in France crossed the rubicon and stood in sheer defiance to a law that criminalized abortion. A similar watershed moment was the Roe V Wade in the US when the Supreme Court decided in the favor of legalizing abortion. The second wave slogan was “Personal is political.” Again, if one tries to define the second-wave feminism as a movement where women strived to achieve the aforementioned ends then that would be downright reductive to the complex nature of second-wave feminism.

We had liberal feminists who reckoned the legal inequalities as the cause for women plight, the radical feminists who pointed the finger towards the patriarchal gender roles for the sufferings of women, and then the Marxist feminists who held the free-market responsible for the women’s maltreatment. The second-wave feminism was also influenced by anti-war activism, the anti-anti communism thought of the day, and the post-modernism rejection of meta-narratives. In the 1980s we saw how second-wave feminism ripped itself apart. The infighting started between sex-positive feminists and anti-pornography feminists. The former supported pornography while the latter held that pornography inferiorizes women. The anti-pornography feminists were also supported by the conservatives in their quest to outlaw pornography. For the first time, the interests of the patriarchy and feminists squared. Sex-positive feminists supported trans and gay rights, pornography and sex work, and an androgynous approach towards gender roles. At the same time, some of the anti-pornographers supported intersectionalism whilst whilst some didn’t. The sex wars culminated into the end of second wave feminism as we know it.

Lastly, third-wave feminism puts together a type of feminism which is influenced by a poststructuralist deconstructionism of linguistics and the popular culture at large. Understanding the goals of the third wave against a backdrop of grrrl music bands and punk subculture becomes even more difficult. The third wave started when Anita Hill accused a US Supreme Court nominee of harassment. One of the concerns of third-wave feminism was to eliminate workplace harassment. The third wave slogan was “I am not a post-feminism feminist. I am the Third Wave.”(Written in an article protesting Clearance Thomas’ confirmation to the SCOTUS). Unlike first and second-wave feminism which was much more serious and sober, the third-wave has been a ruckus of a movement. The third-wave feminism was unambiguously intersectional and trans-inclusive. Its core principle was that gender is performative as well as a societal construct. The third wave was a diffuse movement with bollixed up goals and no significant legal victory to its name.

Scholars these days agree that a fourth wave has arrived already and that much of it present online. It started with the #MeToo movement in Hollywood which brought down influential men in the position of power in Hollywood first and then in the wider world. The movement found its slogan “Their time is up” in Oprah’s famous Golden Globe speech. Fourth wave feminism is still underway.

The point of writing this was to complicate the feminism and to show that a movement that is present across cultures will have different goals in different cultures and its goals subject to the societal and sex norms prevalent in the culture. We have seen how folks in this country speak about first and second waves as the good and rational waves while bastardizing the third wave. Men will tell you feminism has gone stray and now its only objective is to normalize ‘behayai’. What they forget to reckon is that it were the second wavers who earned names like bra burners when they burnt their bras protesting the beauty pageant shows. It was the second wave feminism that reimagined the female nudes. Emergence is a huge collection of nude photoshoots of famous and unfamiliar feminists owning their bodies, showing that their bodies are stronger than the violence that afflicts their bodies by posing nude. ‘Behayai’ much?

Socio-political movements derive their strength from their suppression. Their slogans are not for the bystanders to interpret because they are meant for the catharsis of the participants of the movement only. They don’t need us to tell them that their sloganeering amounts to treason ‘treason’ (as in the case of PTM) or ‘behayai’ (as in the Aurat March’s case) nor do they get cancelled by our knee-jerk reactions. Feminism is flawed because feminists are flawed. Understanding feminism will require verstehen at our part– putting ourselves in the shoes of feminists. We can inveigh against feminism and any other political movement that seeks to challenge the status quo, but our critique should at least be subject to logos. Ridiculing rights movements for their cheezy slogans is detrimental to a wise discourse about the things that are sabotaging our progress towards egalitarianism and justice.

The slogans we hear in Aurat March are not even the slogans of Aurat March per se, they are the translations of the anthems and slogans of Chilean feminists. Feminism is a solidarity movement in the sense that it’s present variably across all the cultures. Perhaps the feminism we see today can only be described by a quote from Roxane Gay’s “Bad Feminist”, “At some point, I got it into my head that a feminist was a certain kind of woman. I bought into grossly inaccurate myths about who feminists are—militant, perfect in their politics and person, man-hating, humorless. I bought into these myths even though, intellectually, I know better…. No matter what issues I have with feminism, I am a feminist. I cannot and will not deny the importance and absolute necessity of feminism. Like most people, I’m full of contradictions, but I also don’t want to be treated like shit for being a woman.”

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Naya Daur