Before Bashing Khalilur Rehman Qamar, Hear Him Out

Before Bashing Khalilur Rehman Qamar, Hear Him Out
Farhat Shereen argues that Khalilur Rehman Qamar is right in saying that as feminists we should try not to alienate, and never to offend the men. In fact, no ‘brand’ of feminism can work in Pakistan unless we include men in our narrative. 

No one has asked me to write on feminism. But there is one gentleman, please allow me to be nice by addressing him so because he has had his share of not being called anything close lately, who made me share my thoughts about feminism.  He is none other than the very controversial Khalil ur Rehman Qamar, who has sparked a fiery discussion on account of his latest play and more so by his comments on feminism and the women feminists of Pakistan.

They say the best of movies, dramas, plays are the ones that leave you thinking, talking about them even after you are done watching. By that definition he is a good playwright who has given us dramas like 'Pyare Afzal', 'Man Jali', 'Sadqay Tumhare' and now 'Meray Paas Tum Ho'. I loved each one of these plays for the style of dialogue, the script, theatrics, without knowing until recently, that they were all penned by the same author.

What is in his current play so intriguing that it generated this much interest and anger at the same time?

Well, in this divided world between good and bad, right and wrong, black and white, let’s be fair that morality is largely accepted as a good attribute and its definition, with subtle nuances, is fair even across the spectra of regions, races and religions.

So, when KRQ shows that a female character of his story crosses over the line of restraint defined as Nikah/marriage to fall in the arms of another man, she is essentially deceiving her husband and demeaning the institution of marriage. He writes her off as a cheater, as of no value, worthless (do takay ki larki) and someone whom her husband, now ex, has no empathy for.

Fair enough?

May be not for some and I can understand that but what I found awkward is the argument given by some that since it is ‘somewhat acceptable’ in a society for a man to cheat on his wife and not be judged, rather forgiven, why can this woman not have ‘equal right’(of cheating that is)?

The question is hinged on the antecedent of ‘tolerating cheating by men’. If we agree to take that as a norm, then yes, though a bit contrived, one can make a case for equality here. If not, then asking for such equivalence with the precedence of making it a ‘gender equality’ issue is a bit too much.

In terms of equality, the aim of any such notion, movement is women empowerment and uplifting. I do not see a woman or man given an equal chance to be dishonest as empowerment. Let us decide the discourse here: Do we want a society that sees cheating as unacceptable, whether it is the husband or the wife doing so, or are we asking for a society where both can get away with it? I want to be able to walk away from a relationship if it is not for me but until I do so, I do not expect the world to shower rose-petals in my footsteps as I march towards unfaithfulness.

If you are still with me and not given up after reading my sort-of, kind-of endorsement for KRQ, which it is not, let me utilize this chance to share with you my understanding of feminism and then I will come back to KRQ.

Inherently, feminism is a movement for empowerment of women driven by an ideology, a political motive or a social cause. There is no single definition that fits the interpretation and the wide narrative the term encompasses. Neither is there a conformity in the purpose feminism serves or has served through the pages of history and in different parts of the world through years.

Nevertheless, this vastness and inclusiveness is what makes this movement global both in geographical senses and in terms of period it has served. Broadly it is aimed at establishing and ensuring political, social, economic and cultural equality of the sexes. However, when such breadth exists in an ideology, one should be ready to accept the different interpretations and the difference in viewpoints of those who embrace it as a movement.

Therefore, we see feminism evolve in an effort to engage the section of population subgroup it serves, who although is a woman, can be a woman of colour, an ethnic minority, a religious woman, a sexually harassed woman, a woman fighting for sexual autonomy, a woman fighting for educational rights, access to healthcare, and against patriarchal society's injustices etc.

This is why feminism has to welcome Suffragettes, Black Feminists, intersectional Feminists, Liberal Feminists, Leftist Feminists, Cultural Feminists, Christian, Jewish and more recently, Islamic or Muslim Feminists.

They all exist and are out there. They may agree or disagree with one another but it is important to recognize that none of them is ‘against’ women empowerment. Hence imperative to distinguish between those who may not agree with ‘Radical or Liberal’ ideologies of feminism or the supporters of such i.e. radical/ liberal feminists, and the one against women in general, because only then we will be careful about identifying, labeling people as ‘misogynist’, sadly a term so generously heard these days.

So, can there be feminists who are not liberal or leftist?

Yes. It is a diverse, nuanced ideology, and by no means is liberalism the only blanket that can cover it in its entirety.  In fact, calling feminism akin to liberalism only is as biased an approach as labelling it as 'Western ideology'. An example of conservative feminism is the debate around purdah. Although still far from being widely accepted and acknowledged as a feminist entity but arguably, in the West, some see and support veil as a symbol of struggle against imperialism and the identity to be confidently embraced as strength and not an oppressive, silencing garment that covers their femininity or takes its origin from enculturation.

In doing so, it attains a more contemporary image that does not contrast with, nor diverge too far from the cultural constructs and religion.

Conversely, can there be liberals and leftists that do not see themselves as standing with feminists?

The answer is no. Because by very definition, liberalism promotes individual rights, civil liberties and that includes women rights and more.

For any movement to succeed or even plant the seeds that grab ground, it has to face the challenges of the traditionally held norms and beliefs that form the framework of the society it is introduced in. This is even more important in religious or conservative societies such as Pakistan. An intelligent and informed discussion is the first step towards success for any ‘brand’ of feminism there. 

To confound the discourse, there cannot be a single, agreed upon definition of feminism that can be introduced in a society where a deep socio-economic dichotomy divides it into two largely separate but inseparable classes, each of which is used to existing in its own comfort zone.

There is this religious, ultra conservative class that may find certain shade of in-the-face feminism rather daunting, and then there is the modern, western influenced, for the lack of a better term, upper class, that identifies with the 'liberated western woman' and sees her as a beacon for its direction in feminism.

One may disagree but all the religious, conservatives may not be the ones who see feminism as a threat. In their defense, Islam has this proviso of strength of character, good deeds as the sole, defining factor of hierarchy. Hence the concept of 'piety' is used as the formative for Islamic feminism, nonetheless many see this as a subset of cultural feminism where woman is defined by a man and hence a woman outside the bounds of that definition is liable to judgements.

So, when I hear commentators like Khalil ur Rehman Qamar talk on the subject, where does he stand for me? After all, he is not the only one of his kind. In fact, there are more men and women in Pakistan who think that the concept of ‘cultural feminism’ resonates better with them as this gives them a chance to be identified as a feminist and yet it does not clash as much with the ‘values and norms too hard to give up’.

Though open for criticism, is it all that far-fetched of a concept in a patriarchal society like Pakistan? The answer is no.

Therefore, although I disagree with him on his brand of feminism, I would like to see myself and others, especially the feminists in the room to listen to him and try to understand the viewpoint because only then can we come up with a counter narrative.

Shouting at the top of our lungs: “I hate you, you misogynistic monster, you man of no good”  may have its use only in the realm of social media bursts but in reality, this very assertive, blind-folded arrogance has a hint of female chauvinism or sexism, which in itself, is considered anti-feminist. It damages the very ideology, the movement and the cause of feminism.

As I stated earlier, I do not approve his poor choice of words, which is almost indefensible knowing that he is a writer who is expected to know how to use words as he does this for a living.

I also disagree with him on the notion that a woman or her role has to be defined by a man. I would like to see a man support a woman and vice versa in life, but if we let men take charge of deciding everything, we introduce the sense of belonging and owning. It is a slippery slope in an already conservative society where a woman has a different starting point to begin with as we see her struggling for an equal, rather existent opportunities in education, healthcare, economic independence and many other fronts.

Secondly, if we let a man define a woman, we create a world amiable to woman's sexuality as defined by a man and in turn open doors of her objectification etc.

I do agree with KRQ, that as feminists we should try not to alienate, and never to offend the men. In fact, no ‘brand’ of feminism can work in Pakistan unless we include men in our narrative.

Feminist movement faces challenges in a society with traditionally held norms and beliefs and an intelligent, informed discussion is a first step in a continuous strife for adaptability in any society. Whether we like to accept or not, gender hierarchy guides the debate involving feminism in Pakistan.

A slow change in societal demographics is the path forward. This demography has to account for the farmers, the laborers, factory workers, house-hold helpers and their individual rights along with women rights.

It also involves educating men about their role in the movement. Hijacking the movement with slogans that take a trajectorial course of resistance is not helpful in starting a theological struggle but makes it a mere show of hands and theatrical angry voices. It will only fuel the fire of ‘toxic masculinity’ as an untoward response.

In a largely conservative society like Pakistan, feminism, or for that matter any movement, has to engage the theology that majority follows. So, is there a canonical definition of feminism we can present to both a woman and a man in Pakistan? 

The answer is one step at a time. Let's educate the man that even in the role of guardian, with a financial commitment towards his family, he can be a feminist in a participatory role rather than that of patriarchy.

Does a woman need the man in her life to 'grant' him that ‘feeling’, that role? May be not in a formally educated, well to do urban household where the woman works outside the house and is financially self-sustained.

But it does not work for the one living in rural areas where she works in the field with her man side by side or a house maid working to make both ends meet and provide an evening meal to her children.

Let me get back to KRQ before I go too deep in the dry descriptions and my interpretations of feminism.

I heard him say:

عورت اور مرد کے حقوق فرق ہیں اس لئے ان میں برابری کا سوال ہی نہیں

This is again debatable. I do not agree with him on this either.

While he appears to be embracing essentialism, he is also acknowledging their roles as being separate, i.e. Separatism. What we did not hear him say is whether he believes that the traditional family system, an institution helping patriarchy, has room for improvement or even reversal if needed, of valuation between male and female. There is a very faint line of distinction between this approach and ‘sexism’ where man is deemed superior. Hence, it sets a precedence for discrimination of women.

Lastly, before we declare KRQ as anti-feminist, misogynist, let us step back and try to hear some good things he said about woman, albeit not every woman but the one he admires as 'acchi aurat'. About her, he states:

ایسی عورت کے قدموں پر نظر سجدہ کرتی ہے!

My whole world for this one line!

Let us try to talk to him and to any man who can say these words. Talking at them will not do any good.