BY RAZESHTA SETHNA
AS the conflict between gender politics and the religious right in Pakistan takes off in a seriously damaging direction, there appears to be a preoccupation with disrespecting successful, determined women on public forums controlled by the media.
When an international award-winning filmmaker and activist is openly labelled as someone with ‘loose morals’, it is distressing to witness the ‘perpetrator’ continue with his rant on a public platform when he could have used the space to educate audiences in the sociology of gender politics.
Meanwhile, a revolutionary wanting change for one’s country, including for women oppressed by state-sponsored patriarchal violence, does not have to denounce male support systems when battling regressive laws, sexual violence and shameful crimes. After all global feminist movements have historically sought male allies to fight alongside women activists.
When successfully lobbying men in power — especially those of an anti-women rights bent — the result has been increased pro-women advances for a cross section of global communities. If the campaign for the right to vote was led by the suffragettes in Britain after the First World War, it was supported by male activists with a significant role inside and outside parliament.
Gender activism made the battle for women slightly less daunting perhaps because most were not protesting against two fronts — fighting patriarchy at home and sexual violence on the streets. But it is not always possible to get men to side with feminist agendas as witnessed in certain Muslim countries where tribal patriarchies and religious-right parties marginalise women for political gain. Oppressed by the state, on the street and in their homes, women must define their own rights.
For Pakistan, the energetic 1980s feminist movement saw activists spearheading the Women’s Action Forum opposing Zia’s Islamisation. Over decades, activists have not stopped protesting violence against women and lobbying policymakers to enact women-friendly laws, but the problem lies in moral and political corruption coupled with Pakistan’s sorry record on gender equality.
Governments appease religious parties by curtailing women’s rights because it’s an easy trade-off. The repeal of the Hudood Ordinances, the women’s empowerment bill and anti-honour-killings bill were all moved in parliament when politician-activist Sherry Rehman held the portfolio of minister for women’s development, but periodic intervention by the conservative lobby preserved an Islamist anti-women agenda.
The global groundswell of women’s mobilisation around human rights, propelling feminism and the notion of sisterhood comes with a rich history. I was reminded of this and how women’s fight for political, cultural and economic equality is often twisted by the demands of misogynists, when listening to stories by determined and successful women at the Lahore Literary Festival — Egyptian journalist Mona Eltahawy, American-Afghan historian, Nancy Dupree, actor Sharmila Tagore and Pakistani politician Ms Rehman among many.
Despite diverse interests and careers, what they share is a gob-smacking sense of defiance. The broadcaster, Anita Anand speaking on feminism and global politics referred to her historical biography, Sophia: Princess, Suffragette and Revolutionary portraying Sikh princess, Sophia Duleep Singh brought up an aristocrat in Britain, who later fights for Indian independence, the fate of the Lascars (militias working on European ships) and joins the fight for female suffrage.
For two days in the historic city of Lahore, dominant female voices were vociferous reiterating that socio-political movements crisscross with women’s causes. A fearless woman with tattoos on both her arms, one portraying an ancient Egyptian goddess of sex and retribution and the other Cairo’s Mohamed Mahmoud Street, where she was attacked in 2011, Mona Eltahawy was “traumatised into feminism”. While covering the Egyptian protests, she was physically and sexually assaulted by military police, later detained for 12 hours.
She told me they took her to this no-man’s land, sexually assaulted her and left her for dead. When she fell to the ground, this voice told her, “If you don’t get up now, you will die”. She got up with two broken arms and fought off the police. The following year, her take on misogyny in the Muslim world went viral. For her, “there’s a Mubarak in the street corner, and a Mubarak in the bedroom”.
That women won’t back down in defeat, whether on the streets of Punjab, Abuja, Cairo, London, Delhi, Kabul or Karachi inspires the fight. Global feminism isn’t for the middle or upper classes, but a pluralistic concept. If I write every man should be a feminist, I might get sneered at. A male feminist is essentially demanding gender dignity where he sees none, opportunity at home and at work, the freedom to think and express.
Privilege, gender, education or class are not prerequisites to global feminism. What Pakistanis wanting democracy need to know, it there won’t be a political revolution, if there is no social and sexual revolution.