By Zehra Husain
In a society where women are constant objects of ridicule and shame, it is hypocritical when a woman in the efforts to express her individuality does it in a language impregnated with the most blatant form of internalised sexism. This condescending habit is most common amongst the urban middle class where the female domestic help would be constantly blamed and shamed for their place in society. “Inn mein jahalat toh itni hai”, for instance, is a phrase used most often to describe the plight of working class women, which more often than not arises from abject poverty which we (the privileged, upper middle, English-speaking class) are complicit in upholding, perpetuating and maintaining.
It, therefore, comes as no surprise that Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf chief, Imran Khan’s wife, Reham Khan, in an interview with India Todayalienates women who do not share her position of privilege in society. When asked about the place of women in society, Reham Khan says: “I don’t think that I’m a woman; I am an individual, and it doesn’t limit me from doing anything.” In this assertion, firstly, Reham Khan seems to be saying that she is not imprisoned by her gender identity. As if it is our womanhood that limits us. A woman in a patriarchal society such as Pakistan’s is limited by just that — patriarchy. In a country where a jirga or village elders can bar women from voting, it is not the woman who is limiting herself by not exercising her right to vote but the masculinist authorities around her.
In Pakistan, despite a woman’s willingness to work, she often fails to do so because of the many obstacles in her way. These hurdles comprise pressures from their families or marriage. Women in our society areperceived solely as child-bearers or are only deemed fit for housework which keeps them from stepping out and taking up jobs. It is no wonder that Pakistan’s female labour force participation stands at a dismal 24.4 per cent for the year 2014. Should we not dig deeper into this statistic? Does it not point to the patriarchal structures in our society that continually disenfranchise women, where only a small fraction of women are allowed to work? Or are we still going to give weight to Reham Khan’s statement and believe that it is indeed our gender identity that is holding us back?
In her proclamation of seeing herself as an individual and not a woman, Reham Khan assumes gender blindness. Such an assumption is often invoked in an attempt to look beyond differences between the male and female sex. It also eliminates differences in power and privilege. “First change your perception that you’re inferior in some way. I don’t think that I’m a woman; I am an individual.” As said before, perceptions of inferiority are embedded in our society. Though according to Reham, if women stop thinking of themselves as inferior, the problem will be erased. Moreover, if women start thinking of themselves as individuals and not as women, then we will not be limited in any way. The assumption of inferiority and the erasure of gender both pose women as the problem. The erasure of structural oppression and the emphasis on individuality, when you talk about the place of women in society, as Reham Khan does, leads to the fostering of a victim-blaming culture.
It is precisely this kind of gender blindness, pervasive in the liberal middle class, which leads to all forms of internalised sexism. In Reham Khan’s words: “I really think women need to stop complaining. I’m very unsympathetic to whiners. Stop making excuses for yourself.” Here Reham Khan plays up on all forms of gendered stereotyping: women complain too much, women whine too much, women make too many excuses. When a woman speaks out, she is almost always judged for, to borrow the words of Audre Lorde, “creating the mood for helplessness”. She stands in the way of making things better for herself. Here, she is being blamed for the problems she speaks of, as if she creates the problems. As if she is the problem. In a similar vein, the woman labeled the ‘whiner’ is often shamed for the position she occupies in society. This is telling, as I have mentioned before, in the patronising manner with which middle class women talk about domestic help.
Women in Pakistan are not a monolith. Not every woman occupies the same class position. In fact, the oppression women face in our society intersects class, ethnicity, religion, sect and sexuality. For example, a Christian woman, hailing from south Punjab may face oppression differently from a Muslim woman. Similarly, trans-women are treated differently from cisgender women. Reham Khan, undoubtedly, occupies a position of privilege in society and holds a lot of power to influence public opinion. One needs to be aware of their own complicity in keeping oppressive structures in place. Lack of introspection will only lead to a culture of victim-blaming and the circulation of misogynistic views in the public sphere. Misogyny, classism and other forms of oppression that keep women marginalised can be challenged if there is self-awareness and self-reflection of one’s own privilege. If this is missing, then what remains is a self-righteous blaming and shaming of women.