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Dear Abubakar Cheema,
I recently read your article titled ’10 Important Questions Every Average Person Wants to Ask Pakistani Feminists’ on Parhlo, and since I consider myself a Pakistani Feminist, I decided that I would reply. I’m happy that you took the time out to pen your thoughts down because I’m hoping that my answers will help to build your knowledge about Feminism and perhaps I can convince you to join the bandwagon.
As you mentioned at the start of your article, you agree with feminists that women do indeed face a lot of injustices in our society. Before I answer your questions, I want to highlight that feminism is basically the advocacy of women’s rights on the ground of the equality of the sexes (simple Google definition that you’ve mentioned in your article as well).
At the beginning of your article, you state that your questions are not meant to debate women’s rights, but since feminism essentially is a movement for women’s rights, I found your statement contradictory. I will first answer your questions, and then discuss this in detail at the end.
Q.1 DO YOU REALLY UNDERSTAND THE MOVEMENT YOU ARE DIEHARD SUPPORTERS OF?
Feminism is focused on raising women’s rights to equal those of men’s, because, as you correctly mentioned in your article, women currently have fewer rights. Since feminism is a movement for women’s rights, it does not make any claims to fight for men’s rights. If you heard a feminist tell you otherwise, I’m sure they meant it implicitly.
That means that feminism’s fight for rights is a fight for equality, not supremacy. So, in a way feminism cares for men’s rights as well because it considers men and women equal. It, however, advocates for women’s rights because that’s where the inequality exists.
Q.2 DON’T YOU THINK THAT YOU ALREADY HAVE THE RIGHTS YOU ARE DEMANDING?
I agree that in Pakistan, we do have the legal right to education, the right to vote, to own property and businesses, and the right to work. Despite these legal rights, only 66.9% of primary school age girls were enrolled in school in 2015, compared to 78.6% of boys (Source: World Bank Gender Data Portal).
In Pakistan, 25.13% of women are part of the labor force, compared to 85.40% of men, and for every dollar that a woman earns, a man earns $4.35 (source: World Economic Forum Gender Gap report, 2015). Pakistan ranked as 143rd for gender equality out of 144 countries in the World Economic Forum 2015 Gender Gap report.
The fact that this level of discrepancy exists despite equal legal rights highlights the need for not just a stronger legal system, but a change in societal mindset. The government does not govern every aspect of our life. I will give you an extreme example to highlight my point. Imagine a family with a young boy and a young girl.
From birth, the young girl is given toys to reinforce her role as a homemaker (kitchen sets, dolls etc.) and grows up hearing phrases like ‘who will marry you if you throw tantrums like that’. She is socialized into placing a very high value on the institution of marriage and her role as a homemaker and not as much value on other spheres of her life – education, career, friends etc. The boy, on the other hand, is given science sets, books and he is encouraged to think about what he will be when he grows up.
Not once will the boy be told that he should also help in the kitchen because he is equally responsible for the house he lives in. When this little boy and little girl grow up, they will conform to gender roles, because they’ve been socialized that way and there’s nothing that the government can do about that.
Take another example of a more liberal family that encourages both their son and their daughter to study and to work. However, when the girl gets a job that is an hour’s drive away from home, her parents will be the first ones to tell her to look elsewhere, because it’s not safe for a girl to travel that far alone at night. That is society holding back that girl from achieving her dreams.
Let me then move on to rights that are not legally defined and perhaps cannot be legally enforced without a policeman standing at every corner of every street. The right to walk out of my house at 2 am without being catcalled or raped. The right to go for a run in the park near my house without being followed by men ogling at me.
The right to drive alone at night without fearing that I will be followed home. How do I take these people to court? Do you worry when you step out of the house in shorts that someone will touch you inappropriately? A burka-clad woman in the market will tell you that she does worry. Those are equally the rights we are fighting for!
Q.3 WHERE ARE THE ‘STRONG AND INDEPENDENT WOMEN’?
I hope you agree that parents forcing their daughter to marry against her will are unacceptable. That is a violation of one the legal rights that she has as a Muslim and a citizen of Pakistan. Forced marriages don’t simply involve parents saying, ‘marry this man’ and a weak woman signing the Nikkahnama with her tail between her legs.
The woman who signs on the dotted line is one who has been emotionally manipulated, physically coerced and had her spirit broken, or she is just a little girl who doesn’t know that she has a choice. Various tactics are used to force women into marriage – from mothers claiming that they will kill themselves and fathers claiming that their reputation in society will be destroyed, to physically locking a girl in a room to break her spirit.
I’m sure you’ve heard of the saying, ‘no man is an island’ (and of course the saying is about a man). A decision to stand against one’s parents is huge – it means destroying the very basic human relationships that have nurtured you since birth. It means being cut off emotionally from the two people that are meant to be your support system.
Then there are other implications – a girl might be financially dependent on her parents either because she’s not educated, or because she’s not been allowed to work after university; she might not be educated enough to know her rights; or she might just be a child (lots of forced marriages happen to girls, not women).
The whole premise of feminism is to create a society with equal rights were making decisions on your own doesn’t require you to stand up against the fabric of society or against those you love, because making your own decisions is widely accepted as your right.
Q.4 WHAT ARE YOU DOING TO PROVE THAT WOMEN ARE AS CAPABLE AS MEN?
Feminism does not claim to prove that men and women are identical. It claims that they should have equal rights because they are equal. There are biological differences between men and women, but that should not have a bearing on rights. Women are as much human as men and that necessitates equality of rights.
Industries that require physical labor will probably always be male-dominated because men are physically stronger than women, just as maternity wards will be dominated by women because men cannot birth children. Just because men are not able to carry a child in their womb or nurse, we have not taken away their right to be called a parent.
Q.5 DO YOU REALLY THINK THE PATRIARCHY IS THE PROBLEM?
A one-word answer to your question – yes! Feminism, not patriarchy is the reason behind the rights we have today. At each step of the way, hundreds of thousands of women have fought against the patriarchy for these rights.
Feminism is trying to change the patriarchal nature of society and slowly women are getting into decision-making positions. The glass ceiling is still very much there and that’s why feminism is needed. Men in decision-making positions promote other men over women. Maternity leave policies and child support systems are not strong enough in our society, so a lot of women drop out of the workforce instead of rising to decision making positions.
Countries that have managed to increase female participation in positions of power have supportive maternity and paternity policies, easy access to high-quality childcare and widespread education – none of which Pakistan has yet. Then we go back to the socialization argument – little girls are told from birth that they cannot lead because they are female and they should instead follow.
Earlier this week, a three-year-old boy pushed my two-year-old daughter in the playground and told her that he’s going to go on the slide first because he’s a boy. That is patriarchy, my friend, and that is very much the problem.
Q.7 WHY IS THERE SUCH HYPOCRISY IN YOUR MOVEMENT?
The argument for equal rights requires changes from not just men but women as well (after all, these women have grown up in a patriarchal society and been socialized into its value system). Feminism is not an anti-men movement. There are a lot of areas where women need to make changes as well and I agree with you that mothers have a huge role to play in this.
Mothers should teach their sons to treat women as equals and not to objectify them just as they should teach their daughters to stand up for their rights. This is a key requirement in the path towards equality. There is no hypocrisy in this– not all women are feminists just as not all feminists are women.
Adding to the above, it is important to highlight that as children grow older, parents are not their only influence. Children learn at school, from their friends, and from the media they consume, and current mass media is filled with subservient and objectified images of women.
Q.8 WHY DON’T YOU START A MOVEMENT FOR ISLAMIC RULE?
Feminism is a movement for equality of rights, regardless of religion. There are a lot of non-Muslims in Pakistan and the feminist movement is much bigger than one country.
Q.10 WHEN DO YOU THINK THE NEED FOR FEMINISM WILL BE OVER?
A simple answer to your question is: when both sexes have equal rights. Pakistani feminism will not be over when Pakistani women have the same rights as Western women because women in the West do not yet have the same rights as their male counterparts. While Pakistan might have a further way to go than a lot of Western countries, the fight there is far from over.
In Iceland, which is currently ranked the number 1 country for gender equality, a man earns $1.39 for every dollar that a woman earns (source: World Economic Forum Gender Gap report, 2015).
As I mentioned earlier, feminism is not a man-hating movement and a lot of men are in fact feminists. Feminism does not suggest that men should be feminine or women should be masculine. It simply advocates for equality of rights between the sexes.
Since you started and ended your article stating that you are an advocate for women’s rights, I’m not going to call you a misogynist. I am instead going to talk to you about something called ‘tunnel vision’. Often, as humans, we are unable to see alternatives to our line of thought.
I always looked disapprovingly on parents with crying children on the plane, until one day I was one of them, and I realized that despite all your efforts to calm your child down, sometimes children just cry on planes. I feel that might be the case here – as a man you’ve been lucky enough to not experience the injustices women do, so you’re unable to understand the gravity of the situation.
As a woman, I have seen intelligent, ambitious friends are denied the right to an education abroad while their academically mediocre brothers were sent instead. I know of women forced into marriages against their will only to physically assaulted by their husbands and mentally tortured by their in-laws. I know of women who were scared to take a stand against their abusive spouses because they were scared that their parents would not support them.
I have seen divorced women being treated like their second class citizens while no one bats an eyelid at a man getting married for the third time. Don’t take my word for it – do your own research, but DO your research. I would strongly urge you to go out and speak to your female relatives and friends. Go and speak to women from different economic backgrounds in Pakistan and ask them your questions. Then think about their answers, look at the stats, and decide for yourself – if you were a woman, would you have found your article offensive?
In response to your fun question at the end, I would prefer not to be harassed if I was out in public, just like my brother isn’t when he goes out.