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Complexification of feminism and females in Pakistan

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  By Areeba Tayyab

I still remember what Shaista Khilji (Associate Professor of Human and Organizational Learning, George Washington University) said in The Third World Feminism Symposium at Lahore College for Women University and I quote “We are all on the same team with our differences”.

A brilliant idea filled with optimism as one must say but to conclude that it caters the complexification of feminism in Pakistan; an in-depth analysis is certainly required. The application of singular feminism is also not supportive of the idea of a happy co-existence but viewing it in the context of Pakistan, the definition and redefinition of the term feminism is required in almost all sectors. For analysis, let us consider two main features of the heading i.e. Feminism and Females in Pakistan.

To define feminism is not a piece of cake and one must realize that it cannot be defined it terms of specific rules and regulations.  The term feminism requires a more demanding and burdensome explanation. The notion of feminism is reproduced, reduced, redefined and at times placed in binaries and deconstructed to have a clear version of it. To state that feminism is all about female emancipation or liberation will not do any justice to the criticism made on this particular field. Feminism as best described by Bell Hooks in her book Feminism is for Everybody states “Feminism is a movement against sexism, sexist exploitation and oppression.”

A boarder definition enables to give a sense of likeliness among the women all around the world. These women are considered to be victims of the male patriarchal culture and this is something that is prevailing all around the world. The sameness of oppression one way or the other forces the critics around the globe to put all the women under one definition of feminism. As Chandra Mohanty says “The homogeneity of women as a group is produced not only on the basis of biological essentials but rather on the basis of secondary sociological and anthropological universals”.

She further states that women are not identical because they have ovaries and breasts but the fact that they share the same social oppression around the globe. The notion of homogeneity given by Julia Kristeva in “About Chinese Women”, highlights the fact that the model of China can solve the problems of the western world. The criticism was not easily digested and the notion of homogeneity and likeness of womanhood around the world was challenged. For Kristeva maybe it was just a suggestion, as she says that she intends to leave the paper open-ended but still she ignored the notion that is making the theory of feminism “an ambiguous general one”. What Kristeva did not realize was the fact that, while talking about feminism and female rights it is necessary to keep in mind the subtleties and nuances of particular context and social anthropology. Generalization may lead to the appropriation of one culture on another and one feminism on the other feminism.

Having a unified definition of feminism can also be one of the causes of female oppression. If one definition is considered privileged upon the other and one female representation is used for all the women around the world then the situation will become problematic. During the first wave feminism, the white women appropriated their ideas of female liberation and equality and also included the right to vote, while at the same time the women of colour in America were suffering from racism and sexism. Sisterarchy was imposed in the sense that the nuances of the brown woman were nullified and importance was given to the white women politics only. As a result, Alice Walker came up with her notion of ‘Womanism’ to represent feminism of the black women. Here one cannot deny the notion of Gayatari Spivak when she compares white women with brown men and says “White men are saving brown women from brown men” which can be seen as an ironical statement in context of Pakistan because even this very protection comes with a price as they are appropriating the white ideas of female liberation on brown women.

The pluralistic notion doesn’t liquefy the notion of the singular women but makes it more complex. Like politics of feminism, the cultural and religious politics of Pakistan is also an ambiguous one where the citizens are still negotiating.

The ideology of Pakistan is also ambiguous as no one knows for sure if it was political or religious. After 9/11 the extremist interpretation of Islam: the political situation puts the country under certain pressures as it is the only Muslim atomic power in the world. As a former colony, the country still practices some rules and regulation of the former colonizers and is somewhat depended on them for its financial stability. The country is under continuous threat of “religious extremist” and the “hyper liberals”. Viewing the political situation in Pakistan today, defining feminism again will be then singular and a divided one, each sect defining its own definition of feminism.

The religion and culture are not in cohesion with one another and there any women in a veil or without a veil is acceptable in Pakistan but are not appreciated in opposite sects. For instance, the Veil in liberal offices of Pakistan has concerned a symbol of orthodox conservative mentality and the unveiled women in an Islamic set up are considered the worshippers of the western world. In France, the women were unveiled on the streets as the French leftist appropriated there idea of female liberation on Muslim women and as a result of the notion “My ways, My life, My choice” was advocated. But in the case of Pakistan, the Muslim male citizens themselves are imposing their ideas of feminism on the other sex. Women again become the ‘other’ as her feminism is dictated by a male either extremist or liberal. Therefore being a third world Muslim former colonized women, the identity becomes uncertain.

The social anthropology and societal constraints are also hybrid. The oedipal family system seems to be running in a majority of Pakistani families and this is the system adopted by the former colonizers. As Fanon says that the oppressor has a great rule in oppressing themselves as they willing appropriate the notions of their masters. In the case of Pakistan, Polygamy is a part and parcel of the religion but at the same time with a colonized background, the majority of women are not comfortable with polygamy as they are not willing to share their husbands. Now feminism is such context must allow the women to decide whether she is willing for a polygamous relationship or not but unfortunately the men of the house and the seniors women are to speak on her behalf. The Women are unable to decide where to stand i.e. to stand with the former master and get rejected by the society or accept the society and be oppressed by it anyway.

As far as education is concerned, feminism again makes its way into it. Although in urban areas of Pakistan the women are promoted to get an education and participate as an active citizen but in rural areas, the orthodox feudal mentality retaliates from women emancipation. A nervous condition prevails in the students of rural areas as portrayed in Dangerembga’s Nervous Condition, where education is also based on gender, not on talent. In Pakistan, men are considered to be the sole earners of the family and therefore the women emancipation is limited to household only. The education and literature in Pakistan do talk about a woman as a subject but the themes are that of oppression and violence and not of emancipation.

Now the crux of the article lies in the question that where does feminism in its “complete state” lie in Pakistan? Is it actually possible that in a multicultural and diverse religious country like Pakistan, a pluralistic feminism can actually take place?

Class politics cannot be excluded like Bell Hook says “Privileged women wanted equality with men of their class” therefore we are again reminded of Spivak who says “The poor black women get into three ways”. The middle class or lower middle are in case of the Pakistan are the subaltern who is marginalized on the basis of colour, class, religion and so much more. And the answer to the question “Can Subaltern speaks?” is ambiguous and we as middle class third world Pakistani brown women are silent.

Viewing females of Pakistan from one pluralistic perspective will make Pakistani feminism a monolith. The aim is not to represent an oppressed state of Pakistan but to present multiple sides to feminism and to show the diversity of opinion regarding feminism. The solution is not a simple one as being anti men doesn’t make you feminist at all. The rejection of appropriation and sisterarchy can serve the purpose if we as women accept the matter of choice. By accepting more and criticizing less we will be able to understand the subtleties and nuances of various cultures, religions, minorities and classes and can promote the idea that feminism is different for different people and we all should respect and understand the feminism of women around the world not to just a specific geography or a majority or a number of woman in a minority group but on a singular level as well. Only in this way, the women in Pakistan can exercise their rights without any external or internal oppression.


The writer is the Lecturer of English at Superior University Lahore.

Email: [email protected]


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