By Aqsa Ijaz
January 26, 2016
My friend Mehtab Aziz wrote an opinion piece recently titled, “Jaal Naya, Shikari Purana” for Express News’ Urdu blog on January 13, 2016. In the piece, the writer draws parallels between post-World War I American feminism (at least that’s what I understood as there is no mention of European feminism or the development of this movement in its earlier continental days), and the Punjab government’s Women on Wheels scheme that would potentially enable women to take charge of themselves by driving their own vehicles.
According to Aziz’s presumptions, this ‘liberalising’ project of the Punjab government is in fact an effort to ‘follow the West’, break the country’s family value system and destabilise the status quo where men are in charge of women’s lives and their choices. Moreover, the writer goes on to demean the struggle of feminism and women’s movements in the West. For example, he furthers his case of criticising Women on Wheels by drawing a preposterous analogy between the American cigarette advertisements of the 1920s and the Punjab government’s initiative in Pakistan in the 21st century. For Aziz, it seems there is no difference between a corporate sugar-coating of the tobacco industry and a government’s prudent step in bringing women closer to the notion of being empowered citizens rather than a disadvantaged group struggling for its survival in a society that remains largely numbed by such a prejudiced masculine outlook.
In his piece, Aziz identifies feminism using words such as ‘liberal’ and ‘secular’ in a demeaning context, while claiming that he is struggling to protect family values in Pakistan. Besides his distorted interpretation of ‘liberal’ and ‘secular’, he builds his case with false International Labour Organisation (ILO) objectives and quotes the ILO, saying that there can’t be an “implementation” of “secularism” and “liberalism” (whatever he means by these words) in Pakistan because of a strong family value system that exists in the country.
In an age when information on such issues is only a click away on the internet, it’s appalling to find such an ignorant analysis of a women’s movement that has struggled to promote freedom and human dignity across racial, cultural and geographical boundaries. Indeed, the women’s rights movement in the US didn’t start with cigarette ads in the 1920s, but a century earlier and it converged with the abolitionist struggle against slavery in America.
Susan Anthony, a pivotal figure in the women’s rights movement, was at the forefront of the abolitionist struggle, as was Sojourner Truth, an African-American who was born into slavery but escaped to freedom and spoke at the first National Women’s Rights Convention held in Massachusetts in 1851. Rather than being against religion and family values, as implied in Aziz’ argument about those struggling for women’s rights, these American pioneers of women’s rights were grounded in their families and religion. Susan was a devout Christian and Sojourner invoked stories from the Bible in support of her arguments for equal rights for women. Moreover, it is worth recalling Sojourner’s speech in 1871, admitting that whereas she had once hated white people — because her white owners whipped her and mistreated her — she was filled with love for everyone following her conversion experience “once she met her final master, Jesus”. Indeed, Sojourner figures in the Calendar of Saints of some Protestant churches in the US.
Such a brief glance at the historical context of the women’s rights movement in the US makes it rather distressing that one of the leading news portals of the country has published an article reflecting a mindset that seems bent upon undermining humanity and human dignity.
Aqsa Ijaz is the American Institute of Pakistan Studies’ Junior Fellow at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill