By Rafia Zakaria
June 20, 2018
OVER the Eid weekend, as most Pakistanis, male and female, gorged on goodies, eating the Biryani and sheer kormas that are traditional to the festive season, the country’s politicians remained preoccupied with the upcoming elections. Even Eid, it seemed, was not a holiday for them; no break was to be had from the pandering, the promising and the speechifying.
Among these politicians was PTI chairman Imran Khan. While being interviewed, Khan stated that he disagreed with the Western feminist movement, which has, in his opinion, degraded the role of motherhood. Mothers, he went on to say, wield the most influence over their children’s lives, thus implying that feminism’s focus on giving women power outside the home has shifted attention away from the truly important stuff i.e. taking care of their (assumedly) large broods of children.
While the words produced some outcry on social media, the tone and the denigration of women and feminism in general, duly pointed out by feminists, analysts and others, is deserving of further discussion. Khan is hardly unique in raising the spectre of the abandonment of motherhood as the consequence of female empowerment; men in Pakistan (bosses, husbands, fathers, brothers) do it routinely as they bar women from doing this or that, working or studying or leaving abusive marriages.
For many men, an ideal woman is one who has no sense of self, no basis to ever challenge the man’s decisions, who is ‘reasonable’ where the term means complicit in her own subjugation.
The idea that any woman who wants more than what men are comfortable with — women who want to prove that they can be mothers and doctors (or lawyers or accountants or government workers, etc, etc) — are in fact not ‘real’ Pakistani women and are tainted by ‘Western feminism’ is a very popular one in Pakistan. There is no use explaining what ‘Western feminism’ may or may not mean; for the purposes of men like Khan and millions of others like him, it stands simply and completely for anything that they don’t agree with.
The consequence is the construction of the authentic, the true, and the perfect Pakistani woman as someone who is formed exactly according to the wishes of the men who are standing in judgement over her. For such men, this would be the selfless and self-sacrificing mother, a one-dimensional creature that exists only to watch over her brood and teaches them all the things that men have approved are appropriate for teaching.
For some other men, somewhat different angles may matter more: they might see the perfect woman as a fantastic cook who keeps an immaculate house, pleases and serves their mothers (and let us not forget that women propagate these strictures too) and on and on. The similarity in all of this, of course, is that the woman is expected to have no sense of self and no basis to ever challenge the man’s decisions, besides being ‘reasonable’ where the term means complicit in her own subjugation.
Obviously and unsurprisingly, millions of Pakistani women fall for this trap. In a country where all things Western are sometimes quite deservedly reviled, no one wants to be tainted, everyone wants to be authentic — the good and perfect Pakistani woman. This desire is manipulated by a large segment of Pakistani men, politicians or otherwise with a mastery that is absolutely awe-inspiring. Mere disagreement, for instance, saying something like, ‘No, I don’t want to have a fourth baby in five years’, comes close to that tainted Western feminism, that instrument of maternal degradation.
In truth, this ‘Western feminism’ has little to do with the reality or the ideological premises of what is actual feminism; it is a completely local creation, its monstrosity constructed entirely in response to Pakistani fears: feminist Pakistani women, if they are permitted to exist, will ditch their husbands and marriages entirely, abandon their children in the pursuit of whimsical careers, demand that those who make messes actually clean them up, and so on. It is not that such fantasies do not ever cross the minds of Pakistani women. In Sultana’s Dream, a novella written in English by the Bengali Muslim writer Rokeya Sakhawat Hussain in 1905, a fantasy world devoid of men is conjured up. It sounds like a lovely place, familiar but devoid of the pressure of being the perfect, real, true Pakistani woman.
So stringent are the guidelines of selfless devotion to Pakistani men (and hence perfect Pakistani femaleness) that even the example of some of the earliest Muslim heroines may not help them reconsider their approach. Take, for instance, the courageous Nusaybah bint Ka’ab, one of the earliest converts to Islam. After accepting Islam, she began preaching, always believing that women and men had equal duties in defending the faith. To practise what she preached, the fearless Nusaybah took part in the Battle of Uhud as a warrior. A number of men who believe that mothers should stay at home would be shocked to discover that Nusaybah was married and the mother of two sons. Would such a woman have measured up to the contemporary idealised standard of motherhood touted here?
There is no one politician or preacher or public figure who is to blame for the construction of ‘Western feminism’ as the ultimate bogeyman to duly silence and frighten Pakistani women into shutting up. Those who defend it, as many did on Twitter following this latest incident, brand themselves as the most tainted, falling into a trap in which they defend the indefensible and hence disqualified from even daring to call themselves Pakistani. The ‘Western feminism’ created by Pakistani men is a misogynistic marvel, a strategic move of diabolical foresight, a tool to keep women in their place — wherever Pakistani men decide that place may be.
Rafia Zakaria is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.