Originally published in Dawn blog.
Most people often get shocked when they discover that I, a feminist, don’t believe in universal sisterhood. People still have this erroneous view that we, feminists, think that men are pure evil. This has to do with not knowing what feminism really is. At its core, all it means is a desire to make the world a better place for women. Many men identify as feminists. It’s a concept that could make our beautiful country a much better place to live in.
Patriarchy is a system of power and pretty much a global one. The oppressor succeeds by getting the oppressed on board, accepting and perpetuating her oppression further. In the words of Virginia Woolf: “Women have served all these centuries as looking-glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of a man in twice its natural size.”
According to Women’s Action Forum member, Neelum Shah, who runs the NGO Simorgh, “women internalise patriarchy” and start to truly believe that they are not equal to men. Thus, it is not hard to get them to accept their ingrained inferior position. The result: women start to oppress each other by perpetuating and maintaining patriarchal culture.
It cannot be denied that women are responsible for each other’s oppression because patriarchal norms are indoctrinated in our psyche since the day we are born and wrapped up in girly pink. This is especially true in our culture. The saas-bahu dilemma is a good example of this. Mother-in-laws have been known to be active instigators of violence against their daughter-in-laws. Stove deaths, a practise where women are burnt by their in-laws, is one such example.
In her review “Violence, Law and Women’s Rights in South Asia”, Srimati Basu states: “stove deaths in Pakistan are best understood not as traditional spectacular practices but rather as innovative forms of domestic violence arising out of a nexus of rising consumerism, knowledge of criminal justice prosecution, and patriarchal ideologies of inequitable inheritance for women and women’s extreme vulnerability in extended patrilocal households.”
Why are women willing to act so violently against other women? One theory to explain is that when the mother-in-law finally reaches a position of power, she acts like a tyrant, ironically the very tyrant that used to oppress her. She can do so by adopting the very patriarchal norms she was shackled to. She finally gets the chance to be treated better than she ever was by treating someone else badly, again propagating a vicious cycle.
Other than mother-in-laws, some mothers want to marry their daughters off early, depriving them of careers and education, sometimes more so than their fathers. One would think that this is something that only happens at the grassroots or in villages.
Farida Sher of Simorgh spoke to women from the grassroots who told her about getting their daughters married while they were still “kachay gharay,” before they become “pukka”. Which essentially translates into getting their daughters married off before they can develop the capacity to question their own life’s biggest decision; untainted by freedom and independence. They want them to be able to mould themselves to their husband’s family and never return, for that would be the ultimate disgrace. This is an attitude that goes all the way to the top, to the richest and most educated at times. It is not isolated to the rural areas.
Many girls I know were not allowed to leave Lahore to go to university because of their mothers, even though their fathers were willing to pay for them to go to the top schools abroad. Here’s a conversation I heard at a beauty salon and it show how mothers gender stereotype their daughters and hold them back from academic growth. This reflects just how easily women are willing to shackle themselves.
A teenage girl who was getting a manicure, pedicure, hair styling and make-up done said: “We’re doing 5 songs and I plan on changing for all of them. Mom, please make sure they wait for me.”
Mother: “Obviously baby! Don’t forget to put on a new lipstick and jewellery. I paid good money for it!”
Teen: “And I want a different bindi or tika (accessories) for each too.”
Mom: “Good idea.”
Teen: “And I don’t want to go to school tomorrow please. Abbu said I had to. Talk to him please!”
Mom: “Of course baby. This is much more important. Rishtay achay aain gay. You will get good marriage proposals.”
Why was this mother so easily willing to sacrifice her daughter’s education for a good marriage proposal? Could this be because a woman who doesn’t breed a daughter who willingly accepts herself as a second class citizen is considered a failure as a mother? And what is worse than being a failure as a mother in a culture where your worth is measured by how “honourable” your family is? As it is, women are expected to play a gender stereotypical role, one which confines us to the domestic sphere and discourages us from entering the public domain. A woman who doesn’t produce a son and treat him better than her daughter is a failed woman.
The one chosen place where we must succeed is in the home as nurturers even if it comes at the cost of our daughters’ futures. Our daughters’ eventual goal must be marriage and it must take priority over their education and careers.
In Lahore there are families where women are highly educated, some from the top schools in the US or UK etc, but once they graduate they literally do nothing but look for a “good” husband, even though entering the workplace would greatly benefit society in the long run.
It would also give them a chance to be independent. However, their parents are rich enough to support these “do nothing girls” while they hunt for a husband, even if it takes them a few years. Meanwhile, mothers collect dowries and makes sure their daughters are always presentable, always ready to impress any eligible bachelor who may come their way. There are times when these young women do want to work, but are held back by their parents and not allowed to do so. If sisterhood did exist, would these young women be on the marriage track or would they be out in the workforce like they desire? If sisterhood did exist, wouldn’t their mothers fight for them?
Sisterhood does not exist. I doubt it ever has, but I truly hope that one day it will.