Sisterhood does not exist

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.

The Impacts of Growing Religious Intolerance on Students in Elite Academic Institutions

Originally published as “Children of Zia” in Dawn blog. Based on a talk at a conference on women, religion & politics where I was the token under 30 feminist.

A cousin recently said to me: “growing up in the 80s, we knew who the enemy was.” He (for it was almost always a he), was glaringly visible, blatant & vocal. Today, with an ever increasing amount of beards in stomach & voluntarily oppressed women, we no longer know who the enemy is. It could be your neighbour, your teacher, your student, your driver, your guard etc.

In elite academic institutions, we make a knee-jerk & erroneous assumption that we are not responsible for this phenomenon. It’s easy to blame the non-English speaking public sector & madrassas. We like to believe that we are not responsible for the fact that today, 56% of elite youth do not want a secular state. We like to believe that we are not active agents, but are we?

In schools across Pakistan, elite or not, very few of us teach critical thinking, which, in my opinion, is absolutely essential and should be compulsory from an early age. We need to stop deluding ourselves into believing that we are truly educating. Without the ability to think, education starts to resemble indoctrination. And in a country like ours, where private schools have no option but to teach state sanctioned propaganda under the guise of Pakistan Studies & Islamiyat, which aims to indoctrinate with a linear vision, this becomes even more necessary. One is not allowed to challenge the syllabus and one is expected to regurgitate, over and over again, one perspective, the chosen perspective. If you don’t, you fail & that’s not an option most are willing to take. The message this sends is difference & diversity will not be tolerated.

We need to stop, pause & think about our current situation. Isn’t this just a logical outcome of these classes? And isn’t this because these students have been taught NOT to challenge alternative perspectives & blindly believe what their teachers & texts tell them? Indeed there are many who fail critical thinking courses because they stubbornly decided that what we, the “liberal” teachers, are doing is part of the grand Hindu-Zionist-CIA conspiracy just because we are presenting them with alternative perspectives and asking them to be sensitive to other views.  “Pious” teachers prey on their sensibilities and tell them that those of us who teach them to think outside the box are “agents” whose aim in life is to “destabilise” Islam & Pakistan, again perpetuating a culture of indoctrination through fear. These kids are taught to fear thought, over & over again. They end up with persecution complexes so strong that it gets in the way of all thought. They are, after all, a product of the society they live in and most do not have a living memory of the world before 9/11.

What personally depresses me the most is that once the class is over, many choose to go back to their linear vision even though they know they are speaking in fallacies. Some even say, outright, “I choose not to think about any other perspectives because they challenge my worldview”. There are many reasons for this since they return to a culture which has a tunnel vision. Brains rust if not used, especially in Pakistan.

Most of my on-going research is based on extensive interviews with students in elite institutions who are outside the (state sanctioned) political & religious norm today. Intolerance in academic institutions, places that should, ideally be safe spaces, is growing at a visibly rapid pace. Because teachers are self-censoring out of fear, students are not being properly educated and many of them know it. They fear being fired for it has happened to someone who challenged Wahabi Islam in a critical thinking class. They fear being viciously (mostly verbally) attacked by their students like some have been many times in the past. Teachers across the land are afraid to use the word Darwin or even dare admit that they believe in evolution instead of creationism in medical schools! I’ve spoken to many who refuse to bring up religion or politics in critical thinking classes, which, to me, defies the senses for critical thinking relies on challenging people’s deeply rooted, deeply ingrained perspectives. We live in a country where religion & politics is in the air we breathe. It must be acknowledged and it must be challenged.

I may seem like I’m on a tangent here, but this is related to our precious youth. When a teacher is afraid to challenge hate speech in class, the students who don’t share that retrogressive perspective will inevitably suffer. When teachers allow intolerant students to intimidate them as well as the rest of the class, then that teacher is doing a massive disservice. That is the kind of teacher who should be fired instead of those who don’t put up with this in their classroom.

Most of the students I’ve spoken to say that they are also self censoring their comments now more than ever. The vast majority also feel that the students belonging to the religious right are a much bigger problem for them than the teachers. Many of them have been attacked, mostly by these students, for voicing their secular opinions or for presenting any other perspectives. For example, a student, let’s call him X, who openly said that Mumtaz Qadri is a murderer, was verbally attacked and called a “liberal extremist.” This is despite the fact that he actually tried to reason with his opponent, explaining that Taseer was not an “infidel” but someone who just wanted justice. Sadly, our youth have become so brainwashed that X’s perspective was instantly dismissed. X used to openly voice his perspective until recently. Now he’s a bit wary & he’s not the only one.

Similarly, those who say that Ahmadis are Muslims & should NOT be killed for having beliefs different from the sunni norm, also get attacked. I have personally witnessed students say that they would like to personally behead Ahmadis or just about anyone who doesn’t agree with their Wahabi vision of Islam. I’ve heard them say this out loud in a class with Ahmadi students who are, more often than not, hiding their religious affiliation from the others (they tend to let me know). I’ve also heard rants against Hindus while a Hindu student has been sitting in the room. That’s how shameless we have become.

Another example of peer intimidation is that of a minority girl who was voicing her views on prostitution & marriage, stating that she thought prostitutes should be allowed to get married legally. She said this out loud only because she thought she was talking to liberal, secular students like herself, only to discover that they were extremely intolerant when she ended up being verbally attacked so viciously that she had to leave. They were not even willing to listen what she had to say. They were not even willing to acknowledge the validity of her well thought out point of view.

Students also talk about “the look” they get from the students who blindly believe in the religious right rhetoric. “The look” is a stare so deep, so uncomfortable, that it silences & scares them. They know that these students will later cause problems for them. These very same students are effectively terrorists roaming free, banging on people’s door for fajr namaz, demanding they say all their prayers at the mosque, which they then regulate. One student who went to his campus mosque in a red shirt was kicked out by the fundamentalist students. Their justification? Red is “inappropriate” in a place of worship.

In hostels there are students who don’t let other students play “haraam” music or constantly preach to them, dousing them with unwanted & unwarranted advice on how they should live their lives. The preaching certainly isn’t restricted to the hostels. And even when students try to avoid them, they will eventually find them & preach to them sometimes for hours on end. A few months ago, I spoke to a student who was accosted in the middle of his campus by a religious student who told him that he should stop hanging around with girls. He had never met this student, who was junior to him, before. He’s scared now of course, since there seems to be a sort of watchdog spy network amongst these students, students who are not at all afraid to intimidate & attack.

None of this is new of course, but the level of intolerance is higher & leading to more and more violence than it ever did before. Each and every student I have interviewed say that this is getting worse year by year, drone by drone.

Education should aid evolution, but our students are going downhill. This is our reality, a reality that sends shivers down my spine. But I’ll maintain that we are also to blame. By putting up with this & allowing students to intimidate as well as regulate others, we are guilty of perpetuating an intolerant culture. We should not be tolerant of the intolerant. By putting profit above quality & by not teaching critical thinking from an early age, we are part of the problem. What we are breeding is an even more dangerous form of terrorist than the ignorant, brainwashed madrassa student who doesn’t know any better. He was never taught to think, never allowed to even think about having a thought of his own. Our private students, on the other hand, know how to think but choose not to. They choose to become intolerant and they choose to believe in conspiracies, which are trendy & perpetuated by celebrities like Ali Azmat. It is shocking when it comes from a well dressed, articulate student in a suit attending the top business school in the country; one whose aim in life is to then move abroad, work for a multi-national that he is currently dismissing as a evil Zionist company & reap the benefits of a Western lifestyle. I shudder when I think about just how many future Faisal Shahzads & Dr Aafias are out there. They were the result of an earlier, more tolerant generation. Now we’re witnessing the children of Zia, in their full glory & splendour. Something has to be done & something has to be done now.

Why I supported the burqa ban

I wrote this very biased piece based on anecdotal evidence for CHUP.

I support the burqa ban. There, I said it. As someone from a Muslim family that banned any sex segregation or dress code four generations ago, this ban is a positive development. Allow me to use my own family’s example to explain why.

My grandmother belonged to an ancient Muslim family, known as the Mian family of Bhagbanpura, who claim they arrived here in the 8th century. They were also known as the Mad Mians due to their eccentricity and the fact that the birth of a baby girl was at times celebrated with more gusto than a boy. The family has been called “matriarchal” because of the overwhelming amount of strong women who cannot be told what to do. It is shocking for those who have never seen a family where women are not secondary to the men, where even inheritance is divided equally and not according to patriarchal norms.

According to sources, the Mians settled in Lahore over a thousand years ago and until today, are all buried in an ancient graveyard behind the Shalimar gardens in Bhagbanpura. I’ve always admired them because they have never been afraid to evolve and adapt. Moreover, unlike relatively recent converts, the Mians never felt the need to “prove” how Muslim they were. They were, and still are, safe and secure in their identity.

However, this wasn’t always the case. The Mians, like most Punjabi families, were once deeply patriarchal. The women were kept in the home, married off very young and were expected to be breeding machines for the clan. They were silent, hidden away, and voiceless. In contrast, the Mian women today aren’t faced with the same pressures of marriage and children. We are educated, empowered, and highly independent. The men in the family do not believe they have the right to control us or tell us what to do.

All this changed because of one simple broken tradition: banning the veil. In my opinion, the veil is a symbol of patriarchy, of male dominance and is based on the principle that women’s God given bodies are not meant to be seen for they will lead to chaos. The presence of women in the public sphere threatens patriarchal symbols and patriarchal norms. The easiest way to oppress us is to lock us away or make us invisible under burqas if we dare invade that space.

My grandmother had as many rights as the men in her family. In the 1940s, she married a man she chose, one who treated her as his equal and not his subordinate. She was also more educated than the vast majority of women in India at the time. She was fierce, strong and independent, riding horses in breeches, sword in hand. She had the freedom to do things that arguably many in burqa do not. They do not get to feel the wind in their hair. They are faceless objects of patriarchy’s triumph over women.

The burqa, in my opinion, is indoctrination and not a choice. Someone who is brainwashed to believe that it is a choice will always maintain that it is. I say this because it’s not an Islamic requirement. As a Muslim feminist, I believe that in order to get ahead, we have to constantly reinterpret for ourselves. The re-emergence of the burqa should be condemned in the loudest possible terms. We should not let anyone take us back to where we become objects to be concealed instead of active citizens. While I know my views may be controversial, I believe that encouraging the burqa drags us back into the past.

France is a secular democracy. The people have spoken, Islamophobic or not, and their message is loud and clear. It is not the “we don’t like your kind” message propagated by those with a persecution complex, but a plea to assimilate and become part of French culture instead of living in isolated bubbles. The world is tired of our persecution complex and I don’t blame them. I have to go through demeaning visa processes in order to prove my innocence thanks to these privileged Muslims, citizens of the first world, who can travel where they please.

Am I saying that Islamophobia doesn’t exist? Of course not. But I can also guarantee that in France, if you act like someone who is receptive to their culture, you will be treated quite well by the vast majority of the population. But if you choose to walk around in a tent, which even to me represents oppression, then you will in effect further perpetuate Islamophobia.

What is the burqa but a symbol of indoctrination? Islamic history is full of strong women who defied the patriarchal norms, but sadly, all this information has been suppressed & hidden from history. By examining Muslims herstory over history, we can clearly see that veiling isn’t an essential practise; it is a choice.

So what is my problem with choice then? I realize it is anti-feminist to judge a woman based on her dress. However, I echo commentator Yasmin Alibhai-Brown when she said, “Why should society be tolerant of a mark that women are evil temptresses or packages whose sexuality has to be controlled?… There is self-segregation going on and this garment is a symbol of that.” I know I will be judged as “illiberal” but the woman who dons a burqa also looks down on the woman who is “immorally” dressed. She judges me for living in “male” clothes. She thinks, and sometimes says, that I’m destined for hell. Pray tell me why I should respect such a woman? Pray tell me why I should be tolerant of the intolerant?