On Patriarchy and Privacy

On 14th November 2014 Pakistan Feminist Watch had the honour of attending Pakistan’s first national conference on data and privacy rights. Organised by DigitalRights Foundation, the event was a great means of initiating public discourse on an issue that has become prevalent internationally, but is oft neglected in the Pakistani context. Nighat and her team did a fantastic job in setting the ball rolling on an issue that is not taken seriously.

Nabiha was on the first panel, Right To Privacy in The Digital Age, moderated by Amber Rahim Shamshi. She was joined by Adnan Rehmat (International Media Support), Naveed ul Haq (Internet Society) and Fouad Bajwa (Open Internet Activist). As PFW’s work focuses upon the complicity in perpetuating misogynistic and problematic norms and trends online, Nabiha focussed on the connection between patriarchy and privacy. She argued that women are not permitted bodily autonomy but rather are rather treated as public property – something which has manifested itself in cyberspace. Their digital presence, as in the real world, is heavily controlled and privacy for women is not tolerated. In societies with strong patriarchal family setups and social infrastructure, ‘honour’ lies in the body of a woman. Thus, the concept of privacy for women is regarded as a threat to the patriarchy, as it denies said patriarchy the right to police and control women’s bodies and social movement.

To identify as female and to be online is to encounter the same patriarchal policing and controlling of women’s bodies, and to face hostility for supposedly transgressing ‘acceptable’ online spaces. Nabiha has been called “ugly” and “fat” on her own personal blog, for instance – recurring body-centric hate-speech that is generally directed at women, and never at male bloggers. By pursuing hurtful ad hominem attacks, it is generally hoped that Nabiha and others will leave the public sphere, because of sustained attacks on self-esteem. What Nabiha has experienced and continues to experience is not a rarity. Rather, it is something reluctantly accepted by women as being something to put up with if one identifies as female online.

With hostility against women online, complete with triggering threats, one would be disturbed at the level of victim blaming that is prevalent. The Federal Investigation Agency – which is the Pakistani government’s only body that has a cybercrime wing – in regards, to the accounts of young women being hacked, inferred that they should “not let them be easily hacked”, rather than focussing on the hackers themselves. What happens to those young women that are hacked, and thus themselves in danger of being physically attacked, is considered to be irrelevant and unfortunate.

Nabiha was asked by the moderator if “revenge porn” was an issue in Pakistan, which she strongly confirmed. It exists in Pakistan, but it is not talked about, less so than rape. Whenever “revenge porn” (or RP) manifests in the real world or on social media, the victim is blamed for being “stupid enough to send photos/videos”, while the person who leaks the RP (usually an ex-boyfriend or former spouse) is not condemned at all. Public hysteria and ad hominem attacks on the woman will continue, even by individuals that would condemn rape. There is a distressing connection between RP and suicide, and if a women does end her life, those that would rake her over the coals will pity her as a victim, albeit briefly, and with slightly muted victim blaming (“it’s sad, but…”). The “Pindi Net Cafe” case, which took place a decade go, led to the suicides of women who were exposed on camera, once they were tracked down by people that bought CDs that had the videos on them. No charges were filed, however, and news coverage died down. Since then, there have been several instances of women and young girls being filmed, whether consensually or in most cases being sexually assaulted, with no support provided to the women and young girls involved. By not ending this culture of sexual violence, and instead trivialising and blaming victims, Nabiha noted, we are all complicit and have blood on our hands.

Interestingly, privacy as a concept was only recognised as a human right shortly after World War 2, and never regarded as a natural right, according to Waqqas Mir, who presented an excellent white paper on digital surveillance and security at the conference, Surveillance Laws and Practices in Pakistan.Thus, what we may personally consider to constitute “privacy” actually is fairly recent and not yet part of the total collective consciousness. This is quite the case in Pakistan, where requesting privacy, or choosing to not hand over passwords or other personal information to friends and family, is considered “rude”. This does in part go back to patriarchal controlling mechanisms, where women are not generally “supposed” to lock the doors to their rooms, and are lectured for doing so.

Strong women asserting their rights and encouraging others to do so are a threat to the patriarchal state set up. Tech tools used to control privacy are new tools for patriarchal infrastructure. The liberty and freedom of speech that we celebrate the internet for, and that people rightly defend, is also abused without serious repercussions or consequences. Men, Pakistani and otherwise, have total impunity online or at least behave so, making dangerous threats and vicious rape jokes that they would not utter in polite company in the “real world”.

Pakistan Twitter users, for example, exploded with venomous hatred towards the teenage activist for female rights Malala Yousafzai, when she spoke at the UN general assembly in 2013, and again when she won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014. Though there were some positive tweets from Pakistanis, an overwhelming number of tweets wanted her to be shot again, some included rape threats, among other things. The vitriol did not go unnoticed, with the BBC, Guardian, New York Times and other international media commenting on the hatred from her fellow Pakistani. Had she been a man, it is unlikely that she would have been given such horrific treatment online, as a successful and effective change maker who “happens” to be female will usually lead to the patriarchy, and its feral conscious/subconscious defenders, lashing out leads to patriarchy lashing out.

Mir asked if we “are living in an age of the death of privacy”, and perhaps the digitally native generation raised on social media, and who believe in sharing everything, could find our generation’s views on privacy to be archaic and perhaps obsolete. As Nabiha said at the conference, our conception of our rights is necessarily connected to shifts in our consciousness regarding rights.

As with Mir, however, we caution against advocacy that appears to infer surveillance is a recent phenomenon. For those of us raised by activists and journalists in repressive states, the concept of bugged phones and the authorities reading your mail existed long before the internet. “National security” has long been used to justify government surveillance, with no clear definition as to what exactly constitutes “national security”. In the absence of any concrete definitions, feminist activists can and have been declared enemies of the Pakistani state, as they were during the lawyer’s movement, which itself is barely ten years old. Strong women that assert their rights and encourage others to assert theirs are regarded as threats to patriarchal state institutions.

Mir also noted that an argument used to defend surveillance and anti-privacy arguments is that when we are online, we generally share information in public ourselves, by choice. However, this argument leaves out any concept of consent, with consent presumed simply because we are on the internet. This logic seems as sinister as the ingrained patriarchy that exists within women which leads to us seemingly consenting to our oppression at times.

Privacy for us is not just a right but essential for human dignity. Surveillance hurts the vulnerable, especially females, more than it does the powerful. The patriarchy has absolutely no interest in ending any violence against women online – rather, it needs it to flourish in order to maintain its power in the world whether offline or online.

Cross posted from Pakistan Feminist Watch. Written and blogged by editors Nabiha Meher Shaikh and Adnan Ahmad (which is why I seem to be referring to myself in third person).


A perfect victim

On 13th September, a 5 year old girl was discovered outside Ganga Ram hospital in Lahore. She had been raped and dumped on the street, a victim of a callous man who probably felt he could get away with what he did.

And sadly, he is right. Most men who rape or commit sexualised violence in Pakistan do so with complete impunity. The only difference here is that this little girl is the perfect victim worthy of our pity.

When a child is raped, societal outrage is far greater than when an adult is raped. Children are innocent and we, as adults, realise we have a responsibility to our children collectively. We realise they are worthy of pity if wrong and we acknowledge that sexual crimes against children are criminal. As I write this, the police are actively looking for this rapist, who, if caught, will certainly face the collective wrath of society as he rightfully should. The chances of him being declared guilty are high, certainly much higher than when an adult woman is raped.

There are many reasons why he’ll be seen as guilty by most and many are reductive without a proper understanding why rape occurs. We, as a society, believe rape is about sex and not power despite evidence to the contrary daily. Rape in our culture is largely about honour. Mukhtaran Mai, who despite her brave fight, was the victim of a sexualised honour crime which had nothing to do with sexual lust. Mai’s rapists were let off despite the collective outrage, despite the evidence and despite the fact that she had excellent legal counsel.

When a female child, whose body hasn’t experienced any pubertal changes, is raped, we instantly see the victim differently and automatically say she’s innocent. But that’s not the case with females whose bodies have matured. Once a female looks womanly enough to seduce, we blame the victim. Was she really innocent? What was she wearing? Did she have makeup on? If so, didn’t she realise she was tempting men? Why was she out alone? Why wasn’t she with her father, brother or husband? Did she not know that she was asking for it by daring to enter male territory alone?

So while child rapists and paedophiles are seen as evil, rapists of adult women are often seen as the innocent victims of women’s feminine wiles. They are seen as men who were left with no option but to ravage a woman and she is the one who is held responsible for it. This then translates into the victim not being believed by the police who hesitate to register FIRs and then by the courts.

In a patriarchal country, the existence of patriarchal attitudes in court is no surprise. Judges, too blame the victims. Judgements include speculations asking why the victim didn’t scream, completely neglecting the fact that many freeze when they are in danger. Judgements also state that there wasn’t enough physical injury so if a woman is raped, but not left beaten, she is often accused of framing a man for rape.

We also assign degrees of blame on victims not just based on their age, but based on sexual experience. A non virgin who has been raped is often called a “woman of easy virtue” and her rapist is seen as the victim of a seductress.

While I sincerely hope this case opens the floodgates of outrage and leads to a demand that we need to reform our rape laws, we must not leave out the many victims other than female children. This includes boys, transgendered individuals, men, sex workers, and all women, including wives. We don’t recognise marital rape. Wives are property of their husbands who need to submit to them sexually and if they don’t, we feel no pity if force is applied. Our conversation has hopefully begun and this time, we must make it more inclusive than it has been in the past.

Written for The Express Tribune

If you must…

My brother got married this December, and because I had lost a lot of weight (side effect of a medication I take), many people assumed I did so to “catch” a husband. This was my standard response: no, I don’t want to catch a husband. Just an STD. It’s easier to get rid of.

Yet despite giving out such a response, many persisted on asking me about marriage and men. Eventually I decided to dole out what is apparently considered an “impossible” list of things I would potentially want in a spouse. Women, as we know, are expected to settle and I’m simply being difficult for asking for this. So here I am putting this down mostly because I’m sick of repeating this over and over again to aunties who constantly keep asking me about marriage. I’m not closed to the idea, but I’m not that open to it either. I would never marry simply because it’s expected. Despite not being a fan of romance, I hold romantic notions of what I would want: unconditional love, trust and respect. Apparently it’s too much to ask for.

So if you must find me a man, find me one who is proud to call himself a feminist, one who understands that I may look like a female by gender, but don’t particularly perform the part.

Find me a man who believes I’m beautiful no matter what and not just when I’m dressed as a womanly woman. Find me a man who can accept that I won’t shave for weeks on end or thread for months. Find a man who, in other words, has no phobia of body hair.

Find me a man who doesn’t subscribe to gender essentialist roles, who doesn’t care about how well I can cook, and who can love a woman who doesn’t enjoy nurturing anything other than her cat.

Find me a man who doesn’t want biological children, one who would never ask me to endure pregnancy and childbirth simply because he wants to pass his genes on. Find me a man who could love any child, not just one who he shares DNA with. Find me a man who wishes to adopt girls.

Find me a man who enjoys argumentation, who can debate me for hours on end without resorting to petty remarks or silly attacks. Find me a man who would never, ever throw a gendered slur at me out of anger. It just shouldn’t exist in his consciousness.

Find me a man who is a firm believer in non violence and universal human rights AND is willing to defend them at all costs.

Find me a man with a sense of humour who can laugh at himself, but would never make sexist jokes in order to demean me or my entire gender.

Find me a man who can support my causes, especially Pakistan Feminist Watch. Too many men, upon discovering it, start becoming petty. “Oh but why must you be a feminist when it’s possible to be a humanist” is not an acceptable answer. At all.

Find me a man who is willing to call me back after reading my blog.

Find me a man who isn’t a manly man, one who doesn’t subscribe to the cult of masculinity, one isn’t afraid to cry or be judged as not being man enough.

Find me a man who doesn’t feel the need to protect me, doesn’t get insecure about my male friends and doesn’t believe he is my guardian or protector. Find me a man who can respect me as an individual and not just as a woman.

Find me a man who is sensitive to mental health issues, one who can be the partner of a bipolar woman who is also a survivor with PTSD. And please make sure this man never tries to reduce me to my disability and is well aware that I generally have brilliant mental capacity.

Find me a man who accepts that my weight and health constantly fluctuate due to medication. Find me a man who accepts that there are days I won’t need much sleep and days where I’ll need much more than usual. Find me a man who doesn’t think this is an issue at all.

Find me a man who is willing to let me live in my own room. Find me a man who can respect my private space and privacy. Find me a man who doesn’t believe partners necessarily have to be with each other 24/7 or share their friends’ secrets between themselves.

Find me a man who will always be there for me when I need him and leave me alone when I tell him I need space.

Find me a man who isn’t scared of signing up for intense psychotherapy and exploring the very depths of his soul.

Find me a man who reads philosophy daily, who I can discuss ethics with for days on end. Find me a man who isn’t afraid of Buddhism and Kant. Find me a man with an ethical code which he lives by, but isn’t set in stone for he should be open to re-evaluating his views often.

Find me a man who can satisfy me sexually when I need him to and walk away when I tell him I’m not interested. Find me a man who knows that marital rape is real and understands that coercing one’s spouse through verbal means is also unacceptable.

Find me a man who vociferously opposes all forms of violence against women, not just physical. Find me a man who understands that emotional abuse and bullying can easily occur in relationships due to power dynamic. Find me a man who doesn’t want power over any woman.

Find me a man who isn’t afraid to change his mind and yet isn’t afraid to defend his well thought views.

Find me a man who is a staunch secularist, yet not a militant in any of his views. Find me a man with any religion as long as he doesn’t believe he has a right to preach it to me or inflict it upon anyone else. Find me a man who believes there must be a complete separation between the mosque and the state.

Find me a man who supports democracy and adamantly opposes dictatorships. Find me a man who is left leaning like me. Capitalists will not do.

Find me a man whose family can accept me without trying to change or “mould” me. Find me a man who doesn’t expect me to be a good daughter in law.

Find me a man who can hold his drink and never does hard drugs. A bit of THC now and then, however, is perfectly acceptable.

Find me a man who has no issues with my work schedules and understands that writers cannot conform to a 9 to 5 life. Find me a man who will support my work and respect my writing. He doesn’t necessarily have to agree with me. If he can provide me valuable feedback and perspective, I would probably respect him more.

Find me a man, who, like me, would never ever want to identify as an elite. Find me a man who works hard and understands the value for money. Show me no man who owns land or has inherited a business. I cannot possibly respect such a man.

So if you go looking for a man, find me no man from a well off or “respectable” family. Respectable families do not exist. Respectable families are those who are wealthy enough to suppress their crimes, just like much of my own.

Find me someone who sees me as an equal and not a subordinate. Find me a man who cares not for wifely duties, but wants a partnership with no gendered terms involved. Find me someone who can value me, deeply, for who I am, for what I want to achieve… Find me a man who takes pride in having a dominant, intelligent wife.

So if you must find me a man, step outside your comfort zone, your tiny bubble and your ethnicity. I care not for looks, religion, race or anything but integrity. Many within a certain class claim such men don’t exist. They do. They just aren’t visible to you.

Reblogged by The Friday Times where the comments are hilarious.

I Need Feminism

When people think of feminism, they tend to think of feminists as theorists who choose to focus on gender based oppression. While many of us do see the patriarchy as a major source of our oppression, all feminist worth their salt acknowledge multiple oppressions. Intersectionality is a concept that helps us identify how people, especially women, are affected by multiple oppressions. For example, a Sunni Punjabi upper middle class woman has significantly more privilege and faces significantly less discrimination than a woman from a minority group. The minority woman faces systemic, as well as outright, discrimination as well as sexism on a regular basis. This concept cannot be ignored and has helped redefine feminist theory to become more inclusive.

Many of us feel that those of us who are aware of our privilege have a duty to help campaign for women’s issues. In a society as patriarchal as ours, we probably will not be able to achieve much unless all women, regardless of their class and privilege, unite to make their voices heard. This is certainly something our own history has taught us. This is because patriarchy cuts across class, religion, social status and ethnicity. There is no group in our country that can claim that their women are given the same rights as their men.

Diversity will strengthen us and resistance to shared patriarchal norms can help unite us. Recently, I was asked why I, a privileged and apparently “liberated” woman, even “needs” to be a feminist. I didn’t know where to begin.

I need feminism despite the fact that I benefit from the current set-up more so than other women due to my Sunni Punjabi upper middle class status because I do not wish to live in an unjust world, one where I am an oppressor for other women.

I need feminism because all women in my country cannot possibly ask for justice in the absence of gender sensitive laws. All women, across class, can be and are raped, beaten up and subjected to violence, physical and psychological. Our culture celebrates rape and violence against women. Many assume, erroneously, that there is more violence amongst the poor, but it is not limited to any one socio-economic group. Money, or upward class mobility, cannot, by itself, remove ingrained patriarchal norms. A shared consciousness is required.

A recent ‘I need feminism’ at LUMS, the most elite university in Pakistan, witnessed patriarchal backlash from the most educated and privileged citizens of our land. Their facebook page was incessantly trolled for days and some participants had to have their picture removed due to fear and threats. At another LUMS facebook page, a male student was given a rape threat simply for not conforming to the other students’ gender stereotypical expectations and appearing feminine. Education or lack thereof has nothing to do with feminism and feminists, despite their class, ethnicity or religion, face resistance from their own.

LUMS rape threat

I, a privileged citizen, have witnessed women within my own maternal family not being given a choice regarding marriage. It must happen, even at the cost of the woman’s education. I have witnessed women being denied their inheritance and even a child marriage within my own family. Upon speaking up, I have faced resistance and backlash. Unfortunately, I have seen too many women suffer to finally reach a state where this is no longer the case. Too many women necessarily have to go through something traumatic in order to experience an awakening and the emotional toll it takes is very high.

I need feminism because no matter how much wealth I accumulate, I will necessarily be defined as property of a father or husband, one who deserves to be paid less than men simply for being born female. I need feminism because I feel fear amongst strange men and know that for most women, home is also not a safe space.

I need feminism because patriarchy is a global system and it isn’t possible for me to escape it. As half of humanity, we women can be a force to be reckoned with if we unite. And this is precisely why we unite. Listen to stories of women from across the world and you’ll see a pattern emerge. Violence against women, rape, systemic discrimination, the glass ceiling etc exist everywhere. Virginia Woolf’s words remind me that “as a woman I have no country. As a woman I want no country. As a woman, my country is the whole world.”

NMS I need feminism

Written for The Vigilant

Update on Pakistan Feminist Watch

Happy International Women’s Day! Head over to Pakistan Feminist Watch’s twitter account which is being run by a volunteer today.

I’m actually amazed by how well Pakistan Feminist Watch is doing, even though I tend to get slightly irked that it’s getting more hits than this old blog. Do visit to see our new posts. We’ve written about racist jokes and cultural appropriation recently, hoping it’ll enrich the discourse and lead to some self reflection. I blogged mostly images about men tweeting me, and how it becomes a constant cycle. Block one and another will emerge instantly. We’ve received our first guest blog and blogged our second today. People have also been submitting “I need feminism” and “Why I am Feminist” short pieces which we will be blogging on a regular basis.

Finally, we also have a logo now thanks to the ever so lovely Eiynah. I absolutely love it.


A woman is made

When Freud declared that women’s anatomy is our destiny, I doubt he could have predicted just how many times his claim would be debunked. Feminists have long argued that gender is performed and not innate. Throughout history, the majority of feminists have argued that our biology does not define us, nor does it make us naturally inferior to men. However, it has certainly been used as an excuse to suppress our sex.

Before contraception, our biology certainly limited us. Most women were unable to control the number of children they had and spent the majority of their lives as nursing mothers. As lactating mammals, women had no option but to be around their children at all times. Men, on the other hand, were free to go out, roam and hunt.

From Beauvoir’s famous declaration: “one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman” to gender theorists today, much has been written about how we perform gender and how we are socialised to conform based on our biology. From the minute we’re born, gender expectations are placed on us and stereotyping begins.

Because it is mostly impossible to tell the difference between baby boys and girls, we dress them according to the gender we want them to be perceived as. Girls, assumed to be more delicate, are swathed in pink and feminine clothes. The toys they are provided encourage domesticity such as baby dolls and kitchen sets. Other sexualised dolls, like Barbies, serve another purpose: to perpetuate the beauty myth.

Toys are used to instil the cults of masculinity and femininity in children. Boys are given aggressive ‘manly’ toys such as guns and tanks. They are encouraged to be loud and violent. Their rowdy behaviour is justified and dismissed as ‘boys will be boys’. Loud, aggressive girls, on the other hand, are told to behave like ‘ladies’ or are declared tomboys, thus attributing the male gender to them, which implies the assumption that the realm of aggression solely belongs to the male.

Gender socialisation doesn’t begin and end in the home. We police each other to conform to gender throughout our lives, collectively, as a society. We judge parents who don’t teach their children to act normatively. We use language that reflects our biases: strong men are admirable, but strong women are often called aggressive. A man who cooks is a chef, but a woman who cooks is simply performing her duty as a woman.

Schools and teachers then further reinforce gender norms through various means such as encouraging children to segregate and bond with their own gender. Teachers discourage female students from traditionally male subjects like mathematics and the sciences.

We also often choose our careers based on what is considered appropriate for our gender and use terms to remind ourselves of what is traditionally a male or female career. For example, a female doctor is often referred to as a ‘lady doctor’ and male nurses are often called ‘male nurse’ instead of simply doctor and nurse.

Taking gender for granted, we assume it is a natural part of who we are. Those who conform may truly believe the essentialist view that sex and gender are the same, but when faced with those who don’t conform, especially physically, assumptions fall apart. In our culture, we have a third gender, the hijras who tow the fine line between men and women. Not quite men and not quite women, hijras confuse us and make us question if biology is indeed destiny.

The human obsession with gender reveals just how obsessed we, as a species, are with difference. At the end of the day, the only genetic difference between men and women is the one chromosome. Yet, based on that one tiny chromosome, we have decided to divide ourselves in two classes and women, unfortunately, have suffered for it.

Published in The News.