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).

Review: My chacha is gay

Despite growing up and living in a country where a third gender has been recognised for centuries, I grew up fearful of anyone who was different even though I’m from a progressive family with an LGBT family member. Despite belonging to a culture that has a third gender cemented in its collective consciousness, I, like my ancestors before me, am a product of a post colonial society. Before the British colonised us, third genders were recognised and treated with respect. Our cultural understanding of gender changed. We acknowledged it was fluid, but the Western views of gender as a binary were imposed on us and we subconsciously adopted them. We still haven’t rid ourselves of them.

Similarly, many argue homophobia also is a colonial legacy. Before the British colonised us, homosexuality was not a crime. There were societal taboos and judgment, but one could not be persecuted legally.

The Mughal emperor Babur, in his autobiography the Baburnama candidly discusses his passion for a young man. Every spring, Shah Hussain’s love for his male companion is still celebrated in Lahore at mela chiraghaan. His love for his male companion was so intense that he was known as Madhu Lal Husain.

Perhaps it was their male privilege which allowed them from meeting the fate transgressive females like Heer, Sassi and Sohni faced in folklore. What is clear is that we culturally acknowledged that true love crossed socially prescribed boundaries like caste and gender. Gender, after all, existed more in spirit than body.

This is precisely why I was overjoyed when I came across my friend Eiynah Nicemango’s children’s book “My Chacha is Gay“. Beautifully written, subversive and a celebration of love, this heartwarming book gives children a message of tolerance and understanding. Written through the eyes of a child, Ahmed, who lives with his gay chacha, it reveals the confusion a child feels at the societal scorn his uncle faces simply for loving a man.

The story is a simple one, easy for children to relate to with eye catching illustrations and the characters resemble us Pakistanis unlike most children’s books which have stereotypically white characters. Chacha’s moustache is a cultural moustache, one generally associated with masculinity.

The book starts with a simple description of Ahmed’s family, which resembles many urban Pakistani families, a family many children will easily relate to. However, the author explains that there are many types of families so that her readers do not stigmatise non-traditional families.

Ahmed is acutely aware that his chacha is different from the norm and doesn’t understand why people sometimes verbally abuse him. For Ahmed, there is no difference between a gay chacha and a heterosexual one. The story delves into their loving bond, a bond any child reader will instantly recognise.

Ahmed also shares a bond with chacha’s partner, Uncle Faheem, and appreciates the love they share: “Ahmad doesn’t understand when people say that only men and women can love each other. Because everyone can see how much Chacha and Uncle Faheem love each other”.

The story ends with questioning how anyone can control love anyway. Love should be free of boundaries is the message that is being delivered to the readers. The book ends with this sentence: “Love belongs to everyone.”

We live in a culture where homophobia is abundant and false statements such as “homosexuals are diseased” are a part of casual conversation. People also seem to be under the impression that homosexuality is a psychological disorder, which, according to Dr Nusrat Rana who is the head of the Punjab Institute of Mental Health, ”is not true. It is simply a moral issue for our society which is falsely labelled as a disease.”

In other words, there is no cure for love, an emotion we need to express more of in our country. Imagine living in a country where love, instead of violence, was encouraged. I yearn to see that day and as a pro LGBT feminist teacher, I agree with this message from the author on her fundraising appeal page:

“With all the terrorism, religious intolerance and extremism I believe it’s important to push back with the arts and with education. The best way to do this in my humble opinion is to start early and teach our children tolerance and diversity from a young age. I would also like to show the rest of the world that *all* Pakistanis cannot be defined by the terrorism and intolerance you see in the media. We are a varied people, amongst us there are many kind, gentle and diversity loving souls. But sadly, those voices are drowned out or silenced by terrorists.”

Her words struck me and made me think: if we don’t reclaim Pakistan, who will?

Written for The Friday Times where the comments prove my point as usual.

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

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

A tribute to Ismat apa

Aman1

Hiba Shah, Ratna Phatak Shah and Nasseruddin Shah

Naseeruddin Shah’s theatrical production of Ismat Chughtai’s short stories draws standing ovations

By Nabiha Meher Sheikh

When I heard that Naseeruddin Shah was returning to Lahore to with his theatre production “Ismat Apa ke naam”, I jumped at the chance to watch it again.

I had seen the play – or rather, series of plays, based on the renowned Urdu writer Ismat Chughtai’s short stories – six years ago when it was first performed here. I looked forward to seeing it the second time around – Ismat Chugthai is an unparalleled writer, and I remembered how exquisite the performance and production were.

The theatre group from Mumbai, comprising Naseeruddin Shah, his wife Ratna Pathak Shah and daughter Hiba Shah, performed at Lahore’s Alhamra Art Council on Dec 1 and 2, at the invitation of the Faiz Foundation, set up by the family of the poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz, who is equally beloved on both sides of the border.

“The love I get here, I do not have the words to describe that. I don’t feel scared at all here. It feels like… like I have come back home,” Shah told reporters after arriving to a warm welcome in Lahore.

Shah first came to Pakistan when he played a major role in the film ‘Khuda ke Liye’ (in God’s name) produced by Geo TV. He is also starring in the Indo-Pak feature film ‘Zinda Bhaag’ due to be released soon.

Passes to the shows went fast. The Faiz Foundation had invited student groups in and around Lahore including Chunian and Gujrat at subsidised rates, Rs 200 per student. “The students were ecstatic,” commented Salima Hashmi. “Their presence and response gave the performances an extra charge.”

The performances drew standing ovations on both nights, and Shah said that this was “the best audience” he had ever seen.”

The applause was well deserved. The performers outdid themselves in the three plays I saw on the first night – Chuee Moee (“Touch Me Not”) performed by Hiba Shah; Mughal Bacha/Gunghat (The Veil) by Ratna Pathak, and Gharwali by Shah himself (he didn’t perform on the second night but did introduce the production, which he had directed). Clearly, over the years, they have perfected their performances and reached a whole new level. Not once was I bored or felt like I was watching something repetitive. In fact, I was fascinated and hanging on to every word, laughing along with the audience.                                                                    Aman2

This was Chughtai’s work at her finest, presented in a way I read it in my head with the unique desi humour that allows us to mock ourselves, despite the heaviness of the subject matter. Her’s is a feminist voice focused on the plight of women, specifically the emotional toll of being a woman in a heavily patriarchal world.

Chughtai’s stories remain relevant even today, despite these different, more ‘modern’ times where feminist consciousness is far greater than before but the force of patriarchy continues to oppress us. This is what binds women across the Indian subcontinent regardless of different languages, cultures, religions and customs. Last year, Pakistan and India were found to be the third and fourth worst countries to be a woman in, according to a survey by the Thomas Reuters Foundation. Chughtai tells women’s stories in her trademark straightforward but cheeky manner that prevents them from being ‘heavy’. Shah shines in Gharwali as Lajoo, a woman who is unapologetic about who she is – everything a woman is not supposed to be.

Marriage doesn’t suit her, challenging sub-continental notions of woman as wife, sister and mother. I sincerely hope to see Indian actors, writers and artists in Pakistan more often. Our common culture and language brings us together seamlessly when we are allowed to meet.

It is good to hear that Naseeruddin Shah and family have committed to returning next year and I know I’ll be attending their show again.

Written for Aman ki Asha.

Whether my Maker is prepared for the ordeal of meeting me…

Written for Dawn.

I found out like most others when twitter exploded with the news – Ardeshir Cowasjee is with us no more. Pakistan has lost a voice, a voice like no other. How befitting that a man who decried draconian state measures passed away on the day that all mobile phone communication was shut down across the country in the name of national security.

I didn’t know Cowasjee personally and only met him a couple of times. He had the kind of personality that stays with you for years. My meeting with him was truly unforgettable and I know I’ll always remember him fondly. I say this with confidence because just now, as I told my mother that Cowasjee was with us no more, she said “how sad” and then we both laughed.

We laughed because he had made us laugh when we met him and it is something we’ve spoken about for years. It’s been over a decade but the memories remain. When I was an International Baccalaureate student studying world religion as a subject, I became fascinated with Zoroastrianism and decided to do my summer project on the Parsis and their faith. And like all young, enthusiastic students who feel like their eyes have been opened for the first time, I was an eager researcher who wanted to know as much as I could possibly could. I stayed in Karachi for a while that summer so that I could learn and research. That’s when I bumped into Cowasjee.

He was walking around the lawns of the Governor’s House in a sleeveless, white kaftan surrounded by high society at a showing of the movie Jinnah. Amused and fascinated, I approached him about my project and asked if he could help. He said he would be happy to and set up a meeting at his residence.

The next day, after ringing the bell and while waiting for someone to open the door to Cowasjee’s house, my mother and I heard a squeaky voice yelling “Where’s your keys? Where’s your keys?” Confused, we looked around wondering if we’d dropped our keys. I even turned around to see if a child was playing a joke. But like a tape stuck on repeat, the squeaky demand refused to stop. When the door opened, we finally discovered the cheeky cockatoo perched on the bird cage behind us. It was just the start of a very amusing evening.

The person who opened the door escorted me up to Cowasjee’s study where he sat in tiny boxer shorts the wrong way around on his chair. A very excitable, little dog was bouncing around us the whole time.

Saala calm down!” Cowasjee demanded and the little dog sat still for a while.

It was hard not be distracted by an elderly man in boxer shorts, sitting the wrong way around in a chair but because Cowasjee was unapologetic about who he was, I quickly adapted and we started to have a serious conversation about the Parsi community and their faith. He explained to me how and why Zoroastrianism was the oldest monotheistic faith. He gave me reading material and a book I have with me right now as I write this. He explained the entire history of the faith from its Proto-Indo-Iranian origins to the founding of the religion by Zarathustra to the way it was practised in today’s world. We discussed the major texts and prayers. I questioned him on the rituals I found confusing and he explained them all to me patiently. I couldn’t understand, for example, why someone would voluntarily want their flesh to be consumed by scavengers until he connected it to the Zoroastrian concept of charity. Every Parsi should aim to be as charitable as possible and giving up one’s own body to animals to consume, which is worthless after death, is an ultimate form of charity. I still remember that moment because it was a moment of clarity. A concept I found so confusing suddenly made complete sense.

The highlight of that interview was when I asked him to explain another concept I found troubling and hard to understand: why didn’t Zoroastrians marry anyone outside their own community? Why couldn’t someone become a Parsi? Why this obsession with racial purity? I couldn’t, at that point, understand why the two had to even be connected, especially since the Parsi population is very low. They are dying out and I pointed out that to lose such a faith would be too big a loss for humanity. Surely, they could adapt just to survive? His answer left me stunned.

“Listen, if you have an Alsatian, would you breed it with a mongrel?” I watched as his excited dog starting jumping around again, as I absorbed his hilariously blunt comparison.

“I, erm, sir, I don’t know,” was all I could manage to muster.

“Well you shouldn’t,” he said. “And if the saala Alsatian has no one to mate with and has to die, you let it die.”

And that was that. A concept so confusing, so troubling, was so easily explained and then dismissed with an analogy that I couldn’t help but giggle at. That’s when I realised I had been asking questions because I was viewing his faith through the lens of mine. Cowasjee taught me to discard any preconceived notions and see it for what it is.

In the Parsi faith, death turns every soul timid and fearful. It is evil’s temporary triumph. It is not decided by God, but instead is the mischief of the evil spirit, Ahriman. Based on his last piece, I doubt Cowasjee was fearful at all. I can imagine him staring death in the face, defiant, unafraid. He had quoted Churchill: “I am ready to meet my Maker. Whether my Maker is prepared for the ordeal of meeting me is another matter.”

May the maker enjoy your company as much as we did, Sir.

Feminism in Pakistan: Just an elitist movement?

Written for Viewpoint.

When I was contacted to write on this topic, my gut reaction was to agree with the claim that the feminist movement in Pakistan is elitist. But upon pondering about this, I realized I was indulging in my confirmation bias. This claim, which is common and much talked about, and mostly used as an excuse to dismiss the existence of feminism in Pakistan, is problematic on many levels.

Firstly, it assumes a feminist movement exists, but I, and many other feminists, would argue that there is no movement. Feminism exists. Pakistani feminists exist. Women who don’t identify as feminists but are undoubtedly changing the future for Pakistani women exist. Organizations, specifically NGOs, which advocate feminism exist, but one cannot classify this as a movement per se.

Furthermore, some of our most famous feminist icons are not elite. Mukhtaran Mai, who is known locally as well as internationally, cannot be considered elite. She suffered at the hands of a richer and more powerful caste who gang raped her in order to avenge their honour. Now, years later, she has become a powerful figure who is changing the very fabric of Pakistani society for women by educating girls for free; providing needy women shelter which includes legal, medical and psychological support; and has created a women’s resource centre in Mianwali which helps female violence victims and provides them emergency rescue services. Her advocacy for women’s rights has led to much awareness and has motivated many to support her causes.

Another feminist icon, one who is in the news these days, is Malala Yousafzai. Malala’s feminist cause cannot be defined as elitist. Is this because she doesn’t belong to an elite background? Shall we stop to pause and think about whether a feminist’s background colours our own views about their feminism? I say this as a privileged citizen of this land who is often labeled elite or elitist because of my background.

My views have been dismissed by some as invalid because I speak English and am not a working class woman. I don’t pretend I know what life is like for anyone other than myself, nor should my views or opinions be dismissed for this reason. Why can’t I also believe that the world needs to become a much better place for women than it currently is? And why is not valid simply because I am not living in a village?

Does being able to live a feminist life or actively take part in feminist activism rely on privilege or at least the support of the men in one’s family? Why do we so conveniently forget that women are considered property in Pakistan regardless of their class? We, as women, do not belong to ourselves. We belong to our men and this is state sanctioned. My national identification card as well as my passport requires that I identify as my father’s daughter instead of my mother’s. I legally do not even have the option to identify as my mother’s daughter in legal documentation. If I choose to marry, my ownership will be transferred from my father to my husband. The state requires I register this under the law but men are not required to identify their wives as their co owners on paper.

I also happen to live in a country where any of my male “owners” can kill me and get away with it. We live in a land where honour killings are rampant and socially sanctioned. The key to my liberation is male support regardless of my class. I say this as someone whose mother’s background is that of a wealthy but highly patriarchal family and whose father’s is entirely feminist. In my mother’s family, women are secondary to men and the older women have been too well indoctrinated by patriarchal norms to even consider themselves equals. In my paternal family, this topic isn’t even debated for none of the men consider themselves superior to the women.

I’ve chosen to share this comparison between my maternal and paternal family to illustrate a point. Not all wealthy or elite people support feminism, but some do. None of the women of my mother’s generation from her family are interested in feminism. She married into a family whose values she shared and adopted. She also had an immense amount of support from her in laws. Had she not had it, I do not believe she would have become a feminist.

When people say the feminist movement is elitist, they mostly focus on groups like Women Action Forum, which, until recently, were dominated by elite women. These were the original feminists from the 1980s who stood up to Zia’s tyranny. They got up and fought when others were too scared. They risked their lives to make this country a better place for all women, not just themselves. They fought hard. They wanted their daughters to have better options than they did.

Why do we forget that when WAF was formed, time was of the essence? Young girls and women were on death row awaiting executions for being raped. No one had time to sit down and formulate theory. They were purely activist and not academic. The 1980s was a decade where feminism the world over was facing much backlash and a new wave of feminism, the third wave, was cropping up. Before the third wave, intersectionality was not commonly acknowledged. Today, we are aware of the fact that people can face multiple oppressions based on race, ethnicity, sexual orientation and class etc. Class matters and no can deny that. Women from minority backgrounds face much more discrimination than women from my own Punjabi background. Women from religious minority groups not only share the burden of being a female, but also that of a minority in a land where too many question their loyalty to their country based on their faith. In essence, there is no denying that these women face a double or multiple oppressions. Yet, at the same time, all women do belong to the class of woman, which has historically been oppressed by the class of men. So even though much diversity and degrees of privilege may vary amongst women, we all have one shared major oppression: patriarchy.

As a young feminist who was inspired by my mother’s generation of women, I often thank them now. I fought them for years, declared them elitist, only to live and learn. I realized that holding them accountable for not being perfect and for simply being a product of their times, I was not getting on board. In other words, I was simply whining instead of making a change. And frankly, not enough elite women are feminists. They, who have the power to make a difference and change, are silent on everyone’s behalf. They are comfortable in their own privilege and do not feel the need to advocate on behalf of all women.

Never before have the women of our country, especially young women and girls, been more aware of the fact that they are considered property. And never before have they been so willing to stand up for their rights. They want freedom, the right to be educated, to choose who they marry and when. They are aware of their rights because of the feminists who came before them. The Pakistani state has consistently betrayed and oppressed women. It is the feminists who have rescued us.