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.