Fifty Shades of Pakistani Feminism

by Samia Altaf

After an anxious and grey winter, the gloom of an unraveling economy, topped by the ominous beating of war drums, spring arrived in Punjab and Lahore’s academies and activists put aside their concerns to celebrate Women’s International Day on March 8. Amidst the blooming of flowers and the heady fragrance of newly sprouting jasmine—feminism and feminist concerns and the doings of women suffused the air.

There were reviews of achievements by Pakistani womenMalala, Sharmeen Chinoy, Mukhtaran Mai, Fehmida Riaz, Hina Khar were lauded. There was the woman’s march of sisterhood and solidarity. The Prime Minister wants to ‘create an environment in which women can play their rightful role.’ Lively discussions were held on university campuses and in exclusive clubs. Television channels and talk shows competed to give more upbeat views of the whole  ‘woman question’ that included duties of women, responsibilities of women, rights of women, clothes of women as well as the pro-women actions undertaken and being planned. A female student of an elite university dared to attempt to wear shorts. Thankfully that is where it remained, a dare. We spoke of the hijab, the veil, its ‘badness’ and ‘goodness,’ and so on. All discussions ended with exhortations for ‘women’s empowerment.’

Ah, that word. What does it even mean?

As many things as the number of people talking about it. To my mind the word empowerment brings the iron armor of medieval times. Is that the fix? As I grapple with this issue I find it complicated, complex and part of the darkness in lived reality of Pakistani women’s lives. And how to engineer empowerment? No one is quite sure how to go about it, though we try. In spite of the many retrogressive laws pertaining to women that impact their daily life, such as the laws of inheritance, divorce, and age of marriage, and a general acceptance of women’s worth less than that of men’s, recent governments have tried to improve the situation for women. Centers to hear the complaints of women, special women’s cells in all police stations, induction of women in the police force, additional places for women in colleges, in industry, in parliament are all worth noting. And, yes, women lap up all these advantages greedily. Qualified or not, they occupy the seats, take whatever they can get.

Despite the effort, the reality for Pakistani women today is still bleak. The female literacy rate is barely 50 percent and just 5 percent in Baluchistan. The maternal mortality rate is the highest in South Asia. Malnutrition in girls is endemic, school enrollment low; domestic violence continues unchallenged, and public spaces remain limited. Newspapers report an ‘honor killing’ every other day.

But on this lovely balmy spring day it was possible to ignore reality, forget the numbers, and celebrate Pakistani women’s achievements in art, education, politics, and human rights. It was possible to speak of brave and talented women who are doing us proud—the likes of Mukhtaran Mai, Sharmeen Chinoy and Malala Yousufzai. We participated via Skype in panel discussions in Singapore and New York. We sang songs of solidarity as we marched with sisters –and some brothers. We celebrated women surgeons, engineers, writers, painters, teachers, actors, fashion designers, airplane pilots, and politicians. We patted ourselves on the back for forming a larger percentage of the student body in many universities, in Pakistan’s medical colleges, for doing better than boys in examinationsall achievements to be truly proud of.

But the day did not end there.

On the same day in Al-Falah colonya low-income makeshift housing development without adequate water supply or electricity, occupied by unskilled laborers and domestic workers, outside the cordon sanitaire of the Defense Housing Authority (DHA), the swanky upper-class suburb of LahoreWomen’s Day was being marked in its own way.

Three women and a man knocked on forty-year-old Surraiya’s door. Surraiya lives in a two-room shack, with her husband, a sixty-year-old out of work unskilled laborer, and three grown daughters; two are employed as domestic workers in faculty apartments of an elite university in DHA. The third afflicted with mental health problems stays at home. When Surraiya opened the door in response to the morning knock, a man, holding her by the wrist, dragged her out roughly on to the street. Surraiya recognized him as someone she had met the previous week. He handed her over to the three women accompanying him who proceeded to beat Surraiya with slaps to her head and face, one of them using her shoe for added impact. They tugged her hair, shook her, and abused her. When Surriya fell, they kicked her as she lay on the ground.

All this while Surriya’s husband stood by for being a man he could not lay his hands on unrelated women. So did some passersby who stayed to watch. The sick daughter cowered behind the junk piled in the far corner of the shack and whimpered, pulling her own hair. When they were done, the party of beaters dragged Surriya back into her room. Surraiya’s husband brought them rickety chairs and a stool so they could sit and rest and gave them water for they were breathless and sweatythey were tired after the hard work.

Surriaya had brought this upon herself it seemed. A week earlier, her twenty-five-year old brother had eloped with a young woman belonging to the invading party bringing shame and dishonor to the latter’s family and clan. The case was quite clear; the eloping woman’s family had been wronged. Being wronged, the ‘owners’ of the eloping woman had arranged for a girl from the boy’s family, Surraiya’s niece Rani, to be ‘given’ to a man of wronged clan so that their honor could be restored.

It took a day of deliberations. The elders on both sides had negotiated this mutually satisfactory agreement and felt it to be fair retribution. To this retribution, sixteen-year-old Rani ‘s father, her mother being dead, had also agreed. No one thought of asking Rani if she was also in agreement—there was no need for that. The fact that the ‘taken’ woman, an adult, had voluntarily and happily eloped with the fellow, that they were now happily married, the fellow had turned over a new leaf, found a job in a dhaba as a cook’s helper, and was taking loving care of his new bride, none of that entered into the discussions. It was an irrelevant aspect of the story.

Except for Surraiya who felt Rani was being penalized for something she was not a part of and that it was not for her to assuage the honor of the offended family. “What does our girl have to do with their girl running off and marrying the man she loved?” Surraiya was bold enough to ask. Since she questioned the decision of the elders, she had voiced dissent knowing full well as she did so that it would not change anything. Meanwhile, the sixteen-year-old savior of societal honor was hiding in her room, crying while busy putting henna on her hands in preparation for the wedding that was to happen that day—March 8, Women’s International Day.

Since all had been decided and Surraiya beaten into acceptance, salves and poultices applied to her bruises, her sprained wrist bandaged, the wedding ceremony was completed. There were festivities, buntings were put up, everyone dressed for the occasion, young girls bought colorful glass bracelets, scrawny children ran underfoot, sleepy cats came out of the shadows and emaciated dogs gleefully wagged their tails. Both parties, the wronged one and the other, sang happy wedding songs and danced together. There was party food—sweet yellow rice, chicken curry and naan, the special bread made on festive occasions. Rani was given in marriage to the uncle of the eloping woman. She left her home in Al-Falah colony to go live with her husband’s family, their honor restored. They are good to her, I am told. They do not beat her and let her eat as many rotis as she wants.

“I am sorry this terrible thing happened in your house,” I had said to Surraiya’s daughter, Seema, an illiterate but quite articulate twenty-year-old, who had called citing an emergency, pulling me out of a seminar on empowerment of Pakistani women, to get medicine for her mother’s painful bruises and broken wrist so she could be fixed up to participate in the wedding festivities.

Seema appeared to give the matter some thought, then, holding her head high, said  “O it is not so bad. This is quite normal. In some ways my cousin is luckyhe is not an old man, and she gets to eat her fill. My mother, she talks too much so she gets into trouble…”

What struck me was the ‘normal.’ Normal? I found myself getting ready to fill up with indignation and then off a sudden felt deflated. Of course, it is. Pakistani women have internalized the violence directed at them in such a fashion that its manifestations appear normal. And that is the real ‘heart of darkness’ of women’s empowerment issues. In the lives of the vast majority of Pakistani women being used to settle family disputes and being beaten for daring to speak up seems as normal in 2019, as it must have been in 1919 and1819. How much longer will it continue to be normal?

Pakistan is many countries with a spectrum of lived realities for its women. Surraiya and Rani and Seema coexist with upper class western-educated professionals. Though many of the latter also face covert discrimination every day, even from within their educated families, they would not be used us to settle a dispute or consider such an eventuality ‘normal.’ The others have found their own creative ways to keep moving the business of living their lives. And yet it does not seem right. By focusing on Sharmeen and Malala, are we ignoring the fact that for the majority of Pakistani women little has changed over the past decades? Violence against women remains rampant after Mukhtaran Mai, the women’s protection bill and other such legislations formulated thereafter. Has female literacy or school enrollment improved post-Malala? It does not appear so. Is feminism and women’s empowerment only the preoccupation of middle-class professional women? Is it all right for two such incongruent ‘normals’ to coexist inside and outside the boardrooms?

The condition of Pakistani women has attracted concern for decades. The international communityThe World Bank, USAID, DFID, in particularhas been vocal and has supported the government’s efforts with millions of dollars earmarked for ‘Women-in-Development’ programs that morphed into ‘Women’s Empowerment’ and can now be encountered under the rubric of ‘Gender Equity.’ Not much is visible in terms of outcomes. The World Bank’s $8 billion Social Action Program that had women’s development as a major component failed to achieve its objectives according to its own evaluation. In 2010, the government launched $40 million USAID-funded Gender Equity Program. The impact is hard to discern four years after the funding ended despite many trainings on women’s empowerment. It’s like water on sand, ‘normal’ for the fate of piecemeal activities spearheaded by donors.

How can the situation for Pakistani women be improved? How can the horrible ‘normal’ be displaced? How can gender equity be advanced? For a starter, we could learn from the experience of ‘doing’ women’s development and conclude that it might need be done differently. There is ample evidence that education—for women as well as menis crucial to changing attitudes and behaviors. People’s faith in the ability of state systems to redress wrongs and provide justice is also important. These are the basic rights of citizens. These are not available to citizens of Pakistan. In such a scenario what can feminist discussions and gender equity trainings do?

On this Women’s International Day, I find myself wondering about these brave women and their place in the celebrations of women’s achievements. My hero is Surraiya Begum, a feminist of sorts who pushed her way to sit uninvited at the decision table and ‘leaned-in.’ The little sixteen-year-old Rani deserves credit as well. She had to go off where her family decided to send her, but she went with henna on her hands, bells on her feet, and flowers in her hair. She went with the expectation of full meals for herself—a rarity in her father’s housein exchange for the hopeful possibility of producing sons for the family she was made a part of. All of them struggle on without support or acknowledgement.