Why I am a Feminist in Pakistan

My name is Bina Shah and I am a writer, essayist, and feminist.
Feminism is really nothing to be afraid of, even though in Pakistan it is a dirty word, a sign that you’re an atheist, a Western agent, a threat to the system. I’m neither an atheist nor a Western agent. But I am a feminist. I am a threat to the system, to the status quo that dictates where women “should be” in our society. I decided a long time ago that the system was rotten, and that feminism was the best way for me to upend that system. In my talk with you I’m going to explain to you why I made that decision and what I think is at stake.

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Dressed to un-impress

A Pakistani designer called Faiza Saqlain has created a collection of Pakistani formal wear, which usually you would wear at an elaborate Pakistani wedding, complete with several days’ festivities, guests arriving from overseas, and tons of money spent on food, decor, and flowers.

The Covid pandemic has put a halt to many of these weddings, although the government has recently allowed outdoor weddings. But who’s going to wear a heavy jora to an outdoor wedding — in June?

Hence, the Faiza Saqlain team got creative and decided to market the clothes with a storyboard on Instagram. The young woman wearing the outfits isn’t at a wedding — she’s an aspiring writer and is getting ready for her first book launch. I totally wear this kind of outfit when I launch a book:

I also totally pose like this with my book in the tony wood-paneled library of a private club when I’m doing my book launch.

It isn’t the outfits that have me scratching my head about this though: it’s the story line. Some young intern has gone totally crazy with writing a story about the (fictional) book launch. The opening few photos have this caption:

A passionate literature graduate with sight set on her book launch, Sakeena was never a conformist. When women were expected to identify primarily as wives or daughters, she was glad she chose a husband who turned out to be the biggest advocate of her writing and dreams.

Since the couple wasn’t adamant on following strict gender roles complied with society’s expectations, Sakeena was just a few weeks short of her first book launch.

http://instagram.com/faizasaqlain

All eyes turn to Sakeena as she makes the grand entrance. Clad in an ethereally elegant choice for the occasion, made after weeks of squabbles with Master Ji, it was finally, absolutely the fit she had always imagined for her book launch.

Sakeena had combined her literary influences and her own lived experiences to write the story of Ismat, through the character she aimed to empower women and expel the deeply rooted patriarchy in society.

http://instagram.com/faizasaqlain

But the story doesn’t end there. The contents of the book, called Ismat (a nod to Ismat Chugtai, perhaps? the storyboard is set in post-Partition Pakistan, when Ismat Chugtai was at her prime), cause Sakeena’s in-laws to gossip, and the gossip inflames Lahore society, and before you know it, Sakeena’s father-in-law’s election dreams are at risk of being destroyed. All because Sakeena wrote one lousy book!

I totally dress like this when I’m writing a novel.
The artful draping of your brocade dupatta on the chair is key to writing a good book.

I think one of the Instagram photos is actually a short movie — a movie! — about how Sakeena’s novel is supposed to be turned into a play, but the gossip is too much, and the play may never happen, but then Sakeena’s husband says he supports his wife, and she’s a rising star in the Urdu literature world. And so the play is produced and everything turns out okay.

All because she wore Faiza Saqlain clothes. Damn, I need to order some of these outfits and maybe then I’ll win the Pulitzer. Because God knows I want all eyes on me and nobody actually reading my book.

We Are Lady Parts

I’m a pop culture buff, but I don’t usually write about television. Recently a television show came along, though, that has made me want to enthuse about it to anyone who will listen. I’m talking about “We Are Lady Parts”, originally aired on Channel 4 in the UK and now on Peacock in the US.

This show is created by British television writer Nida Manzoor, and it’s a six-part comedy musical series that follows the highs and lows of a punk feminist Muslim band in East London.

“Hang on, Bina. Did you say a punk feminist MUSLIM band?”

“Why yes, yes I did.”

“But aren’t all Muslim women oppressed victims who can only breathe if their husbands allow it?”

Yeah. Sure.

The premise: Saira, Ayesha, Bisma and their manager Momtaz are looking for a lead guitarist so they can enter the Sound Smash audition and be catapulted into fame and glory. They’re loud, brash, joyously feminine and proudly Muslim. Saira (Sarah Impey) is a butcher by day, bassist by night, a rebellious daughter who’s left home to pursue her own life. Bisma (Faith Omole), who plays rhythm guitar and performs backing vocals, is a married woman with a young daughter and a devilish screaming voice used to great effect onstage. Ayesha (Juliette Motamed) is the drummer, a British-Iraqi goth with magnificent winged eyeliner and a hunky brother — and a secret. Momtaz (Lucie Shorthouse) wears a full niqab behind which she smokes various substances with flair.

Enter Amina (Anjana Vasan), a nerdy PhD microbiology student at Queen Mary University who only teaches guitar because performing induces “nausea and vomiting.” The girls rope her into auditioning, using Ayesha’s handsome brother as a lure. Meanwhile, Amina rolls with a gang of the most judgmental Muslim women you could ever hope to see in Walthamstowe. Therefore she must keep her band life a secret — even though her parents are totally supportive of her musical endeavours.

With hysterically funny original songs written by Manzoor and her siblings, the show aims to take every stereotype of Muslim women and turn them inside out, let alone upside down. Subversive doesn’t even begin to cover it, with songs like “Ain’t No One Gonna Honor Kill My Sister But Me” and “Voldemort Under My Headscarf”.

I’m gonna kill my sister [Go on then!]
This ain’t about you, it’s between her and me
She stole my eyeliner [What a bitch]
And she’s been stretching my shoes out with her fucking big feet

It’s an honour killing, it’s an honour killing
It’s an honour killing, it’s an honour killing

I’m gonna kill my sister [Die, die, die
Do you wanna kill her, mister? [She’s mine, mine, mine]

I’m gonna kill my sister [Die, die, die
Do you wanna kill her, mister? [She’s mine motherfucker]

The show shows the young women using their voices in every way — singing, growling, screaming, whispering, cheering, laughing. (A scene where Amina performs at a spoken word event as a way of getting over her stage fright had my stomach in knots, so palpable was Amina’s terror). These are not quiet, oppressed, timid Muslim ciphers. They’re loud and proud. They argue, fight, express themselves, enjoy themselves. As Muslim women do in real life.

Visually, the show’s a treat too: each woman has her own unique fashion style, from Amina’s play-it-safe pastel hijabs and conservative casuals, to Saira’s Seattle vibe, to Bisma’s African-style turbans and Ayesha’s goth-meets-abaya chic. Momtaz is a stand-out with her black ensemble, cutoff finger gloves, motorcycle boots and jewelry. These women command attention wherever they go, and why not? They’re striking, colorful, beautiful in their own unique way, not the plastic Barbie doll botoxed-to-heaven husband-attracting perfection that so many Muslim girls are influenced by (Huda Beauty, I wasn’t talking about you, okay?).

Amina’s dilemma is every Muslim girl’s dilemma in today’s world: the pull of career and of individualism vs society and family expectations to keep a low profile and find a nice husband. Manzoor milks this for every ounce of comedy it’s got, but never in a cheesy or tired way. The jokes are fresh, the situations awkward, the spirit is bold. The F-word is thrown around liberally by the punks, while the Muslim Mean Girls are portrayed as so uptight they might actually explode under the weight of their own high standards.

Because the episodes are only 25 minutes long, the energy stays high as the show bounces along; there are only a few dull moments or places where the jokes fall flat. But the acting skills of the leads, notably Anjana Vasan and Sarah Impey, keep you mesmerized the whole time. Saira especially carries an intensity and anger that is particularly compelling to watch.

Funny, irreverent and sincere, We Are Lady Parts is a show to treasure. When I was in college (university for you British people), I played keyboards in a band with a couple of friends, but I was the only Muslim and we were really, really bad. I wish Lady Parts had been around back then; I would have played keyboards with them, and we would have completely rocked it. And then we would’ve gone and said our prayers together.

Saira recites Speak, For Your Lips Are Still Free by Faiz Ahmed Faiz at the spoken word event where Amina has a meltdown

Malala, Marriage, and Media Meltdowns

Malala Yousufzai appeared in British Vogue as its cover star this week, causing a stir. Her traditional look on the cover, and in the photographs accompanying the article, however, contrasted with an answer she gave to the interviewer, a journalist called Sirin Kale, about her thoughts on marriage and partnership.

The interview itself is a slice of life type piece, describing her time at university among an increasingly expanding personal life, and posing the all-too-familiar question for so many young people: what will Malala, arguably the world’s most famous university graduate, do next with her life? (She’s a fan of Among Us, a video game I have played a lot this year as well).

Naturally, Malala is considering a lot of options: should she live in the UK, move back to Pakistan, go to another country? Should she stay with her parents? Live independently? And then, there’s the question of marriage, which is on almost every 23 year old single Pakistani girl’s mind.

The interviewer asks her about relationships, if she met someone at Oxford. Here is where Malala has a bit of a meltdown. She grows embarrassed, mumbles something about hoping to find someone who respects her, and about how handsome Brad Pitt is in person. Then toward the end of the interview comes the crucial remarks: she talks about how all her friends are finding partners, but she isn’t sure if she wants to tread the same path.

She isn’t sure if she’ll ever marry herself. “I still don’t understand why people have to get married. If you want to have a person in your life, why do you have to sign marriage papers, why can’t it just be a partnership?” Her mother – like most mothers – disagrees. “My mum is like,” Malala laughs, “‘Don’t you dare say anything like that! You have to get married, marriage is beautiful.’” Meanwhile, Malala’s father occasionally receives emails from prospective suitors in Pakistan. “The boy says that he has many acres of land and many houses and would love to marry me,” she says, amused.

British Vogue

Well, shit. Pakistani social media alighted upon this quote as if they were kites in the sky who had spotted a particularly tasty scrap of meat. If they were looking for something with which to bludgeon her to death, they found it: in the musings of a young woman who’s still trying to figure things out, things that confound the best and brightest of us, and the stupidest of us. “Should I get married or not, and why does there have to be marriage in the first place” is a question we’ve all asked ourselves, if we’ve got a single ounce of intelligence in our brains. (at 48, I know I ask myself the same question, and up to date neither have I found an appropriate answer nor a suitable candidate. And yet I still hope to get married some day.)

I don’t want to go into the nasty comments, the Z-list actresses who came out with statements against Malala, or the taunts of “un-Islamic” and “Zionist agent” that were showered upon Pakistan’s only Nobel Peace Prize laureate, one of its few Oxford graduates, and possibly the only girl in Pakistan to have been shot in the head and survived. They called her ugly, and that of course she wants a partnership because she’s too ugly to have a husband (in her interview, Malala said that men propose marriage in e-mails to her father all the time). The usual round of accusations and bizarre conspiracy theories — it’s a drama, she wanted a foreign passport, she was chosen by Jewish overlords to become Prime Minister of Pakistan — came out. In short, we’ve been on this rodeo before.

Also useless is to point out to the Pakistanis howling that Malala’s remarks on marriage are unIslamic that the concept of marriage in Islam, while strong and emphasized as part of Sunnah, has been fairly flexible over the centuries. A valid marriage contract written down on paper is not actually required; just a verbal agreement with witnesses will do (if we want to be very literal about it). In its early years, Islam also allowed sexual relationships with women you are not married to, but are “those whom your right hand posesses” — ie female prisoners of war, and concubines (for men only, not for women who own male slaves). A practice of temporary marriage, i.e mutah, was allowed at one point, which would then be dissolved after an agreed-upon amount of time had elapsed.

Some of these practices were established for reasons of practicality, and some of them have been abused rather than treated as the exceptions or temporary situations meant to give rights to children born out of the traditional marriage scenario. Some of these practices have been abolished, or outlawed in the modern nations where Islam is practiced. Many of these practices continue in secret. The evolution of a written marriage contract is a modern invention made in order to safeguard certain legal rights of the participants, as well as to be able to register marriages in records and databases. But there was once a time when nothing more was required for a binding partnership than two people saying in front of two witnesses that they wanted to be together as spouses.

Marriage is in short not the solid brick house that Pakistanis want to build and entrap two people in forever, regardless of their feelings, their needs, wants and desires. It is exactly what Malala expresses a little clumsily in her interview: a partnership with a door that either partner can open to leave any time she or he wants, with good reason. The Quran is clear that spouses are meant to be a comfort to one another, to have affection for one another, and to guard each others’ privacy and secrets. But it forces no one to marry against their will. If Malala is not ready to marry, and if she is never ready to marry, then she is within her rights not to do so.

Most important, she’s a 23 year old who is still trying to figure out things in life. Note that she says, “I still don’t understand why people have to be married.” Obviously, she understands that in Islam, you have to be married if you want to have sexual intercourse in a halal way. Here is a girl who still wears a dupatta on her head, even though she’s been all around the world and met world leaders and won the Nobel Prize. But she’s talking about a bigger idea: that marriage is an institution with plenty of baggage, and the technicalities and legalities can sometimes obscure what is important about the tenderness and understanding and affection that develops between humans.

I expect to hear in the fullness of time that Malala is getting married, once she’s worked some of these questions out in her head and met a man who respects her but also gives her the space she needs to be her own person and do what she came here to Earth to accomplish. Maybe she made a mistake not keeping these musings to herself, maybe she didn’t realize what it would sound like to her enemies and detractors. But to many of us, she’s voicing what we all think in our heads. She’s brave enough to say it out loud — but then bravery is what Malala has always been known for.

Addendum: It does bear asking why Malala evokes such vitriol from some of her compatriots (not all – there is a sizeable portion of Pakistanis who are very proud of her, and APS attack victim Waleed Ziad has said she is a role model for Pakistanis like him).

Basically, what Malala does is trigger Pakistanis because we feel very insecure about our standing in the world. This includes her supporters as well as her detractors. Those of us who support her want to believe in the fairytale because Pakistan has so few of them, and we’re desperate to have something good of our country out in the world. We vicariously feel respect because Malala is respected, and we get triggered when we see people hating on her as violently as they do. 

Those who hate her feel she is actively working to expose our weaknesses to our enemies, but this is projection of their own fears and insecurities about Pakistan’s ability to survive its many challenges and threats. And when we feel bad about ourselves we look around for someone to blame it on, which happens to be Malala because she’s clearly visible and so prominent. We want to cut her down because we think she’s gotten too big and gone too far (in Australia, this is called Tall Poppy Syndrome). 

So Malala is not just a litmus test to weed out jerks, as someone said so cleverly on Twitter the other day, but a psychological sore point through which Pakistanis express their frustrations about how we are perceived in the world and why we haven’t progressed further despite so many people trying so hard to achieve peace, prosperity and a good future for their children. 

Malala on the Cover of Vogue

“I know the power that a young girl carries in her heart when she has a vision and a mission – and I hope that every girl who sees this cover will know that she can change the world.”

Malala Yousufzai has been through a lot, hasn’t she? So to see her on the cover of British Vogue’s June issue did something to my heart. Here’s a young woman who was shot in the face, suffered facial paralysis and damaged muscles as a result (you can see it when she speaks or smiles), wears a dupatta on her head, dresses in Pakistani clothing — and she’s on the cover of Vogue. “Survivor, activist, legend” reads the caption.

Wearing a crimson dupatta draped gracefully over her head and shoulders, a matching crimson kamiz, the background is crimson – the color of blood, the color of love – and with one hand up to her face, right where her facial muscles droop as a result of her injuries. A slight smile, light brown eyes glowing, her skin neither artificially lightened nor fashionably tanned. Thick, untamed eyebrows.

The cover of fucking Vogue, bastion of supermodels, society women, movie stars and pop princesses. And there she is, a Pakistani woman, coming into her own. Most people consider it an honor to be on the cover of Vogue. In the case of Malala, Vogue is honored by her being on its cover.

She is, quite simply, herself. And that is the only accolade she needs.

The Antisemitic Charge

Very glad to have written a brief op-ed for the Dawn about Shah Mehmood Qureshi’s CNN interview. In it I also consider the larger question of what constitutes antisemitism, and what Pakistanis should do when they want to talk about Palestine (hint: not use antisemitic tropes).

Dawn has placed it on the Web site as its top Must-Read article for the day, for which I’m very grateful. Meanwhile, on Twitter, I’ve been called various things, including “fool”, “paid propagandist” and someone who has little knowledge of international relations. I’m quite proud of that too, because it means I made people think.

I’d been on a hiatus from writing columns as I finished up my latest novel, but with the first draft done, I hope to get back to more op-ed writing now.

Dr. Faridoon Setna: OB-GYN and champion of women’s empowerment

Today on Mother’s Day we pay tribute to Dr. Faridoon Setna, the renowned Pakistani obstetrician and gynecologist who, through his work at Lady Dufferin Hospital in Kharadar, and as the director of the Concept Fertility Center, helped so many women become mothers through affordable IVF.

Picture taken from Dawn’s obituary of Dr. Setna

Dr. Setna passed away yesterday in Karachi after a brief illness. He was in his 80s, but up until his death remained an easily recognizable figure, with his gentle manner, amiable smile, and the constant companionship of his wife Dinar.

Dr. Setna returned to Pakistan in 1966, after his training in the UK. “I had to survive on a salary of Rs. 600 a month for six years. It was unacceptable as a young male gynecologist,” he related in an interview with Hello Pakistan.

He was known for being the gynecologist of Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who was pregnant with her first child while she held office. Bhutto later tasked Setna, along with Dr. Sadiqa Jaffery and senior midwife Imtiaz Kamal, with reducing the high level of maternal mortality in Pakistan. They headed the National Committee for Maternal and Neonatal Health, which still operates today.

Benazir Bhutto’s daughter Bakhtawar pays tribute to Dr. Setna

Over his fifty year career, Dr. Setna was a staunch supporter of midwives, or dais, as they are known in South Asia. He introduced cervical cancer inoculations for young women. He revamped the Lady Dufferin Hospital which was in one of the most ramshackle parts of town. He helped rich and poor alike to become parents through his specialization in high risk pregnancies and complex infertility cases.

Dr. Setna believed that infertility was “a hidden disease” in Pakistan. However, the burden of that disease has always been disproprotionately shouldered by women, who are usually blamed when a couple fails to conceive a child. Dr. Setna said that 30% of infertility was caused by male infertility, and always urged both men and women to get tested.

He played a large part in reducing the stigma that Pakistani men feel about infertility testing, by treating it as a medical problem, not a judgment on a man’s virility. Perhaps because he was a male doctor himself, men felt more comfortable admitting to such problems, and were more willing to undergo fertility tests.

When Dr. Setna retired, he left his practice in the capable hands of his son, Dr. Zeryab Setna, but continued to consult at the Concept Fertility Center for many years. We will miss this national icon, health pioneer, and champion of women’s empowerment. I think the government should award him the Sitara e Imtiaz, if it hasn’t already (and if it has, please let me know in the comments).

Thank you, Dr. Setna, for all that you did, for mothers and fathers and children in Pakistan.

How to Play the Aurat Card

Have you, as a woman, ever been accused of playing the Aurat Card (the gender card, the woman card) when arguing with your fellow Neanderthals about the issue of women’s rights/empowerment in Pakistan? Well now, you can actually play the Aurat Card, literally, thanks to the team at The CosmosocialPK.

The CosmoSocial is a digital magazine that was founded over a year ago by a group of young Pakistani women. Their aim is to “generate honest dialogue around equality, diversity, destigmatization and empowerment of marginalized communities in society, supplemented with a dash of entertainment.” You can find them on the Web here and on Instagram too.

They’ve produced a beautiful set of playing cards featuring 52 incredible Pakistani women, each illustrated beautifully by 17 year old trainee graphic designer Hiba Asad.

Each card has a little story about the woman’s “unique journey”, so the pack isn’t just entertaining but educational too. It’s meant as an ode to the women of the country who have “smashed the glass ceiling in every sense of the way.”

I ordered several packs to give to friends, but of course I’m keeping one for myself. I’m so heartened to see people that I know personally, and others by reputation, represented in the cards. From all backgrounds, ethniticies, fields, famous women and some whose work isn’t well known outside their field (but should be), the pack makes a great present for a girl or teenager who needs to see what Pakistani women can accomplish.

It’s an imaginative way to celebrate the women of Pakistan, and one that’s sure to give the misogynists in our society many hours of heartburn. Will we see a similar pack of “Mard Cards” coming our way soon?

Each pack is priced at Rs. 900 and can be ordered from the Cosmosocial’s Instagram page or by writing to hello at thecosmosocial dot com. Disclaimer: I received one set free as a gift from the Cosmosocial team, but not in return for this blog post.

Harry, Meghan, Oprah and the Repetition of History

The Meghan-Harry-Oprah interview is being touted as a slam against the monarchy. No. It’s a well-aimed assault at the British media, particularly the tabloids — which are merciless, evil and lacking in any sort of compassion.

This is not Meghan’s show alone. This is also Harry’s trauma about how the tabloids hounded his mother Princess Diana to death, and his attempt to do something about it, twenty-odd years after the fact. It’s almost as if he subconsciously or consciously chose the woman who would be most provocative to the tabloids (biracial! American! divorced! older!) and married her to say, you can’t win, I still have more power than you do.

And then, when history repeats itself, with Meghan’s depression and suicidal thinking (Remember, the isolation Diana faced caused her to become bulimic and attempt suicide at least once), Harry goes into crisis, triggered into reliving the past that was his mother’s nightmare. Instead of being able to help his wife, he freezes, and then activates fight or flight mode. This is an old struggle.

Let’s not forget that Princess Diana loved a Pakistani surgeon, Hasnat Khan, but was prevented from marrying him by The Firm and the power of public censure. The racism was apparent from the days when she was with Dodi Fayed, and the conjecture that she was pregnant with a Muslim man’s child who might be half brother to the future King of England. What part of history is repeating itself here, with Archie’s skin color being debated by family members?

The monarchy, as ever, are hapless pawns caught in amber between tradition, the expectations of the British public, and the hideous greed and calumny of the tabloids. They are who they are – antiquated, dysfunctional, dutiful but unloving. Love them, be a hostage to them, acquire Stockholm Syndrome and be assimilated — or leave them. There is no other option. They’re neither intelligent nor emotionally aware. To expect that from them is to misunderstand who and what they are.

Meghan and Harry went to the only person possibly more powerful in the media than the British tabloids – Oprah. They want their privacy, but they want to take down the British media equally as strongly. It is entirely possible to want two opposite things. Human beings are contradictory like that, and driven by unconscious forces that sometimes they don’t even understand. So much to examine and think about here.

Let’s also look at he fact that the Royal Family is racist and obsessed with skin color. This can only be a surprise to (mostly white) Americans, not the countless millions of people in Africa, South Asia and the Far East that experienced their colonialism and imperialism and its after-effects first hand. African-Americans may have had their suspicions about how Meghan would have been received in this non-progressive family, but there was too much enthusiasm about a black woman conquering Buckingham Palace for the warnings to be heard clearly.

Perhaps there’s another reason for the naivete besides the fact that Americans don’t know the history of the British Empire very well. It’s largely Americans to whom Britain has sold this entire monarchy fairytale (including the tragic dead Princess Di) so that American tourists (of any color) will come to the UK and spend their dollars. The UK depends on the Royal Family’s soft power abroad to rake in the cash, since they don’t have much hard power left. Americans, who always love a Disney tale, have fallen for it since the wedding of Charles and Diana.

It’s not often we get to observe a Greek tragedy unfolding in front of us. Let’s just hope everyone calms down and nobody ends up dead.

The famous Bollywood movie “Sometimes Happiness, Sometimes Sadness” applied to the Windsors. Camilla and Charles obviously too unglamorous to be included.

Bina Shah on The Common Podcast

The Common, Amherst-based literary magazine edited by Jennifer Acker, published a short story of mine last year called “Weeds and Flowers”. It’s the story of two young Afghan girls growing up on the streets of Karachi.

I had the opportunity to speak to managing editor Emily Everett for the Common’s podcast “A Sense of Place” about the story, living and writing in Karachi, and a few other interesting matters.

You can listen here or find the podcast, with more episodes, on Apple iTunes and Spotify.