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.
First, let’s understand what a feminist is and is not.
A feminist is not: a man-hater. There are wonderful men in my family and I love them very much. I have equal amounts of male and female friends. I have had male professors, male bosses, male mentors, male colleagues and peers.
While I respect and admire many men, I do not think that any of them are superior to me because they are men and I do not think I am inferior to them because I am a woman. I am the spiritual, moral, and intellectual equal of a man. I may not be the physical equal to Arnold Schwarzenegger, but I’m a lot physically stronger than quite a few men I know.
Feminism isn’t really about physique. It is not about superiority or inferiority. Feminism is about equality between women and men in the eyes of the law, the government, the state, and society.
You are a feminist if you believe that women should have equal political, economic, cultural, personal, and social rights, and you want equal education and employment opportunities for women and men. You believe that a woman’s work and time is as valuable as a man’s, and that if a woman does the same work as a man, she should be paid the same amount.
A feminist does not want women to rule the world and men to be inferior to them. But she wants women to have their equal place at the table whether that is the boardroom, or the parliament, or in making decisions for the family. She wants to be the person who has say over her own life and her own body.
A feminist does not want revenge for all the historical injustices that have been visited upon women. But she does want the injustices to be replaced by justice. Feminism is an inclusive movement: people should be included in all areas of life, not excluded from them, or from public spaces, or any opportunities, just because of their gender.
A feminist may not be an atheist, (although there are feminists who identify as atheist) or a Western agent, but she is a threat to the system. This is because she wants to change the system. She recognizes the system is corrupt and unjust and she dedicates her life to making people aware of this, and how it needs to change. I have taken this on as my mission in my writing, which is why I write so much about women’s rights and the injustices that take place in our society. Not because I hate Pakistan or because I want to expose it, but because I love it and I want things to change for women here. And most importantly, because I believe that it can.
Let’s talk about what a feminist is:
A feminist is someone who wants equal rights for women. Equal. Rights. For Women. Under the law. Treated in society fairly and justly.
The reason feminists emphasize equal rights for women is because right now there is huge imbalance in the world. Women’s rights will bring the world into balance.
Believe it or not, men can be feminists too. Men have benefited from male privilege for centuries. But there are many men who recognize that the system which perpetuates male privilege, that is patriarchy, is as harmful to them and their children as it is to women. It is the system that dictates the roles for men as well as for women. It is the system that sends men off to fight and die in useless wars when he wants peace instead, because patriarchy dictates that men should be soldiers and fight and die and kill for their country. It is the system that forces a man to protect his honor and kill his sister. It is the system that makes men bomb girls’ schools and stop them from going to school.
A feminist wants discrimination against women or anyone because of their gender, to end.
A feminist wants these equal rights to be recognized by law and to be applied in all areas of society. The home. The office. Schools. Workplaces. All countries. The world.
The biggest objection I always hear in Pakistan when we talk about feminism is this one: We don’t need feminism because Islam gives women their rights.
I want you to take a look at the country we live in. Look around you. Islam may give us women our rights in theory, but in practice, are we “getting” our rights? We are being prevented from exercising our rights.
Examples: Just in the last elections women were not permitted to vote in Upper Dir. The men decided they were not allowed to vote because of tradition, so the women could not exercise their right “given” to them in the Constitution to vote.
Women and girls are pressured into forced marriages. This prevents them from exercising their Islamic right to choose their spouses.
Regardless of what Islam promises or guarantees us, the reality is that we get some allowances only when the men around us decide we can have them. If your father allows you to go to school. If your brother doesn’t object for you to go to work. If your uncle doesn’t mind that you are teaching. If your tribe or village elders or jirga allow you to vote. If the government enforces your safety when you are walking down the street, rather than saying that only prostitutes are out on the street and good women stay at home.
Is this Islam giving us our rights, or is this men deciding what rights we can have
Feminism is the mechanism by which we claim our rights.
We do not wait for a man to grant them to us. We do not sit comfortably in the knowledge that Islam gave us our rights. Islam may give us the moral certainty to go out and fight for our rights. But we still have to fight for them. We have to fight for our rights in ways that men don’t even have to think about. Is it even a question that a man will go to school or get a job? That he can keep the money he earns? That he can vote? That he doesn’t have to prove his morality to anyone?
Feminists have historically agitated for women’s rights. Sometimes they have done it in street protest. Other times they have done it through negotiation or advocacy with government figures, politicians, and world leaders. They work with women in grassroots organizations, going to women who work in the rural areas, in the factories, the villages, the streets.
Note that feminism is not a violent movement. Nobody has ever been killed by a feminist. But it is a strong movement and it sees women as strong and capable human beings, rather than as delicate dolls, or vessels of honor, or precious jewels that need protecting from nasty men.
Let me say that I was aware of feminism before I had even heard the word. And that my mother was the first feminist I ever knew. She told me that I had to get my education and my training so that I could stand on my own two feet if I had to.
Our society, which gives a lot of lip service to respect for women, has a very one-dimensional view of what that respect means. It boils down to the fantasy that women will always be protected by men in their lives.
But reality is vastly different from our idealized imaginings. So many Pakistani women, from the poorest to the middle class, actually have to bear the financial burdens for their families. Sometimes their male family members fall ill or die. Sometimes they abandon them and their children. Sometimes they are abusive and a woman has to leave and fend for herself and her children. These are all realities in Pakistani society. We act in our society as if it is better for a woman to be a beggar, always dependent on handouts from charity or from better off family members rather than that she should go out and get a job. How does this ensure her dignity?
The other thing is, when a woman can educate herself and take her place in society as an earner, it helps the nation. Economies do better when women participate. Nations are more secure when women can exercise their rights.
The dismantling of society, the undoing of this imbalance where women cannot be full and active members of society takes a lot of the burden off men as well. We know that men suffer from the great stress of the financial burdens of their families, immediate and extended. They suffer from blood pressure and heart disease and stress and depression and a lot of other ailments and illnesses.
By keeping women dependent — not allowing her to drive to work, not allowing her to have her own bank account, not even allowing her to learn to read — women become infantilized, overgrown children that have to be looked after by their husbands, brothers, sons. If men realized that encouraging and empowering women to become fully-functioning members of society would make life better for them, too, I am sure they would think twice about feminism.
There is one really important reason we need feminism in Pakistan, and urgently. This is the issue of violence against women, which is really a plague in all societies. But I belong to Pakistan and so what happens here is my concern, rather than rape statistics in India or the United States. The worldwide figures for violence against women is 1 in 3. Think about that. One in three women anywhere in the world suffers from some sort of violence, whether that is domestic violence, sexual violence, or physical or mental or emotional abuse.
In Pakistan, the number is even higher. According to the Human Rights Watch, between 70 to 90 percent of women in Pakistan suffer some form of violence because of their gender. I don’t want to make you look around the room and wonder which women here has or will suffer from violence simply because she is a woman. But you can do the math yourselves.
We need feminism in order to be able to effectively end violence against women through strong laws that are enforced by our government. It was the work of Pakistani feminists who agitated and worked with parliamentary committees – made up of women in the National and provincial assemblies across all party lines – to enact laws that protected women. For example, the laws that criminalize forced marriages, or watta-satta, or honor killings or vani or sexual harassment in the workplace. We actually have these laws now after decades of Pakistani women being subjected to all these injustices Do you think those laws came about on their own? No, they were enacted because women stood up and said, these are injustices in society and they need to be made legally actionable. This is feminism at work in our country, for the betterment of our women and all our people.
But unfortunately we failed when it came to the Domestic Violence bill. The same women agitated and the same advocacy took place in the halls of parliament. The bill was proposed in the National Assembly in 2009 by Yasmeen Rahman of the PPP. It passed in the National Assembly but it was defeated in the Senate because of objections raised by the religious right, including the Council of Islamic Ideology. Then after the 18th amendment and devolution, the bill went to the provincial assemblies where again it was defeated because of the religious right. The only place it has been passed is in Islamabad.
Think about that: Pakistani women are legally unprotected against domestic violence. This is why we need feminism. This is why I am a feminist. I may be enjoying a good life in a family where I am safe from abuse or violence. But as long as there are women in Pakistan who do not have those same safeties, I cannot consider myself truly liberated or emancipated.
I want to tell you that I would not be a success story without feminism, which helped me to get my education, to get my training, to find my voice. Now, when I write, I write with purpose, in order to educate and inform people about the status of women in this country, and in the world. Feminism has truly made me the journalist and writer that I am today. Imagine how far you could go as a human being if you embraced it too.