Gender in the Time of #MeToo

I was a moderator for two panels at the Karachi Literature Festival this weekend, one of which captured an issue very close to my heart: gender issues. The title of the program (imposed on us by the festival organizers, but always open to interpretation and change) was “Gender in the Time of #MeToo.”

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But as I prepared for the session and communicated with my panelists, I thought about the challenge of presenting such a tricky subject to a Karachi audience, which is usually a mix of progressive, liberal and conservative people of all ages. What would be the best approach?

#MeToo is an important movement, but it’s only been six months, and we needed to understand the context of gender inequality which has existed in Pakistan for decades, if not centuries. I wanted to unpick the origin of this inequality, and analyze it using the strengths of my panelists – an economist, a social innovator, and a trans woman activist.

I had expected we’d have Nafisa Shah, a politician but also a journalist and academic whose focus of studies was on honor killing (Honor Unmasked is a fantastic book, based on her PhD thesis at Oxford), who would be able to address the legal issues that contribute to gender inequality and violence. Unfortunately she couldn’t make it that day, but the other three panelists more than made up for her absence.

The conversation was lively, informative, shocking, and humorous. I was amazed by the response to the panel, frankly. We have so much work to do to achieve gender equality, so many misconceptions to clear up about feminism. But after the panel, I realized that so many are eager and wanting to learn more. Countless women told me that they’d found the panel, and our approach to the problems — the big picture, not the individual movements — interesting and enlightening.

The highlights:

We heard from Haris Gazdar telling us that women agricultural workers carry the bulk of our economy but their contributions are not even recognized as work. And this results in not just marginalization, but actual deficits in maternal and child health care.

Aurelie Salvaire told us that she found more feminists among the lower middle class than the upper class of Pakistan; belying the idea that feminism is a “Western” concept. Her focus was on strategies and tips for raising awareness about gender inequality. She also presented her book, Balance the World, a handbook on gender parity and a guerilla-style movement to get it jump-started.

Kami Sid – a crowd favorite – spoke bravely and openly about being a transgender woman in Pakistan. About how they are the most vulnerable to being raped, beaten and killed. And how much they need our solidarity.

What makes a panel interesting is the clash of perspectives, values, interests, and outlooks. Haris was very academic, but as the only man on the panel, he offered a perspective on the burden that patriarchy places on men that the audience truly needed to hear. Aurelie’s approach was very much based in the third and fourth waves of feminism, sometimes a little confrontational. Kami spoke with passion and emotion about her experiences as a trans woman in Pakistan, which many people have never actually heard about before. I could feel my heart beating fast every time someone made a statement that crossed the comfort zone and challenged the audience.

The conclusion of our talk: we need sound policy, legal protection, we need to end the economic exploitation of women’s labor, and we need to implement laws that protect human rights. We need political positions and platforms. We need to recognize the burden patriarchy puts on everyone, including men. And then we’ll be able to move away from violence and towards justice, and balance, in Pakistan and beyond.

But it’s always the questions and responses from the audience that tells me whether or not we’ve hit home when we speak about important issues. And I wasn’t disappointed: in the Q&A session, an original founding member of the Women’s Action Forum told us about their stance as a secular group that had fought Zia’s Islamist regime in the 80s – and we gave her an ovation for her and her compatriots’ work fighting discrimination in the 80s & making space for Pakistani feminists today.

A young woman was confused whether feminism sought to erase differences between men and women. “Women can’t go topless, men can’t have maternity leave,” she said. “So what is feminism trying to accomplish? “No,” answered Aurelie, “men and women are not identical, but they should be treated equally by the law, equal opportunities, equal pay. And why can’t men have paternity leave? It makes them better fathers and helps the children.” (In my heart I was thinking about women who are going topless in Europe and North America as a matter of protest or even just comfort on the beaches, but the young woman, who wore a scarf on her head, may not have liked to hear that).


After the session, another young woman was overheard saying, “I’m so much clearer now on gender equality – and I’m so proud to call myself a feminist!” The next day, two men from Gwadar, Balochistan, stopped me to tell me they’d attended the panel and had learned a lot about gender. All in all, I’m delighted at the responsiveness of the audience, the willingness of everyone to listen, even if they didn’t agree, and to consider changing their minds. This is the most gratifying part of my job.

The next day, the panel was still on my mind when I learned of the sudden death of Asma Jehangir, Pakistan’s human rights champion and a staunch supporter of women’s rights. I’d first heard of her in the 90s, when Samia Sarwar was shot dead by her own uncle in Jehangir’s chambers. It was the first time I learned what honor killing was, how terrible the grip of patriarchy on our country that people would rather kill their own daughters than let them live their own lives.

Who will take her place? was the question on everyone’s lips. Nobody could replace her, with her courage, her steadfastedness, her lioness’s heart. But we will have to pick up where she left off, and take it forward. As the playwright Samuel Beckett wrote in The Unnameable, “You must go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”

By talking about gender, by agitating for equality, by refusing to accept patriarchy, by making girls aware of their rights, we’ll go on.

Asma Jehangir 1952-2018

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