Talking Pakistani Feminism

Last night I was part of a fascinating discussion on Twitter Spaces hosted by VOA journalist Nazrana Yusufzai (@nazranayusufzai on Twitter). The title was “Our Culture” and it provided an umbrella for about 70 guests to listen to 8-10 speakers talk freeform for about four hours on many topics, including Pakistani culture, women’s rights, feminism, raising children, and more.

I’m finding that Twitter Spaces is fast developing into an excellent forum for free and open discussion — as long as the moderator is good, and Nazrana is one of the best. Asma Ali Zain (UAE-based journalist for Gulf News, @asmaalizain on Twitter) is another great moderator, and her Spaces are usually popular as well. The women-led forums are relaxed, witty and entertaining, and inclusive. Women and men discuss many topics, and unlike tweets that can get abusive fast, the conversational tone remains respectful and polite. This is because of the power of the moderator’s block button, and of being able to rescind the mic from anyone who gets rude or argumentative or abusive fast.

It’s a pleasure to listen to Pakistani women in Pakistan and in the diaspora talk about culture, feminism, family life, single life, traditions, travel, immigration and life abroad through the lens of academics, professional expertise, and personal experience. Everyone is so articulate, and even the shy ones find their voice and express themselves beautifully. This is how Twitter used to be before the trolls got there.

Last night’s discussion was prompted by model Sadaf Kanwal’s recent television interview in which she said “Our culture is husband” and several other anti-feminist statements. A discussion about her motivations for doing so resulted, with several interesting conclusions: she wants to repair her image as a good Pakistani wife after having gotten involved with her now-husband before he had divorced his previous wife; she’s playing to the anti-feminist crowd; she’s trying to up her popularity, etc. etc. A few days later her husband Shahroze Subzwari (an actor?) appeared on another talk show to speak about feminism, so the anti-feminist backlash will continue, I suppose.

For me the highlight was listening to Syeda Nayab Bukhari (@sbukhari11), a post-doc research at McGill with a truly impressive PhD in women’s studies, give us a breakdown of feminism and the different strains of feminism that exist, including Islamic feminism and development feminism. Islamic feminism is basically Muslim women interpreting Quran and Hadith through a woman’s viewpoint, and highlighting the aspects of Islam that are pro-women and which have been either deliberately misrepresented or ignored by male scholars. This movement, which has been happening since the late 1980s, does away with the hegemony that men have over religious texts and teachings, and brings out the spirit of gender equality that Islam possesses.

She also spoke about development feminism, which I have been reading about in Rafia Zakaria’s excellent new book Against White Feminism. It originated in India also in the 1980s:

In its original iterations, empowerment was understood as something notably different from its relative meaninglessness today. In the early 1980s, an Indian feminist named Gita Sen and a group of feminist researchers, activists, and political leaders from the global south got together to form DAWN (Development Alternatives with Women in a New era). Based in Bangalore, India, this collective sought to push forward women’s voices from the global south. Then and now, the terms of “international development,” or aid disbursements to postcolonial nations, were predominantly dictated by the global north to the global south—and included imposing the goals of white, Western feminists upon women who were neither white nor Western and did not necessarily share their concerns…

Sen was not arguing for doing away with equality as a feminist goal altogether as much as noting how the agenda of feminism, internationally and particularly within aid and development, was being set by what appealed to white and middle-class women in the United States and Europe. So she and the DAWN feminists conceived the “empowerment approach,” guided by the understanding that the existing white-led, top-down paradigms of development had not delivered any real change in the condition of women in the global south. Instead, they argued for a bottom-up approach, that grassroots organizations could be the actual “catalysts of women’s visions and perspectives” and spearhead the structural changes that were necessary within societies. At the center of DAWN’s vision of empowerment was “political mobilization” supported by education, and the promotion of development “free of all forms of oppression based on sex, class, race or nationality.”

Against White Feminism, Rafia Zakaria

At any rate, if you want a worthwhile and balanced discussion on feminism led by Pakistani women, I recommend some of these Twitter Spaces, and I also recommend the excellent Web series “Aurat Card” available on YouTube. This is Pakistan’s “first all-women news channel, where four women with opinions speak on matters ranging from politics, sports, culture, law, feminism, and more. The discussants are Reema Omar, Mehmal Sarfraz, Natasha Zai and Benazir Shah; their twitter is @auratcard.

Do NOT go to Pakistani talk shows for feminism awareness. I really feel that there’s a concerted media campaign against feminism, painting it as a foreign/Western agenda to bring LBGTQ and “women walking naked” to Pakistan. Most stupid people will fall for it, but why should you?