Nothing’s Wrong With Pakistani Feminists

Is there something wrong with Pakistani feminists? Yes, according to the author of this piece in the Daily Times. He’s an acquaintance whose enthusiasm for women’s rights I do recognise, but here he calls Pakistan’s feminists “so-called” and that they give feminism everywhere a “bad name”. And yet he’s got it terribly, terribly wrong on so many counts that I felt I had to write a rejoinder. 

TL;DR (this means if it was Too Long and you Didn’t Read), the author asserts that Pakistan’s feminists have managed to achieve nothing of substance in the last 30 years. He says that women are each others’ worst enemies in the push for women’s rights, and that men have been pivotal to any success seen by the women’s movement in Pakistan; he uses the example of white men being central to the abolition of slavery and by extension, the civil rights movement in the United States as grounds for comparison to any similar triumphs women have made or ever will make in Pakistani history – in other words, that it won’t happen until and unless men step in and take the lead.

Furthermore, he calls the new generation of Pakistani feminists “incapable of reading critically or understanding the diversity of the feminist movement worldwide”. The unequal status of women in Pakistan, he argues, is a “cash cow for milking”, and this is why Pakistani feminists have been unable and unwilling to actually enact change.

On his original blog post, I commented that Pakistan’s feminists have united on many fronts and worked hard to enact legislation that is pro-women: the Honor Killing Bill, the Sexual Harassment Bill, the Domestic Violence Bill, the Acid Attack Bill, to name a few in recent times. Historically, the seminal group WAF (Women’s Action Forum) has been instrumental in women’s advocacy, and so has WAR (Women Against Rape) for the last 40 years, especially during the Zia times. Concerted agitation against the Hudood Ordinances has led to their becoming largely defunct, although no leader has been brave enough to actually try to get them repealed. 

Here’s what the Women’s Action Forum has been doing for the last thirty years:

(WAF is) A women’s rights organization and has a presence in several cities in Pakistan. It is a non-partisan, non-hierarchical and non-funded organization. It is supportive of all aspects of women’s rights and related issues, irrespective of political affiliations, belief system, or ethnicity. Women’s Action Forum came into being in Karachi in September 1981. The following year, the Lahore and then the Islamabad Chapters were formed. Some years later, the Peshawar chapter came into being. And in May 2008, a Chapter of WAF started in Hyderabad, in the Province of Sindh. WAF does active lobbying, advocacy on behalf of women in Pakistan. It stages demonstrations and public-awareness campaigns. It is committed to a just and peaceful society based on democracy. The issues picked up by WAF have included challenging discriminatory legislation against women, the invisibility of women in government plans and policies, the exclusion of women from media, sports and cultural activities, dress codes for women, violence against women and the seclusion of women. WAF’s activism has led to the birth of many women’s rights groups and resource centres thereby increasing its outreach. WAF considers all issues as “women’s issues” and has taken positions on national and global developments. It allies itself with democratic and progressive forces in the country as well as linking its struggle with that of minorities and other oppressed peoples. (From Wikipedia; click on the link to find out more about its impressive history)

The author replied to me that the Hudood Ordinance is not defunct, and that only the Sexual Harassment act was signifying of real progress; that too because it was supported by men such as Makhdoom Ali Khan and Javed Ahmed Ghamidi, and pushed through by General Pervez Musharraf when he was in power.   The women’s groups I mentioned had nothing to do with it, he said.

Well, here’s proof that the author is wrong: this article by Dawn’s Naziha Syed Ali outlines exactly what Pakistani women activists and legislators “(not least those belonging to the women’s parliamentary caucus) have been doing to convince the parliament to enact hugely important pro-women legislation,” as Syed said an email to me. She notes that all the bills, incidentally, were tabled by women legislators. It is an excellent roundup of what has been achieved so far, what still remains to be achieved (the Domestic Violence bill, for example, still needs to be passed) and the hideous, regressive attitudes that male lawmakers still hold towards women’s rights.

I simply cannot understand how anyone calling themselves a supporter of women’s rights can overlook the pressure that women’s groups such as WAF and WAR and other advocacy groups exert upon policymakers. Pioneering journalists such as Zubeida Mustafa, Beena Sarwar, Sherry Rehman, to name our best, are also feminists who changed public opinion in favor of women’s rights. And excellent work has been done by the National Commission for the Status of Women, led until recently by the feminist Anis Haroon, in terms of recommending changes in policy and law with regards to women’s rights.

It’s true that men have to be 100% committed to the battle for gender equality for us to see any progress.     What’s even more true is that patriarchy and inequality is so deeply embedded in our society that the women’s rights movement has active opponents – in the religious front which joins forces with the conservative elements of political society – that do their best to push back against any kind of progress made in the name of gender equality. That “lack of progress” the author writes about in his piece is  based in reality, but the causation is mistakenly described as women attacking one another and their male supporters, when it is actually caused by men who do not want to see any change that threatens their stranglehold over one-half of the entire population of Pakistan.

There is nothing wrong with Pakistan’s feminists; they’re doing remarkably well in the face of so many decades of blatant opposition. For argument’s sake, I could have appreciated a more detailed analysis of all these groups and consortiums, with an evaluation of both their triumphs and failures. But this one-sided post feels much more like an opinion piece than an unbiased examination of the women’s movement in Pakistan. Perhaps someone has doubted the author’s feminist credentials and he is reacting to that accusation, but that’s no reason to discredit Pakistani feminists as a whole, who have sacrificed so much in their fight for women’s rights. 

That a Pakistani man sees fit to attack Pakistani feminism as a whole is a disappointment, but it is not very much of a surprise.

Reserved Seats for Women in Pakistan’s Parliament

So according to this news report in the Express Tribune, Imran Khan has announced that he opposes the way women in Pakistan enter the National Assembly on reserved seats. At a seminar called “Justice for Women” hosted by the PTI, Khan said that women should not be “nominated from a list” for those seats, but should “contest direct elections” the way the rest of the seats are contested for in the Assembly.

Currently, there are seventy (70) seats in Pakistan’s National Assembly reserved for women (60) and for minority members (10) of Parliament. A woman or a religious minority can fight an election for any other seat, but these seats are exclusively for them. These seats are allocated to political parties based on proportional representation, meaning that the largest party gets the largest number of seats, and so on.

So you don’t have to be elected to hold one of these seats; you get one of them assigned to you after your party holds an election to select you for the seat.  Imran Khan says he wants to do away with this indirect system and make the women fight for those reserved seats directly like everyone else has to do in the general Assembly seats. This is the way forward to a more democratic system, says Khan.

Another criticism of this system is that the women in these seats (it is claimed) don’t actually do anything useful in Parliament; they are “placeholders” for their husbands and cannot act on their own.

Let’s deal with the first issue first: that women should fight directly for these elections, not be elected within their parties and then be nominated for the seats. Imran Khan says, “How can some women be representative of women when they haven’t even contested elections? In some areas it is not possible for women to contest elections.” 

Okay, Mr. Khan. If this is true, that in some areas it is not possible for women to contest elections in general, why are you are insisting that they should contest direct elections for reserved seats?  I find this to be a highly impractical, if not downright contradictory, stance. There will be a complete failure to find enough women to contest all these elections throughout the country, especially in the more conservative areas of Pakistan. There is even the danger that these seats may eventually be taken off the reserved list if there aren’t enough women willing to fight direct elections, and go back to men.

Imran Khan also says, “Political parties should hold elections within their ranks and promote women into higher leadership positions.”

You mean, like when women are elected by the political parties and then nominated for reserved seats in the National Assembly?

I quote the wise Marvi Sirmed on the issue of women directly contesting elections.

The matter of contesting direct elections has so many other factors involved, that do not favour women’s participation. Also, contrary to general perception, not all of the women in legislatures come from elite / feudal classes. There are so many women who have come forward from rank and files of parties. And there are many more who are ready for next elections. We have parliamentarians who have been part of women movement in Pakistan. Do you think they would be able to contest elections if snatched [from] these seats? 

Also, not many parties are going to give tickets to women from winnable seats. That’s why we raised the issue before the election commission that at least 20% tickets should be given to women candidates. The Election Commission agreed to make it 10% tickets and include it in the Political Representation Act that governs political parties. But political parties (the right wing parties, Q-League, PTI, PMLN, JUI-F etc) did not even agree to 10%. 

The problem, Mr. Khan, is that women in Pakistan are nowhere near achieving the equal status that is required for being able to participate in large numbers in direct elections, even for reserved seats. As you yourself have acknowledged, our society and customs discourage women from appearing in public, from campaigning, from going door to door and meeting their voters. They can’t imagine doing this for all the general seats of the Assembly; they can’t even imagine being able to do this for the 60 reserved seats for women.

The reserved seats system may have become a way for women to be inserted into the political scenario as “placeholders” as people so cynically put it. But I’d like to argue a different angle: that the reserved seat system, though it seems to go against democratic principles, serves as a way of getting women in greater numbers into the Assembly FULL STOP. This type of affirmative action for women in itself is empowering and visionary, and a great example for all the people of Pakistan. To do away with this system at the moment would be setting women back many, many decades.

When we have reached much closer to our goal of equality for women in Pakistan, equal rights as citizens, with justice and concern and empathy for our struggles and our obstacles, then perhaps we will be ready to take the step of having women contest directly for those reserved seats. That day is many years away. I would say it is still several generations away.

Marvi Sirmed says that it’s time to instead start thinking about the second generation of affirmative action in Pakistan’s parliaments, and the modalities of how to achieve this. “The world has evolved many modalities, e.g. direct elections on reserved seats while expanding constituencies for women candidates”.

It’s certainly reasonable to place greater scrutiny on the women in the reserved seats, to ensure that they are actually serving as they are meant to, and not just enjoying perks or furthering the individual needs of their family members. But that is not a problem limited to women in reserved seats; in fact, it’s a problem that all Assembly members and ministers and army chiefs and elected officials and bureaucrats have contributed to for the last sixty-odd years of Pakistan’s existence.

But above all, we must protect the tradition of reserved seats for women, and never, ever eliminate it: this will drive us back to pre-1973 conditions (1973 is the year they were created), according to Marvi Sirmed. She says,

It is such a shame that even ‘educated’ people are discussing whether reserved seats should be there or not. That points to a serious lack of knowledge and insight into why women of Pakistan have been striving for these seats for decades. The fact that farmer and peasant women are not represented in parliament should not be used as pretext to scrap these seats. We don’t have farmer and peasant men also, so should we scrap men’s seats too? That the nominations are given to the influential women is also a myth.

Hands off our reserved seats! We have fought long and hard for them, and we will not give them up easily. It’s very easy to destroy systems, Mr. Khan, but it is very difficult to build them – and you should know better than to attempt this particular “reform” in the name of your election campaign.

Here is a list I found on Wikipedia (updated on December 12) that breaks down the reserved seats and who is holding them at the moment, by province:

Khyber Pukhtunkhwa (8)

  1. Ms. Bushra Gohar ANP
  2. Ms. Jamila Gallani ANP
  3. Ms. Khurshid Begum Saeed ANP
  4. Ms. Asma Arbab Alamgir PPPP
  5. Malik Mehrunnisa Afridi Advocate PPPP
  6. Mrs. Farhat Khan PPPP
  7. Dr. Imtiaz Sultan Bukhari PML(N)
  8. Mrs. Farzana Mushtaq Ghani PML
  • Fata (0)
  • Federal (0)
  • Punjab (34)
  1. Begum Ishrat Ashraf PML(N)
  2. Ms. Qudsia Arshad PML(N)
  3. Ms. Tahira Aurangzeb PML(N)
  4. Begum Nuzhat Sadiq PML(N)
  5. Ms. Nighat Parveen Mir PML(N)
  6. Ms. Khalida Mansoor PML(N)
  7. Ms. Shahnaz Saleem PML(N)
  8. Ms. Parveen Masood Bhatti PML(N)
  9. Ms. Sabeen Rizvi PML(N)
  10. Ms. Shireen Arshad Khan PML(N)
  11. Ms. Surriya Ashgar PML(N)
  12. Ms. Tasneem Siddiqui PML(N)
  13. Mrs. Nisar Tanveer PML(N)
  14. Ms. Shaheen Ashfaq PML(N)
  15. Mrs. Anusha Rahman Khan Advocate PML(N)
  16. Ms. Rukhsana Bangash PPPP
  17. Ms. Shahnaz Wazir Ali PPPP
  18. Miss. Palwasha Khan PPPP
  19. Mrs. Belum Hasnain PPPP
  20. Ms. Mehreen Anwar Raja Advocate PPPP
  21. Ms. Farzana Raja PPPP
  22. Justice (R) Fakhar-un-Nisa Khokhar PPPP
  23. Miss. Fouzia Habib PPPP
  24. Mrs. Shakeela Khanam Rashid PPPP
  25. Mrs. Yasmeen Rehman PPPP
  26. Ms. Samina Mushtaq Pagganwala PPPP
  27. Begum Nasim Akhtar Chaudhry PPPP
  28. Ms. Nosheen Saeed PML
  29. Ms. Kashmala Tariq PML
  30. Begum Shahnaz Sheikh PML
  31. Dr. Donya Aziz PML
  32. Mrs. Attiya Inayatullah PML
  33. Ms. Bushra Rahman PML
  34. Mrs Tanzila Aamir Cheema PML
  • Sindh (14)
  1. Mrs. Surraiya Jatoi PPPP
  2. Mrs. Farah Naz Ispahani PPPP
  3. Dr. Mahreen Razaque Bhutto PPPP
  4. Ms. Fauzia Wahab PPPP
  5. Ms. Rubina Saadat Qaim Khani PPPP
  6. Dr. Nafisa Shah PPPP
  7. Miss. Shagufta Jumani PPPP
  8. Dr. Nahid Shahid Ali MQM
  9. Ms. Kishwer Zehra MQM
  10. Mrs. Fouzia Ejaz Khan MQM
  11. Mrs. Imrana Saeed Jamil MQM
  12. Mrs. Shagufta Sadiq MQM
  13. Ms. Fiza Junejo PML
  14. Ms. Reena Kumari PML(F)
  • Balochestan (3)
  1. Mrs. Zubaida Jalal PML
  2. Dr. Zil-e-Huma PPPP
  3. Mrs. Asiya Nasir MMAP

Is Music Haraam in Islam?

The other day a friend told me of someone who tried to convince her that music is Haraam, or forbidden in Islam. There are many people like that in Pakistan, who have listened to Wahaabi or Salafi thinking on the subject and have exchanged their own ability to think for themselves for the extremist ideology of a nation that has done much to erase every pleasure and source of relief to all human beings on the planet.

What a pity that person, a medical professional, was unaware that music was used by great Muslim medical scientists to promote healing in the body and mind. According to Kamran Pasha, a Los Angeles-based filmmaker and writer, and also a practicing Muslim, who posted this article on Facebook about Music Therapy in Islam, “Whenever you hear a foolish Muslim tell you that music is haraam (forbidden), you should let them know that historically Muslims were the leaders in music therapy and considered music as a divinely blessed means of using sound and vibration to promote health and psychological balance.”

In the article, we are told how Turkish doctors have revived the ancient Islamic science of playing music to ailing patients in hospitals in Turkey. There is a scientific explanation of the different types of Arabic scales and what effect the early Muslim scientists felt each had on the body. No less than the great Muslim thinker Ibn Sina appreciated and used music for its beneficial properties. Just reading this piece opens your mind to the endless possibilities and blessings that music holds for us – surely something our Creator intended us to enjoy but also to use for the good of humanity.

Pasha goes on to share with us a modern Muslim scholar’s analysis of music in Islamic science and medicine, and says “The fanatics who speak out against music are out of touch with Islam’s great historical and scientific legacy.”

In this article, the PhD and scholar Ibrahim B. Syed says, “Currently there is an aversion to music by some of the Ulema (religious scholars) in the Islamic world. This paper analyzes the Islamic perspective on music and singing. It concludes that utilization of music as a therapeutic agent in Medicine is not haram or forbidden.” 

Syed goes on to say:

[Medical and scientific journals contain] dramatic accounts of how doctors, musicians, and healthcare professionals use music to deal with everything from anxiety to cancer, high blood pressure, chronic pain, dyslexia, even mental illness. During childbirth, music can relieve expectant mothers’ anxiety and help release endorphins, the body’s natural painkillers, dramatically decreasing the need for anesthesia. Exposure to sound, music and other acoustical vibrations can have a lifelong effect on health, learning, and behavior. They stimulate learning and memory, strengthen listening abilities. Music has been used as a treatment or cure from migraines to substance abuse.

This paper is very long and detailed and contains tons of scientific evidence quoted from many sources about music’s benefits for the mind and body. It is worth a read, especially if you are unsure whether or not music is haraam or halaal.

Certainly music that promotes haraam activities such as drug taking or violence or promiscuity would fall into the former category, but anything that has such a great positive effect on human beings, animals, and indeed all of God’s creations cannot be categorically forbidden. If you are opposed to “Western” or “Eastern” music or music with instruments, you could listen to the singing of Islamic songs using only the human voice, or the recitation of the Quran, which is also a type of music on many levels.

But to ban music altogether is unbalanced, extreme, and makes something “haraam” of what is one of Allah’s many favours to us (“Which of his favours will you deny?”) which is expressly forbidden in Islam. Furthermore, it shows ingratitude to Him in the extreme.

Don’t close your ears and eyes to the many of Allah’s signs. He did not create us with the faculties of vision and hearing so that we could blind ourselves and pierce our own eardrums in order to please Him.

Update: one of my very kind readers has posted a link to another alim’s viewpoint on the permissibility of music in Islam here.  This sheikh says, very wisely: “To say that all music is forbidden in Islam doesn’t seem to agree with the balanced approach of Islam to issues of human life and experience”. 

Amazingly, after I posted the original link of this blog piece on Twitter, someone actually tried to argue with me that my post was invalid because I had not consulted any “alim” or “mufti” on the issue. When I told him that I had included the opinion of a Muslim scholar (the PhD holder Ibrahim Syed), he told me in all seriousness that an alim is not a scholar. 


Another young woman told me that I had mentioned Wahabi thinking but said, and I quote, “kan u even explain wat it is?” 

It’s very simple. I quote the very knowledgeable Professor Pervez Hoodbhoy on the subject:

“Wahabism, which originated in the eighteenth century in Arabia, is a revivalist movement initiated by Muhammed ibn Abd al-Wahab (1703-1792). Wahabis are ultra conservative in their outlook and believe in a strictly formal and ritualistic religion, prmoting a view of Islam that is diametrically opposed to the Sufi view, which considers religion largely a matter between Man and Maker. In its early years, Wahabism succeeded in destroying almost all shrines, together witih historical mnuments and relics dating to the early days of Islam for fear that they might take the status of shrine worship.” 


And, hand in hand with Wahabism is the school of thought of the Salafis, who

“seek the ‘purification’ of Islam by returning to the pure form practiced in the time of Prophet Muhammed (pbuh) and his Companions. Among the most extreme manifstation of Salafism is Takfir-wal-Hijra. In 1996 the group is said to have plotted to assassinate Osama bin Laden for being too lax a Muslim. Pakistani Deobandis, most close ideologically to the Wahabis and Salafis… do not condemn suicide bombings, are strongly pro-Taliban, and many hard-core ones are heavily armed.”

*Please note that I am not an Islamic scholar. I am not giving a fatwa, nor am I authorized to do so. What I am doing is quoting alims/Islamic scholars who have given fatwas on the permissibility of music in Islam. 

Rape Culture

This morning I read an article, “The Selective Blindness of Rape Culture”, which relates to the iconic photograph of the sailor bending a nurse over and kissing her passionately at the end of World War 2. While this photograph is beloved of many, the article actually says that it is a marker of “rape culture” because in all the interviews post-kiss, the woman in the photograph says that the sailor was actually drunk and forced himself on her, a far cry from the scene of romance, passion, and triumph over Nazi Germany that it was originally meant to symbolize.

You could almost make the troubling assertion that knowing what we know about how it came about, it’s actually a scene of triumph over a woman’s body, the sailor as conqueror of her being, representing America’s victory over the Axis powers. But that is a topic for another essay altogether.

Yet while I found the article to be an interesting commentary on the photograph, and it definitely gave me food for thought about how women’s voices are overridden by men’s, especially in war narratives and historical accounts of war, it made me wonder whether the term “rape culture” and how it has come into common parlance in the feminist discourse has been beneficial for women’s empowerment, or whether it has hampered women in the fight to move away from permanent victimhood.

Rape culture is the feminist concept that “rape and sexual violence are common and that prevalent attitudes, norms, practices, and media normalise, excuse, tolerate, or even condone sexual violence.” It is not a physical place that you can find on a map, but a state of terror that exists everywhere, according to its experts. The concept has been discussed in feminist academics since the 1970s, where second wave feminists declared all of America to be a rape culture, but it has only become a popular term since 2011’s SlutWalk movement, a worldwide protest against women being blamed for getting raped because of the clothes they wear.

The elements identified in creating a culture of rape are hard to deny: victim blaming, sexual objectification, the trivializing of rape. It’s explained well in the extract from the book Transforming A Rape Culture:

A rape culture is a complex of beliefs that encourages male sexual aggression and supports violence against women. It is a society where violence is seen as sexy and sexuality as violent. In a rape culture, women perceive a continuum of threatened violence that ranges from sexual remarks to sexual touching to rape itself. A rape culture condones physical and emotional terrorism against women as the norm.

In a rape culture both men and women assume that sexual violence is a fact of life, inevitable as death or taxes. This violence, however, is neither biologically nor divinely ordained. Much of what we accept as inevitable is in fact the expression of values and attitudes that can change.

This culture of rape is not exclusively a Western problem, either. India’s own Besharmi Morcha, or “Protest Action of Shameless Women” was meant to take place in coordination with similar protests in Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Hong Kong (but was stopped by the government). Before that, the Pink Chaddi campaign specifically addressed the same idea, with activists sending pairs of pink panties to government officials in Mangalore to express their disgust at the moral policing taking place in 2009.  It has its parallels in Muslim countries, including Pakistan, where women are encouraged to stay silent about sexual assault or commit suicide if it happens to them; where they can be raped if they go to a police station to report sexual assault; where sexual molestation is given the euphemism of “eve teasing” and women who don’t cover themselves head to toe in burqas, veils, and chadors are blatantly seen as inviting sexual assault.

Rape culture concerns itself not just with the physical act of rape, but with the conditions that allow it to be perpetuated and even encouraged in society. You could say that all of Pakistan, too, is a rape culture, with columns appearing in the newspaper questioning whether marital rape exists in Islam, where four eyewitnesses are needed to substantiate a woman’s claim of rape, thanks to the Hudood Ordinances and their remnants in our society; where girls and women are exchanged as compensation in feud settlements; where underage girls are married; where women are married against their will.

Rape Culture 101 is an excellent place to start if you want to delve deeper into this examination. And Rape Culture 5105 picks up the discussion and expands it even further.

But here’s where my first question arises: Where in the world, our physical space – or in minds, our psychic space – does rape culture not exist? There is no neighborhood, community, society, country in which rape does not take place. It is not a question of laws and attitudes, because even in places where anti-sexual assault laws are strictly enforced, and where violence against women is treated with the contempt and punished with the severity it deserves, rape still happens. Witness the Julian Assange case, where Sweden, one of the most progressive countries in the world, was the setting for two rapes (I am not going to discuss the political ramifications etc. here) committed by the same man. Pornography, sexual trafficking, domestic violence and all other forms of violence against women also take place in Scandanavian countries, which are the best places in the world in terms of legally guaranteeing equal rights for women.

Prominent feminist and scholar bell hooks makes the argument that looking at rape culture in isolation is unhelpful because we are divorcing rape from a more expansive culture of violence, and rape does not happen without a background or a context. If transformation of rape culture is to occur, it will happen within a larger movement of transforming culture from violence to non-violence.  I remain unconvinced that rape culture is a distinct and boundaried territory, either in the physical world or in the phenomenological one.

My second problem is with the actual phrase “rape culture”. There is something within me that rebels against its use. It brings to mind the idea that rape is so prevalent in our cultures, our ways of being, that rape is inevitable. That all women are fated to undergo some experience of rape, just by the default of living in a rape culture, even if they are not technically or physically raped. (Some feminists have held in the past that all sex is rape and all men are rapists. I do not agree with this notion.) There are huge problems with this assumption; it is meant to evoke anger to the point where people are inspired to transform the rape culture. But before it evokes anger, it evokes something larger and more immediate: fear. It turns all women into victims, in potential and in reality. We are all rape victims; it’s just a matter of time before the theory of rape turns into a physical reality, and we can do little to escape it.

This way of thinking is both defensive and damaging. It places women squarely back into the role of victim, which is the opposite of what we are trying to achieve: empowerment, strength, transcendence of victimhood. I understand that rape is always a possibility for any human being, man or woman. Depending on where you live, it is a probability – if you live in the Congo, or you were a woman in Bosnia during the Yugoslavian war, or if you are in Syria today. But it is psychologically unhealthy to restrict and define the world according to the paradigm of rape. On the other hand, we are all going to die, but if we were to see the world in terms of that physical inevitability, we would completely break down and be unable to live our daily lives.

So, for these reasons and probably more that I haven’t been able to articulate just yet, I am opposed to the unconditional use of the term “rape culture”. Rape doesn’t happen in a vaccuum, nor was the concept of rape created in one. We will probably never know who the world’s first rapist was. According to some feminists, it was the first man. But to condemn all women to the role of rape victim, either by a man or by culture or society, is a chilling indictment of the potential of humanity, and a prison that women do not deserve to be placed in by any academic, no matter how visionary or passionate about feminism and violence against women.


Ever since Ali Gul Pir made the hysterical video “Wadera Ka Beta” (Son of Feudal), there’s been an increase in the popularity of the Sindhi phrase “Saeen tau saeen” (saeen is an honorific or title of respect that Sindhi men use for each other, denoting that the person is a gentleman, but has been mistaken as synonymous with feudals, the social class of landowners in the rural areas of Sindh, or even crudely, a king) in the country.

The Sindhis say the phrase “Saeen Tau Saeen” as an in-joke; this phrase is used when someone’s acting high and mighty and you want to jokingly call attention to their high-handedness or delusions of grandeur. But ever since the video came out, non-Sindhis have become familiar with it too, and are using it with much glee to express their dislike for Sindhi feudals and their ways.

On Twitter,  I’ve noticed that people are using the phrase with me when they don’t like what I have to say, the implication being that because I’m from a Sindhi feudal family, I refuse to brook any argument.

I’ve also been called “Wadera Ki Beti” (daughter of feudal) but anyone who knows my background knows that this is no insult to me.

I believe that while the video of Wadea Ka Beta is hilarious and clever (Ali Gul Pir was a student of mine at SZABIST, and also Sindhi, although not a feudal), it’s opened the doors for a lot of people to channel their class hatred and in some cases their anti-Sindhi racism in a socially palatable way.

Class hatred is a worldwide phenomenon. It exists in Pakistan, in India, in the UK, in any society where there is a division of classes and little social mobility between them. In Pakistan, it plays out as hatred of “elites”. (Read Ayesha Siddiqua’s excellent column, “What is Pakistan’s Elite” for more background on this subject). People in Pakistan have good reason to hate their “elites”. But some “elites” are more hated than others, and the Sindhi feudal definitely falls into that category.

When I said as much yesterday on Twitter, making it clear that I wasn’t ashamed of my Sindhi landowning background or my own “feudal” family, I was met with a barrage of tweets attacking me for “defending” feudalism. My jaw dropped as I saw the depth of people’s ignorance and misinformation coming alive. “Are you in favor of marriage to the Quran?” “Why do you make haris (sharecroppers) sit at your feet?” “What’s your stance on karo-kari (honor killing)?” “Why do you keep your haris so poor and uneducated?”

My stance on all these issues has been clear for years. You can read my thoughts on feudalism here. And my stance on honor killings here. As for “making haris sit at your feet”, whoever thinks that has never been to the interior, where waderas and haris alike sit on the floor at occasions such as funerals.

What are we talking about when we talk about feudalism? The agricultural system of Sindh, or the culture of excess and abuse of power that has sprung up around it over the decades? Every class and every subclass of Pakistan’s society has a culture, an attitude, a behavior. Sindhi feudalism’s culture isn’t exemplary. Abuses of the poor take particular iterations in the interior, such as bonded labor, village girls being kidnapped and raped, honor killing, and blood feuds (you can easily think of the equivalent of these abuses happening in a factory in Faisalabad, or a tribal village in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa or Balochistan, or even on the streets of Karachi, I’m sorry to say).

Its scions do commit excess, therefore Wadera Ka Beta. The Sindhi feudals need to face up to those realities, and do some soul-searching about whether this is really the legacy they want to hand down to their children. It’s definitely a system that thrives on ignorance and illiteracy.  Education and industrialization, when and if it happens in Pakistan, will reduce the influence and power of the feudals as has happened in other countries around the world. Yet this particular system sprung up out of the vacuum that successive governments left in Sindh by refusing to allocate funds for its development or to provide the services of education and healthcare that were Sindh’s due for the last 60 years.

But I’ve found that the worst of the stereotypes against the Sindhi landowning classes have been spread for decades by a sensationalist media, and that people remain willfully ignorant of both the business of agriculture as practiced in the interior, and any of the strong cultural traditions of the interior, besides a very superficial acquaintance with Sufism as imagined by Salman Ahmad and Rumi. I directed one of my Indian Twitter detractors to read my article on feudalism but he said he “stopped reading” when he got to the part about the feudal code of honor. It’s closed-mindedness like this that allows the hatred and misunderstanding to flourish.

I was asked why, for example, haris touch the feet of the zamindars. I explained that there were many Hindu traditions that have continued in Sindh. Namaste is one of them, pau-pheri is another. “But why don’t the feudals touch the feet of the haris?” I was asked. I couldn’t decide whether this was real naivete or faux naivete, but I answered it on face value. “Because it’s like when a child touches his mother or father’s feet in the Hindu culture. Does your mother or father touch your feet? The zamindar is like mother and father to his people.”

(This symbolic comparison, I’m afraid, was taken out of context and bandied about on Twitter as proof that I’m defending feudalism. I’m familiar with this sort of smearing. It happened before, when at the first Karachi Literature Festival that quote “I’ve been in a rickshaw” was used for months afterwards as proof of my elitism and disregard for the poor.)

And yet, YES, the zamindar is like a parent to the villagers on his land, because he provides them with protection against the larger forces in the interior: people from rival tribes, the police, dacoits (bandits), so on and so forth. Anyone who doesn’t believe this doesn’t understand much about what a wilderness the interior really is. They continue to harbor dreams about the farms being like some kind of Bollywood movie, where if only the poor villagers were liberated from their evil landlord, everyone would sing and dance in the fields and the hero and heroine would be free to love without fear…

People don’t want to hear much about any good qualities or practices or traditions Sindhi landowners might have. They don’t want to hear about the hospitals, schools, jobs, operations, scholarships that landowners have provided to their people, without fanfare or advertising. That’s just dismissed as “noblesse oblige” or exaggerated benevolence. They want to stick to their imaginings of feudals as bloodthirsty bastards who beat and abuse their haris and steal land and are worshipped as false gods by their poor, ignorant villagers.

In short, they only want a monolithic monster that they can hate with a clear conscience, a combination of Darth Vader and Don Corleone with cartoon-like mustaches and a gaggle of daughters married to the Quran.

Nudity, the Niqab, and the Illusion of Free Choice

A young woman blogger in Egypt (shown above) posted a photograph of herself, naked, as a symbol of resistance against the patriarchal conservative forces that are threatening to overwhelm Egypt.

Today, I read what are possibly the most beautiful opening words of any essay or opinion piece ever. It went like this:

 “When a woman is the sum total of her headscarf and hymen – that is, what’s on her head and what is between her legs – then nakedness and sex become weapons of political resistance.”

This comes from a powerful essay by Mona Eltahawy in the Guardian, called “Egypt’s Naked Blogger is a Bomb Aimed at the Patriarchs in Our Mind” (Eltahawy was recently sexually assaulted and beaten by police in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, her left hand and right arm broken by the force of their blows).

The background is that a young woman blogger in Egypt posted a photograph of herself, naked, as a symbol of resistance against the patriarchal conservative forces that are threatening to overwhelm Egypt in the post-Mubarak era.

The response has been incendiary; read it for yourself. But it proves that women’s bodies are still seen as public property, to be violated by soldiers, discussed and debated on by men as if they were the experts on women and their feelings, thoughts, sensations, inclinations. Our minds are seen as weak, unable to reason, to think for ourselves. Instead of believing that women have moral agency, we are seen as morally inferior in every way to men.

 Is the real war against terrorism, or against patriarchy?

What men do to women on a daily basis, demeaning, insulting, patronizing, and physically and mentally hurting them, IS terrorism, plain and simple.

It reminds me of a news clip I saw several days ago, in which it was declared that Saudi Arabia might enact a new law in which women who are deemed to have “tempting eyes” and “tempting faces” would be forced to cover them up.


Because one of the men behind this bill saw a woman with “tempting eyes”, felt attracted to her, and ended up having a fight with her husband. Then he stabbed the man in the hand. The logical conclusion was that the woman who tempted him with her eyes was at fault, so such eyes can and should be hidden away from view.

I brought this up on Twitter, adding my own comment that perhaps it was the men who should be covered up instead of the women, so that they couldn’t see the tempting eyes, faces, hands, and perhaps the entire existence of women on this planet to avoid being tempted by them.

A young man decided to take up this argument with me, accusing me of being against women choosing the hijab and niqab of their own free will. He said he was sure that the majority of women who take up these coverings do it voluntarily. I decided to respond by asking this man if he would consent to covering himself up to avoid arousing the lust of homosexual men. He wouldn’t answer.

My point: why do men believe women are so willing to choose the bars of their prison so happily?

What justifications have taken place in their mind to make them believe that women are not coerced into wearing the veil? After all, coercion takes many forms: Legal. Physical. Mental. Emotional. Social.  Many people use blackmail to convince women to wear hijab or niqab: you won’t be a good Muslim, you’ll go to hell, you’re pleasing God, you’ll be subject to harassment and molestation if you go outside without a veil. By playing on women’s vulnerabilities, by bringing up the imagery of women being sexually violated or bringing shame upon their families by walking around unveiled, by implying a woman’s morality is linked to how she dresses, women are coerced into believing they are making a free choice in the thousands and millions, every day of their lives.

The hidden pearls. The precious jewels in velvet boxes. The sweets that attract flies without a wrapper. The metaphors used to convince women that their worth is higher if they remain covered makes clever use of a great deceit: that women are objects to be kept on shelves, their value directly correlated to their shininess, their newness. When are people going to realize that women are not objects or things or possessions? That we are human beings with as much autonomy, independence, sovereignty as men? That we must be left alone, to make our own decisions about what we do with our lives, our bodies, our selves?

The truth is that mental, emotional, physical, social or legal coercion over the issue of the veil immediately takes away the “freedom” of the “choice.”

Men have no right to exercise control over women in any way, shape, or form. Their opinions have no validity in what concerns women’s bodies and lives. Recruiting, paying, or giving some women a portion of the patriarchal privilege in order that they may influence and coerce other women over the issue of the veil, whether by “gentle persuasion” or out-and-out blackmail, is merely another trick men use to exercise control over and dominate women.

Here’s what freedom of choice really looks like when it comes to the niqab, the hijab, the burqa, and the abaya:

“Nothing happens if you wear it. Nothing happens if you don’t wear it. Now, it’s up to you.”

Then stand back and let the woman decide for herself. And stay out of it, for good.

And for those of you who feel a hijab or a niqab or a burqa or an abaya is not a prison, but a symbol of empowerment, I want to ask you why a piece of cloth on your head or face has so much sway over your lives that it transforms you from a whore into a virtuous woman.

Remember that in Pakistan, even the prostitutes wear veils.


I’ve just returned from watching the Bangladeshi film Meherjaan. This movie, released last year, depicts events of the 1971 war for Bangladeshi independence, with a focus on the Bengali women who were raped by Pakistani soldiers, but it also included a storyline where a Bangladeshi girl falls in love with one of the soldiers. The storm of controversy that erupted got the movie banned in Bangladesh: angry and hurt, still traumatized by the war, Bangladeshis felt that the movie wasn’t true to the pain and suffering that they experienced during the war, but instead romanticized the love story between the lead character Meher and the Pakistani soldier Wasim Khan (played by my friend Omar Rahim).

Despite the controversy, the movie has been doing the rounds of film festivals all over the world, and has won several awards, including the Moondance Film Festival Best Feature Film award. It was meant to be screened during the Karachi Literature Festival back in February, but because the Festival organizers failed to get an NOC (no objection certificate), this couldn’t happen at the festival venue. I finally got the chance to see it screened at The Second Floor this evening, and it played to an almost full house – the second time it was being screened at this venue, I should add.

I’m not going to write a detailed synopsis – there are Web sites that already do that, and here’s the movie’s official Web site. Also, if you don’t want spoilers, stop reading now!

The movie starts with the arrival of Sarah, a “war child”, at the house of the adult Meher, played by Jaya Bacchan. Sarah is the daughter of Neela, Meher’s cousin, who was raped during the war by Pakistani soldiers – Sarah is the child of that rape and was adopted by a couple in Germany. She’s back to find out her past, and it’s through this fairly common cinematic device – a young person investigating his or her family secrets – that we are introduced to the seventeen year old Meher and her story.

Meher and her parents have escaped the war in Dhaka and live in her grandfather’s home, in rural Bangladesh, where her grandfather, Khwaja Sahib, is the local feudal and pir (keeper of the shrine of a Sufi saint); he oversees the affairs of the village and is the person the villagers turn to when they need to have their disputes settled – very similar to the feudal system here in Pakistan that continues to this day. Neela arrives at the house, raped and pregnant, and spends her days in her grandfather’s home dreaming of revenge against the soldiers who assaulted her. There’s also Salma, who’s slightly weird, holds tea parties and assembles weapons made out of branches and twigs, and dreams of marriage. Meher encounters a Pakistani soldier who refused to kill Bangladeshis in a mosque and subsequently runs away from his regiment; wounded and ill, he takes shelter in the house of Meher’s friends, and the two of them fall in love.

The movie is visually stunning. The lush landscapes of rural Bangladesh – rivers, oceans, forests and fields – will invade your senses completely. You almost feel the breeze in your hair and on your skin, feel the water lapping at your feet, smell the scent of sea and fish and flowers everywhere. This heavy sensuality is echoed in the bodies of the women portrayed on the screen: the survivor Neela, whose short, rounded frame blazes with outrage and passion; earthy Salma, who feels no shame in speaking of her desire for a husband and family; and innocent Meher, whose fresh skin and rippling hair remind you of an untilled field or a virgin forest.

And truly, Meherjaan is a movie about women. It’s the women who take center stage in this story: not just the three young women, but the grace and dignity of the grown-up Meher, who has become a sculptress and who welcomes the awkward, androgynous Sarah into her home, who weaves stories around her and offers her a window into her past. We are shown the difference between victimhood, in the fate of Neela, and agency, when Meher saves Wasim Khan’s life, Salma arranges her own marriage, Sarah unearths the story behind her birth, and Neela herself decides to join the freedom fighters in the wake of her ruined chances for marriage and a normal life. All the women in the movie act with courage, honesty, and strength; the men are left far behind, struggling to keep up.

The strongest male character in the movie is that of Khwaja Sahib, who as the guardian of a strategically important village must maintain the balance between the opposing demands of the villagers, the freedom fighters, the party workers, and the Pakistani army officer and his troops. He does this by falling back on loyalty to the Muslim League (who opposed the creation of Bangladesh) and on his own Sufi Muslim faith, which places utmost importance on humanity and decency before rituals and rules. He’s not infallible, and makes several mistakes, one of which later costs him his life. But his interactions with the soldiers, the villagers and the freedom fighters illustrate the complexity of Bangladeshi nationalism, and when he dies, there is a real sense of the passing into history of an older, more graceful way of conducting political affairs, intertwined with religious and societal considerations, that can never be regained.

The love story between Meher and Wasim (the title of the movie comes from a moment when Wasim calls Meher “Meherjaan”, or “darling Meher”) is a rather obvious symbol of the relationship between Pakistan and Bangladesh: the pain caused by the separation of the two lovers is meant to evoke the pain felt when East and West Pakistan split and became two countries, never to meet again. But the two young actors play their roles so well that it never feels forced or cliched, rather, it all feels fresh and evocative, like one’s own first love. There’s also a startling interplay between eroticism and innocence, as we are shown shot after shot of Wasim Khan’s naked torso and the villagers are heard talking about his muscles and height (which also represents the power of the Pakistani army, with its brute force and violence), but the physical intimacy between the two lovers is restricted to hand-holding and innocent embraces, and Meher seems naive, almost child-like in her interactions with Wasim. But while she is innocent in matters of the body, she is wise in matters of the heart.

Finally, the aching loss of love and the pain of separation is highlighted in the movie by the rendition of Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s 1974 poem “Hum ke thehre ajnabi” (We are now strangers) by Nayarra Noor.  I’m not a fan of Urdu poetry, but the eloquent couplets of Faiz’s poetry about the return from Dhaka brought tears to my eyes and I cried like a child for the last twenty minutes of the movie. I wasn’t the only one: when the lights came on, there was hardly a dry-eyed person in the room.

We are strangers now

After those many encounters, that easy intimacy, we are strangers now –

After how many meetings will we be that close again?

When will we again see a spring of unstained green? After how many monsoons will the blood be washed

from the branches?

So relentless was the end of love, so heartless –After the nights of tenderness, the dawns were pitiless,

so pitiless.

And so crushed was the heart that though it wished it found no chance –after the entreaties, after the despair — for us to

quarrel once again as old friends.

Faiz, what you’d gone to say, ready to offer everything,even your life –those healing words remained unspoken after all else had

been said.

(Translated from the Urdu by Agha Shahid Ali)