Aurat March 2020

The organizers of Aurat March 2020 made a public announcement inviting everyone to join their inaugural meeting and become a part of the groundbreaking women’s rights march across Pakistan.


The march calls for women, trans, gender fluid, gender nonbinary and other marginalized gender groups to “shake up the patriarchy and raise their voice for injustice.” Cis men are allowed to attend the march but not be on the managing committee.

The responses to the call have been … interesting. As the Aurat March organizers said in a later post, “Aurat March’s open call for an organizing committee meeting received a few thousand misogynist messages, which included rape threats, death threats and threats of blowing up the venue.”

Indeed, looking at the comments after the march post on Facebook, one would think the people organizing the march were suggesting a naked march down the main streets of every city in Pakistan. The responses from boys and men — laughing, mocking, taunting, threatening — suggest that they are feeling very threatened by women showing up and claiming space. The more helpless they feel, the more exaggerated the responses get. A deliberate misunderstanding of what feminism is (by now it’s maliciously deliberate, not even simple ignorance), a distortion of what women are asking for (dignity, safety, autonomy) and threats of violent repercussion against the marchers complete this triumvirate of fright and agnst.

As the comedian Ilisa Schleisnger said in her recent Netflix comedy special, “You can be pro-women and not anti-men.”

Repeat that.

You can be pro-women and not anti-men. 

When young women say “men are trash” they are referring to the men who disrespect them, who hurt them, who discriminate, who put them down, who oppress and who beat, rape and kill. If you don’t count yourself among those numbers, what are you afraid of?

If fear is your first response and anger your second to the Aurat March, might I suggest you think about why your masculinity is so easily threatened.


Do you live in UK, US, Canada, Europe but are an expert on everything that happens in Pakistan?
Do you constantly explain the way things work in Pakistan to resident Pakistanis?
You might be an “expatsplainer”* or suffering from EXPATITIS

How to recognize the symptoms of EXPATITIS
EXPATITS-A = American resident, strange accent, convinced fintech will solve Pakistan’s problems
EXPATITIS-B = Britain resident, hates Southall for “ruining” atmosphere
EXPATITIS-C = Canadian resident, tries to convince you Justin Trudeau is Muslim
EXPATITIS-D = Dubai resident, talks non-stop about property boom, calls Emirates flight attendants “friends”
EXPATITIS-AU = Australia resident, unintelligible accent, married to kangaroo for Australian nationality
EXPATITIS-E = European resident, pretends to not speak English, argues against circumcision

Get help now
Call 1-800-EXPATITIS

*TM Talat Aslam

On Khalilur Rehman Qamar’s interview about #MeToo and women’s equality

Yesterday the Express Tribune published a news story about an interview with television writer Khalilur Rehman Qamar, who is well known in Pakistan for writing and directing PTV television dramas Boota From Toba Tek Singh and Landa Bazaar. More recently he teamed up with Humayun Saeed of Six Sigma Entertainment to produce Punjabi Kangauni and Kaaf Kangana, among other dramas for private Pakistani cable channels.

Mr. Rehman fancies himself as having his finger on the pulse of Pakistani society.  Unfortunately, his track record of writing shows that purport to show real Pakistani family life, but are instead paeans to misogyny, sexism and women’s victimhood, with a healthy dose of male violence against women, doesn’t exactly qualify him as an expert on the subject of women’s rights.

Rehman was asked in a recent interview on a podcast called Boomerang for Entertainment Pakistan about his views on women in society. In Urdu and English, he explains his philosophy, in the process exposing the type of mentality that allows him to produce the kind of anti-women programs that have become “hits” in Pakistan.

The famed television writer speaks with the confidence of a man who knows he’s supplying the drug his customers need — the drug of hatred for women. In the podcast he was asked to speak about his latest offering, Mere Pass Tum Ho (I Have You), about a woman who cheats on her middle class but loving husband with a man who is rich and powerful.

He says that he “sends laanath” (curses) on “those” types of women. What types of women exactly? Well, those who cheat on their husbands. Those who break up families without a thought for their poor husbands and children, their souls, or God. No curses for the men who cheat on their wives? No– according to Rehman, “when a married man betrays his wife, he feels guilty. He feels embarrassed.”

So it is this “embarrassment” that saves men from Rehman’s censure, although he provides absolutely no proof whatsoever for his anecdotal assertions, and worse, generalizes  based on what he claims to have “seen” without considering whether his own anti-woman bias may have influenced his beliefs.

“I’ve observed when a married woman cheats, she doesn’t feel ashamed at all. The reason behind her not feeling guilty is because she has been backed by another man. When an unmarried woman cheats, she feels guilty.” (Not really sure how an unmarried woman “cheats”, but let’s go on…) Worse, he claims that “Allah has given” him the strength and opportunity to write on “a very different issue”.

The interviewer, a young woman clearly starstruck by her subject and unable to do anything but giggle and stroke his ego, doesn’t even attempt to question him or check him for the incredible nonsense he’s spouting.

Here’s another gem from this disaster of an interview (I was not even halfway through it and already losing my will to live):

“Like it or not, I don’t call every woman a woman. To me, the only beautiful trait a woman can possess is her loyalty and her haya (modesty). If a woman isn’t loyal then she is not a woman. Register an FIR (police report) against me for if you don’t subscribe to my point of view but I won’t budge. Get someone to try me under #MeToo, but I won’t care about that either.”

He goes on to say, “I swear to God I’m the biggest feminist, but I’m fighting for good women.” (This is the point where my computer burst into flames).


“Women have the ability to say no, men don’t have this ability.” (We could talk about Prophet Yacoob who resisted the most beautiful woman of all time, Bibi Zuleikha, but oh, Pakistani men can never be like that)

“Why does a man go to another woman? First, a dissatisfied marriage. And second, when the woman is there, and she’s had 50,000 rupees of makeup done from Depilex, a man looks at her, and she says yes. THAT’S A FACT.”

He goes on to say that men who go out to work, leaving their wives at home guarding their honor, go through so much humiliation that women can never understand it (never mind that Pakistani women also work, and go through worse humiliation because of sexual harassment, but hey, that doesn’t happen in Rehman’s universe).

Now here’s the part where things get really interesting. Rehman decides that his expertise in women and their psychology qualifies him to speak about sexual assault.

“If you wish to strive for equality then kidnap men as well. Rob a bus, gang rape a man, so that I can understand what you [women] mean by equality.” (Interviewer giggles, says, “Tauba tauba”) “No, look I know what happens in other places! But you women will never understand your own rights. You want equality, that’s it. You want to wear shorts, I promise that will never happen in the Subcontinent!”

It is very hard to ignore the gleam in his eye as he asks the interviewer if she has ever heard of men gang raping women. It is very hard to ignore that talking about this with a young woman constitutes sexual inappropriateness, and that the subject makes her uncomfortable. It is very hard not to have the idea that he has thought a lot about four or five girls “gang-raping” a man, surrounding him and having their way with him.

It is impossible to ignore the fact that this interview exceeds the limits of decency.

He already predicts what will happen after this interview: “Some girls will make 50,000 tweets and that’s it. They can’t do anything else. You can never change a man’s mentality. But if you try to accuse men, YOU’LL BELONG TO NOBODY!”

Gang rape a man. Wear shorts. Good women don’t do these things, bad women do. Honestly, I thought listening to this dumpster fire of an interview would make me more angry than when I’d read its summary in the Tribune, but it had the opposite effect. It convinced me that Rehman is a very sad man. A rapidly aging man, born in 1961, but desperately struggling for relevance in the 21st century. Perhaps that’s why he decided to wade into the issue of #MeToo and feminism in Pakistan. Perhaps that’s why he thinks his views have so much weight and importance. You can see that relevance means everything to him by his black-dyed hair, which gives him the look of a desi Elvis, bloated and past his prime but still hanging on to every last vestige of attractiveness he can.

I’m not worried about men like Rehman. You know why? They’re going to go the way of the dinosaur. They already look like anachronisms when compared to the brave men of today, like Jami, who confessed recently to having been raped (BY A MAN) and coming out with his story to support the #MeToo movement in Pakistan.

Keep churning out your dross to the masses, Mr. Most Famous Writer of Pakistan. Women don’t need you. You’re irrelevant. Soon you’ll be in the trash heap of history. And we will still be around to make sure nobody cares about you when you’re gone.


On Censorship at the Karachi Biennale

The forced closure of Adeela Suleman’s exhibit at the Karachi Biennale was a difficult situation for Adeela Suleman and the Karachi Biennale. Should the KB curators have been more thoughtful and placed her artwork in a different space so as not to attract the ire of the authorities? Was KB’s statement afterwards capitulating to the viewpoint of law enforcement wise or foolish? Considering that the entire show, participants (many of them foreigners), and visitors still needed to be protected as the Biennale continues, should KB have taken a courageous stand or been strategic? These are all hard questions to answer but they must still be asked as we consider our tenuous artistic freedoms and the continuous pressure from the state to limit them.

As an artist, I would argue that censoring art is wrong, unless public endangerment results (which is rare). But the art scene in Pakistan has always been subject to state censorship (think back to Ayub’s times and how poets and writers were harassed), so it was not surprising. It is naive to think we operate in a space of complete artistic freedom. Nobody in Pakistan or anywhere else in the world does, when they bring that art out into the light to be seen by other people. What was surprising was that Suleiman’s work was approved by the KB curators in the first place, if it didn’t fit the ecology theme. I would argue that it did, in the sense that violence and murder are an assault on Karachi’s mental health, which has knock-on effects on our environment, but that the connection was not clearly made, and certainly brushed aside when it came time to “unjustify” the decision to include it in the Biennale.

Withdrawing support for an artist is a painful decision, one that is being taken as cowardice of the organizers. But festival organizers do get intimidated by threats of state reprisal; they’re only human after all. The Karachi Literature Festival has also been forced to alter its program over the ten years it’s been happening in Karachi. KB itself  engendered controversy in 2017 with the damage done to the Pioneer Bookstore, accusations of elitism, and so on and so forth.

As the Dawn editorial in today’s paper states, art shows do get shut down, as in Turkey, South Korea, Cuba and the Venice Pavilion at the Azerbaijan Biennale. No art exists in a vacuum, and we would be naive to think it can never happen in our quasi-dictatorial society. If it isn’t the authorities, it’s conservative or religious elements that threaten artists. I wouldn’t want to be in the shoes of the KB organizers and have to make these decisions. And under pressure, anyone would be hard-pressed to get it right.

In a world where artists struggle against state censorship everywhere, perhaps this incident at Karachi Biennale is the most powerful illustration of that dynamic, even stronger than if the original exhibit had been allowed to remain open. What could be more poignant than the sight of the tombstones in Suleiman’s symbolic graveyard knocked down to the ground, as if they themselves had been killed in cold blood? It is the death not just of the 444 people killed that Suleiman was evoking, but the death of art itself in the face of censorship.

People have been making the statement that “all art is political”. That’s a very pretty thing to say, but I tend to stay away from the fancy statements, preferring instead to let my art do the talking. Still, consider the case of China, where Ai Wei Wei gets censured for his art but Mo Yan is accused of pandering to the government. Artists engage with politics, because politics is a part of life and artists engage with all of life around them. Sometimes politics engages with the artists, when all they want to do is create art. But the artist who survives is the one who knows how to navigate politics and the system, especially in countries like ours. Some people call that “self-censorship”, others, “survival”. Only when you are an artist living and working in a repressive society do you realize that attaching a good or bad label to any of this is unrealistic.

There are many artists who ostensibly strive to stay away from politics. Would you consider Rembrandt’s art political? Not at first, but Rembrandt was patronized by rich and powerful figures, some with political connections. Even today, art is political, but not in the way the innocent believe: the fellowships that you accept are funded by donations from business people; the art shows are funded by multinational corporations. Galleries are owned by millionaires. We are all making political choices in everything that we do, so to say that “all art is political” and yet believe that all artists are divorced from the politics of the art scene, or untouched by the politics of their environments, only creating art in a pure, untouched space that will remain forever protected by the state, is naive in the extreme.

Still, art will continue to be made in Pakistan, and Pakistan’s artists will continue to push the boundaries of what is acceptable to our authorities. That’s what you sign up for when you become an artist. That’s why artists are considered revolutionaries. That’s why artists are considered dangerous: we say things that shouldn’t be said, according to good taste, common sense, and polite society. That’s why we know instinctively that censorship is harmful to the flourishing of creativity. That’s why we get called irresponsible and subversive and obscene and all the other things designed to keep good citizens in their places.

The authorities will be congratulated for doing their jobs and maintaining peace and order. The artist will be congratulated for being courageous. The KB organizers will be congratulated for a successful Biennale, but for this unpleasant incident. The show will go on. This will never change, because art is the enemy of the system. But all artists, who are cannier than you think, know very well the artistic compromises they make before anything of this magnitude ever gets to the eyes of the authorities, or the front pages of the papers. </p>

Feministani on Medium

I’ve decided to publish stories, essays, and more on Medium. If you’re a member, these stories are free to read. If not, you can read up to five stories for free before you have to register and become a paying member for unlimited access.

Here’s my Medium channel, where you can check out my profile and some of the stuff I used to post before taking this seriously…

And here are the four stories I’ve posted since becoming a member, unabridged or original versions of essays I had published elsewhere previously.

I hope you enjoy these essays. I’ll post more in due course.

15 Essential Novels of the #MeToo Movement

What else can I say but that I’m honored my book Before She Sleeps is on this list from Bustle. Along with Margaret Atwood, Idra Novy, Leni Zumas, Anna Burns, and other women to whom safety and security matter so much that they have written entire novels about the subject.

Why is my novel on this list? Perhaps because Before She Sleeps embeds a sexual assault in its plot, which was personally very hard for me to write. But I felt it was important to have it in there, for reasons that will be clear when you read the book.

You always remember your first time

I’m watching Gurindher Chadha’s new movie “Blinded by the Light” based on the memoir by Sarfraz Manzoor about Javed, a Pakistani-British boy growing up in Bury Park, a go-nowhere town in the United Kingdom.

Javed wants to be a writer. He writes poems and a diary, but doesn’t think he’s any good. Until his teacher Mrs. Anderson reads them and tells him, “You could be a writer if you put the work in.”

The look on Javed’s face as he hears this acknowledgment of his talent reminded me immediately of the first time anyone told me the same thing. In the same way, a teacher handed me back a short story in class. At the bottom of the paper she’d written, “You could go on to be a writer. It would be a good career.”

I was fourteen and in tenth grade. The words set off an explosion in my head. I hadn’t even realized writing was a career. I hadn’t made the connection between the books that I devoured, like a diabetic fulfilling a sugar craving, and the work of the person writing the book. Until I read those words at the end of my essay, I didn’t even know this was what I wanted to do.

But the explosion went off and couldn’t be undone. Although I buried the dream for a very long time, it came back, twelve years later, and then I got down to do the work of becoming a writer.

EI’m sure every writer has an origin story. When was the first time someone told you that you could be a writer?

On Aatish Taseer’s Profile of Imran Khan

In certain quarters and certainly in the domain of glossy magazines, celebrity confers credibility. This is the basis of Aatish Taseer’s profile of Imran Khan for Vanity Fair, which went online last night and immediately became the subject of discussion on Pakistani and Indian Twitter.

I read the profile twice, just to confirm my initial impression: that Aatish Taseer has written a sophisticated, complex piece of journalism: a fairly comprehensive psychological portrait of a man who has attained the heights of personal and political power and yet still does not know what to do with himself, the man, when the masks drop and the doors to the chambers of power are closed for the day.  Taseer’s analysis of Pakistan the country through Imran Khan is incisive and intuitive, based on his travels to the country and his intimate knowledge of its workings through his father, the late Salman Taseer.

But this is not a profile of Imran Khan alone: it is a profile of Pakistan, examined through the lens of its biggest celebrity. This is a clever journalistic device that Aatish Taseer deploys with confidence and expertise: taking what he finds to be true of Khan and using it to say profound things about the country which everyone is thinking, but nobody has yet put into words. Out of fear, out of lack of perspective, out of deference, or maybe just out of discretion.

Taseer has none of those things to lose. He is the perpetual outsider: the son of an Indian journalist and a Pakistani politician, born in London, living in America now (I am not gonig to enter into a debate about Taseer’s personal life or his origins beyond these most basic of facts). Most writers can attribute their powers of observation to that outsider status, but Taseer makes use of all his insider status and powerful connections to speak to the people who are closest to Imran Khan: his childhood friend, his pop star devotee, his cricketing colleagues (except for Khan’s ex-wife, Reham, who’s happy to talk to anyone about her former husband).

Those who say that the profile only repeats what has already been said before are missing what Taseer has done: taken all these various fragments, thoughts, beliefs, and synthesized them into a whole. He builds a compelling argument: the conflicted man is a product of, as well as the portrait of, a conflicted country. There are some lines that truly sing in the piece: “He was one of those rare figures, like Muhammed Ali, who emerge once a generation on the frontier of sport, sex and politics.” Another one: “Unlike other populists in the developing world, “Khan is a man guessing at the passions of people he does not actually represent.” And this one was the literary equivalent of a clean bowl: “Here, I remember feeling, was a man who had dealt so little in ideas that every idea he now had struck him as a good one.”

Taseer does a good job of exposing the contradictions in our fevered, hypocritical society, through the parable of the playboy turned Prime Minister, married to a religious clairvoyant (were I writing the piece I would have made the comparison to Macbeth, not Game of Thrones, but the latter is far sexier than the former). “Religion in Pakistan is the source of dystopia, a world turned upside down,” describes exactly the flummoxed feeling many of us have in Pakistan and how religion has been used against the people of this country, where killers are celebrated as saints.  I’m not too interested in the allegations of drug taking or of Khan’s louche past, as we’ve heard all this before. Attempts at amateur psychology, as in the line “I was struck by that mixture of narcisissm bordering on sociopathy that afflicts those who have become famous for far too long” is not an original take either. But for a man to become a national leader based on both refutation of this life and the social and political capital which it built him is indeed schizophrenic, and Taseer captures this perfectly.

At the same time, the profile is not without its flaws. Taseer portrays Khan as empty-headed, simplistic and juvenile, his black and white view of the world one shared by fascists and autocrats. At the same time, he recognizes that Khan appears honest and upright to millions of ordinary Pakistanis who admire him for those qualities, seen very rarely among Pakistani politicians. People far more pious than Khan have made the amazing decision to ignore Khan’s bedroom shenanigans as if we were citizens of France, not a conservative Muslim country. How exactly did this happen?

Maybe we would have found out if the very people that Taseer relies on for his story were not merely a select group of elite Lahoris, many of them celebrities in their own right, contain many of the same qualities. So the personal portrait that ensues consists of somewhat vapid quotes that repeat the common mythology surrounding Imran Khan, with perhaps a few sensationalist details that perhaps were not common knowledge before. Taseer goes to the rarified environs of the 1% to make an assessment of Khan that will challenge Western readers, but only strengthens the idea that celebrity confirms credibility.

The article dwells at length on Khan’s reputation as a playboy and his failed marriages, and the strain the current one is under. But Taseer missed a great opportunity to delve deeper into this part of Khan’s psychology: how do his troubled relationships with women play out in the public sphere; why has his government chosen to deliberately exclude women from all sorts of decision-making positions; how does his religious conservatism affect Pakistan’s efforts to empower and improve the status of women? These connections were left unmade by Taseer, which was disappointing to me. He had the opportunity to get into this when he said of Khan, “never was there a greater mansplainer.” But this would have required a more in-depth analyses of gender and power in Pakistan than Taseer’s Vanity Fair editors or readers probably wanted.

Another disappointment for me was to see the prominent space given to Ali Zafar, who has been accused of sexual harassment; it would have been appropriate for Taseer to mention this and address the issue of harassment — which has even reached members of Khan’s government as Pakistani women assert their #MeToo stories — perhaps analyze how some of these harassment cases have affected people’s impressions of the PTI government. Also, the women he chooses to speak to all have a personal or political axe to grind against Khan: ex-wife Reham, former Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar, Imaan Hazir, Shireen Mazari’s daughter, who has faced extreme abuse and threats from the PTI trolls, especially at the hands of Farhan K Virk, who Taseer also gives space to in explaining Khan’s appeal to “the youth” of Pakistan. By speaking only to the chief troll, Taseer fails to explore how Khan has weaponized his own sexuality and used it as a political tool to harness the vote for PTI (there is a lot of infatuation from both genders, not just admiration for his “emancipatory virility”) — and how those trolls have used death and rape threats against women in Pakistan who dare criticize government policy, as if jealously committing a virtual honor killing for the sake of Imran Khan’s honor.

The end of the piece discusses the uncomfortable tension between the military and the civilian government, but only quickly, and then returns back to the personal conflicts of Khan. Taseer writes that he “does not clarify reality in Pakistan, but rather adds to the fog with Jekyll and Hyde confusions of his own.” And that “Like so many people who have lived across diverse cultures, Khan seems to have found no internal resolution to these competing [cultural] forces.” Maybe we in Pakistan don’t necessarily resolve them, but we certainly do struggle to balance them. But (and here’s another reference to pop psychology), perhaps we suffer from a sort of multiple personality disorder, and the voices that call to us from the depths of our own mind are the ones that keep us dancing even though there isn’t any music to hear.

Books & Censorship

A few years ago, I went to a supermarket that had a books section and I saw Hitler’s Mein Kampf on sale there. I complained to the management; seeing the title there offended me hugely. “But people want to buy it,” was the answer I got. I was furious, but there was nothing I could do. Apparently people’s rights to buy a book were more valuable to the bookseller than the principle of not peddling hate speech. This is South Asia, Hitler is considered a hero by a lot of people who should know better and many who don’t.

Recently I got news that a man went to a bookstore and complained about a title called Gay Icons of India, and that the bookstore’s response was to apologize profusely and remove the book from the stores and the Web site. Not only did he make repeated threatening posts on the bookstore’s Facebook page, but he tagged people to whip up a vigilante anger against the bookstore and bullied them into taking down the title. Of course, he used the word “Islam” and condemned the bookstore for trying to spread homosexuality in the country. The bookstore had no choice but to remove the book; the threat of fundamentalist violence is too frightening for any company operating in Pakistan to face.

The backlash against the man’s actions came from brave individuals, most of them NOT gay, but incensed by the idea that one person could throw his weight around and violate other people’s right to read whatever they chose. Yet the bookstore did not brook any discussion about this. I myself went to the bookstore and asked about the title. The salesman rebuffed me in a very rude way. “This book has been withdrawn and it will never be sold here.” I understood the tension on his face; who wants an incident over a book about gay people? (Gay people, by the way, do not exist in Pakistan).

Do books about gay people have any place in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan? If the answer is no, then do books about vampires having sex with people (Twilight), unmarried straight people having rough sex (Fifty Shades of Grey), or books about genocidal maniacs promoting killing every Jew in Germany (Mein Kampf)? What about textbooks which portray Hindus as evil? Do these have a place in our country?

What we ban is what we are afraid of. What we ban serves to show us our insecurities, as surely as if we were looking at an X-ray of ourselves. I guess I was the only person afraid of Hitler’s ideology, and most people in Pakistan are more afraid of queers. At least we can go to bed at night, proud that we have our priorities straight in the 21st century.