Do Muslim Women Need Feminism?

That was the name of a laughable seminar organized by God knows who at the International Islamic University of Malaysia. The laughable part was the two speakers involved, as you’ll see from the event poster below:

Now, there’s nothing wrong with organizing a seminar on whether or not Muslim women need feminism, but what’s truly hilarious is getting two men to sit on a stage and tell Muslim women whether they need feminism or not.

Seriously, could this university not find any Muslim women to talk on the subject? I’m not even sure these two men were Malaysian, so I have my doubts as to whether or not they could even speak on the context of Malaysian Muslim women’s lives.

Anyway, after the seminar, an audience member posted on Facebook that it was every bit the car wreck you’d expect such a condescending event to be. The two men sat on stage and lectured the audience on how women are inferior physically, mentally and emotionally. They used outdated science, tired arguments, and bankrupt philosophy to ultimately conclude that Muslim women did not need feminism. From all accounts it sounds like they did everything except say that feminism is a Western plot invented by Shaitan to lead Muslim women astray.

It’s certainly possible to deny women their rights and use Islam as justification for doing so, look to misogynist jurists, scholars, and translators for evidence that women are inferior to men. But it is intellectually dishonest to do so.

Enough scholarship exists to prove that this is one the biggest scams in the Muslim world: the revolutionary spirit of the early years in Islam — where strong women were lauded, where equality was enshrined in the Quran, when the mechanisms for guaranteeing women their economic independence and their dignity were put in place — was trampled upon by men who could not bear to give up their privilege They misinterpreted, mistranslated, and twisted everything in order to come up with the same scrambled patriarchy enjoyed by their forefathers.

For many Muslim women who identify as feminists, and for many feminists who identify as Muslim women, here’s what the answer to the question looks like:

God, through Islam, gave me equal rights. Muslim men conspired to take them away. Feminism helped me to stand up and reclaim them.

Why I am a Feminist in Pakistan

My name is Bina Shah and I am a writer, essayist, and feminist.
Feminism is really nothing to be afraid of, even though in Pakistan it is a dirty word, a sign that you’re an atheist, a Western agent, a threat to the system. I’m neither an atheist nor a Western agent. But I am a feminist. I am a threat to the system, to the status quo that dictates where women “should be” in our society. I decided a long time ago that the system was rotten, and that feminism was the best way for me to upend that system. In my talk with you I’m going to explain to you why I made that decision and what I think is at stake.

Continue reading “Why I am a Feminist in Pakistan”

Here Comes the Burqa Avenger!

I’ve just watched the first episode of Burka Avenger GEO TV’s new cartoon for children about a woman called Jiya, mild-mannered schoolteacher by day, superhero by night, who dons a burka in order to fight villains in her village. They’re corrupt baddies who try to shut down the girls’ school and wreak all sorts of havoc on the villagers because, well, they’re villains. Accompanying Burka Avenger on her adventures are three children and a goat, who may well turn out to be the surprise star of the series because he’s so darned cute.

Don’t mess with the lady in black

The lady in black, the lady in black

Don’t mess with the lady in black

When she’s on the attack! (Theme song by Haroon and Adil Omer)

The animation is slick, the production values high (way too many commercials, though!), the motivation behind the series noble: pens and books are more powerful weapons than guns and bombs. It was funny, and quite cute, and spreads a good message, coming at a time when Malala Yousufzai and education activists and millions of school-going children are trying to prove that Pakistan is a more fertile ground for education than for terrorism.  It’s a brilliant idea, too, because rather than lecturing children from a position of adult authority, it has the potential to get children excited about going to school, placing within the context of a fight between good and evil. This way, the show can teach them values they’re easily primed to grasp because of their previous exposure to cartoons and superheroes.

I’m especially pleased that the superhero is a woman, not a man. Pakistani society is hypermasculinized: children are used to seeing men in positions of power and authority, as leaders, military men, policemen, et cetera. They absorb this as the natural order of things from such early ages that it’s almost impossible to undo this conditioning later in life. Whereas the women of Pakistan are the silent heroes on the frontlines of the war we’ve got ourselves involved in today: schoolteachers, health workers and human rights activists are targeted by extremists and attacked and killed for going out and doing their ordinary jobs. It’s wonderful to see a woman being feted for something so true to life, and also to see that when her job is threatened, she doesn’t succumb to the aggression but instead fights back and triumphs. The children of Pakistan need this lesson as well.

The show has to be careful not to reinforce stereotypes: I was troubled by the idea of one of the villains, Vadero Pajero (although the name does make me laugh when I hear it out loud) – which may lead children to think that all rural authority figures are evil and want to stop children from going to school. In reality it’s the Taliban who are closing down girls’ schools, not the waderas, but while the show’s producers shy away from naming the Taliban, they’re happy to name a wadera as one of the main villains.  It also conflates waderas (literally, influential people in a rural community) with zamindars (landowners), which I find troubling in its inaccuracy.

Perhaps children in the city will swallow this easily as most urban-dwelling people think of rural landowners as the root of all evil in Pakistan, but rural children who watch the program will become confused about their parents’ employers, who may or may not be the same as the evil landlord portrayed in the cartoon. I think the producers of the show could do some thinking about this for future episodes, and perhaps introduce a balancing character, a zamindar more sympathetic to Jiya’s cause, for example. In our divided society, it’s of utmost importance that we introduce harmony between the rural and urban populations, not sow more seeds of division and misunderstanding.

Some people in Pakistan have been questioning the celebration of the Burka in the cartoon, which is a tool of oppression for women in Pakistan.  I hold the same opinion about the burka – the burka is a cultural instrument, not a religious one, and has been used to hold women back. It use restricts you from doing any physical activity, keeps you shrouded in anonymity, and came into fashion when people wanted to look more like Arabs than South Asians. Is it right to take the burka and make it look “cool” for children, to brainwash girls into thinking that a burka gives you power instead of taking it away from you?

There’s no simple answer to this question. First of all, the show’s producers have made the burka a special outfit to be worn only when there’s tough work to be done: Jiya doesn’t wear a burka when she’s teaching in the school or going about her daily life.

Also, they’ve done something rather tongue-in-cheek: women wearing burkas often get compared to ninjas. “Ninja Turtle” is a common epithet for burka-wearing women who behave aggressively in public, thinking that the burka gives them the religious superiority and moral authority to break every rule in sight, especially while driving. There are gangs of burka-clad women shoplifting and pickpocketing shoppers in Pakistani shopping malls. The head of the Lal Masjid in Islamabad wore a burka to escape being killed during the siege.

The producers decided to turn this on its head and make the burka wearing Jiya an actual ninja who uses a special kind of martial arts (pens and books instead of nun chucks and swords) against her enemies. She can leap up and levitate in the air, fly from tree to tree, has the moves of Neo from the Matrix combined with an Olympic gymnast. In real life you couldn’t do any of that wearing a real burka, but Jiya’s burka is magic (and also less voluminous – and she wears black nail polish to match, a cool touch). And a superhero needs her invisibility cloak. Haroon has said it’s a step up from the tight costumes of Western superheroes, like Catwoman, Wonder Woman and Supergirl.

The superhero’s costume is such an integral part of his or her identity that it’s hard to escape from the question of whether or not the burka is an appropriate choice for Pakistan’s first female superhero. Yes, the burka is oppressive, and not even religiously mandated. However, we also can’t deny the fact that in super-conservative areas of Pakistan (not just rural and mountainous – many women who don’t wear a burka in their own villages will wear one in Karachi or Lahore because it’s a big city full of strangers), the burka provides women with a modicum of agency. Women who would be confined to their houses are allowed to go out if they are wearing a burka.

I wish it weren’t so, but it is. Should we perpetuate the idea that women are strong when they put on the burka? Definitely not. Pakistani girls and women need to know that their natural state of being is not hidden away, shrouded by yards of black cloth to make their presence in society acceptable, safe, or halal. They need to learn that modesty can be interpreted in many different ways, and that a simple shalwar kameez and dupatta are good enough for us, because we’re Pakistanis, not Arabs (“Why not Dupatta Dhamaka, which is more in keeping with who we are?” asks writer for the New York Times Huma Yusuf). It will horrify me if little girls start wearing burkas in imitation of their hero, because that would be indoctrination of the worst kind.

Note:My perfect ending to the Burka Avenger series would be that after the villains are vanquished, Jiya hangs up her burka in the closet and never needs to wear it again.

You can read about Burka Avenger in the New York Times here. I’m quoted in the piece.


Here are Adil Omar‘s lyrics for the theme song, “Lady in Black”, which I adore wholeheartedly.

Camouflage, shadows and darkness

No guns, but got ammo regardless

A backpack so she’s coming prepared

To leave the opposition in submission, running in fear

Yeah – superhero got ’em kicking and screaming

In hysterics, these clerics had envisioned a demon 

A spirit so quick to deliver a beating

To the enemies of peace, love, logic and reason

Yeah – hit ’em with a logical reason

Kill extremism, corruption and just stop it from breathing

The way it was, she’ll be taking it back

So tune in for the story of the lady in black

Don’t mess with the lady in black

The lady in black, the lady in black

Don’t mess with the lady in black

When she’s on the attack

Don’t mess with the lady in black

The lady in black, the lady in black

Don’t mess with the lady in black

When she’s on the attack

Lean, mean, covered from her head to her toes

In a one piece, slick invisibility cloak

She got her eyes visible so she can give you the look

And lay the smack down on all these dirty killers and crooks

Like a panther going in for the attack and the win

The lethal weapon in her hands is a book and a pen

The silent ninja, vigilante in the dark of the night

Would never roll over, cause she has to stand up and fight

Her fists banging harder than the drums in the song

Reminisce about the time before the guns and the bombs

The way it was, she’ll be taking it back

so stay tuned for the story of the lady in black

Don’t mess with the lady in black

The lady in black, the lady in black

Don’t mess with the lady in black

When she’s on the attack

Don’t mess with the lady in black

The lady in black, the lady in black

Don’t mess with the lady in black

When she’s on the attack

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

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.