By Inamullah Marwat
Although the wave of women empowerment had been raging on for a very long time it created a dent in the world history defined by patriarchy in 19th century in the name of feminism when women were enfranchised in the West for the first time. From then onwards, feminism did not look back. And although its journey along the road of women empowerment remained like a ride across a bumpy road, it stepped into the 21st century with a bang, and now women empowerment has become one of the buzzwords of the 21st century. Issues faced by women are no more women-exclusive, reflective from a shift in global think tanks for women empowerment from women and development approach developed in 1970s to gender and development in 1990s. Issues faced by women because of their impact at large on society have been enlisted in the list of Millennium Development Goals, now replaced by Sustainable Development Goals, goals for the fulfilment of which the UN is shepherding the comity of nations through its platform.
Feminism invoked in the West during the 19th century had bearing on all the colonial states that the West ruled. Inspired from the West, the colonial states, after post-independence, borrowed theoretical understanding required for women empowerment, and made it part of their social, legal and economic infrastructure and ethos. The West made its peace with women empowerment in its pluralistic milieu, reflective from different shades of feminism invoked under three waves of feminism by women activists in the West.
However, colonial states when pitted against the challenge of accommodating western ideals in their conservative milieu, after blindly following western ideals of modernity, did not come to terms with those ideals of modernity, considering them something that could debase them from their native roots, and thus the post-colonial states let their societies to delve into a state of inertia. In the face of globalisation where the onslaught of information is in staggering amount making its way to post-colonial statesí societies, the utter confusion on the part of post-colonial states to cope with the dilemma of how to stay afloat with the western modernity while keeping oneís nativism intact has turned post-colonial statesí societies into a split-personality, part of which is defined by lure towards nativism while another part is defined by secularism. The dilemma of post-colonial states about how to cope with the western modernity is epitomised by trajectory of feminism in Pakistan, a British colony that got independence on August 14, 1947.
The real struggle for feminism, inspired from the West, arose in 1980s when Pakistan was under the military coup of its third military dictator, General Zia-ul-Haq, whose narrowly defined version of Sunni Islam defined state’s policy that proved antagonistic towards women in Pakistan. General Ziaís regime gave birth to a particular version of feminism, known as Islamic feminism, which is further split into radical Islamic feminists and modern Islamic feminists, with the former overshadowing the latter. Thus most secular feminists inspired from the western waves of feminism were pitted against Islamic feminism. Feminism in Pakistan, since Zia’s regime, has become prey to this debate whether feminism should be promoted in Pakistan through secular values or Islamic values. Each has got a particular version of women empowerment in Pakistan.
Modern Islamic feminists like Riffat Hussain, Amina Wadud and Asma Barlas seek to further women rights by redefining Islamic views and focusing on the female-centric laws Islam offers. This form of feminism appeals largely to the lower, middle and upper middle strata of society that looks to religion for answers. Secular feminists like Shahnaz Rouse, Fouzia Saeed and Bina Shah consider feminism as an extension of basic human rights, regardless of religious connotations. These women are labelled as protagonists of the West.
Feminism in Pakistan is considered exclusively a women’s domain. So far, the conferences that I have attended in which the sessions set aside for discussion about issues of gender are overshadowed with female panel guest speakers. While I was working on the thesis regarding women empowerment entitled Role of Women in Economic Development of Pakistan: a Case Study of Khyber Pukthunkhwaî as part of my thesis for BA Hons degree at Government College University, Lahore, I discovered a new pattern among both male and female class fellows regarding feminism. They had duality in their approach towards feminism. What appeared to me was that students and teachers were subscribing to women empowerment from academic perspective, but deep within, most of them had misogynistic views. This was what I observed from students views during study circles that I would moderate on weekly basis in university. Not only among males but also in females the complacency with the status quo is palpable.
In academia, hardly anywhere there are critical discussions taking place in which males can be educated about female problems and vice versa.
I remember when I attended the Young Leaders Conference in Karachi conducted by the School of Leadership, Karachi, where we in a group, comprising both males and females, had been assigned a task for preparing a presentation on how health problems faced by women could be reduced, and for that we, males and females, were segregated for discussion on the topic. In a nutshell, graduates, even after completing 16 years of education, carry gender stereotypes in their minds. Their understanding, especially males, of opposite sex, is defined by their narrow understanding of masculinity from both society and academia, which brings me to the words of the Nigerian novelist, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, We stifle humanity of boys. We define masculinity in very narrow ways. Masculinity is hard, small cage, and we put boys inside this cage.
Feminism, in Pakistan, is currently being spearheaded by females, and majority of them are doing their job quite well, which is what Pakistan needs, but for feminism to flourish, males also need to be part of this cause. Together, male and female feminists can beat the monster of patriarchy that feeds on customs, narrow interpretation of religion and lack of quality education among females and males.
A model for sustainable growth and inclusive development in society, with a mixture of Islamic and positive feminist western values, can be made. The current inclusion of gender studies in the list of the optional subjects for the CSS examination is a good development, but much needs to be done in academia, because, at present, although there is empathy for women empowerment in academic circles, but from what I have observed, there is reluctance regarding taking an outright stand for this cause. Essence of education lies in empathy and it can only be invoked through more participatory type of education.