Confessions of a flawed feminist

I recognize that whether we like to admit it or not, there is a deep chasm separating the goals of ‘Eastern’ feminism from those of ‘Western’ feminism.

Maria Amir September 07, 2010
“Should they be like us? Or should they be allowed to be different from us? This has been called an impossible choice.” – Leti Volpp

I recall tumbling upon Volpp’s particular conundrum while I was working on my Master’s degree at Oxford. My preconceived notions regarding ‘feminism’ had hitherto been limited to the patrician suffrage struggles of Virginia Woolf’s essays, a bit of De Beauvoir and the provocative poetry of Urdu poet Parveen Shakir. At the time I still harboured the naïve impression that merely supporting women’s equality against all those that opposed it made me a feminist, until I realised that outside of my own limited borders few people actually opposed equal rights for women.

My experience as a ‘tentative’ feminist has shown me the sheer range of life-choices that can be read in both ‘feminist’ and ‘antifeminist’ contexts; that many women do not think feminism is about ‘choices’ at all but rather about ‘making the right choice’ (sic) and that most of us don’t have a clue about what we want. In my research I have often found Volpp’s question to be a key cornerstone in comprehending how most women view ‘feminism’ today.

Much of third wave feminism boils down to appearances, as the term ‘feminist’ has been conflagrated far beyond its original first and second wave roots. Us modern-day feminists appear to be locating our ‘degree’ of feminism by what we ‘do not’ consider to be empowering rather than what we do - an entire premise constructed in the negative. This explains why the so-called ‘feminist’ Carrie Bradshaw’s and Alley McBeal’s of the silver screen locate their empowerment in being ‘free, fashionable, independent women’ perpetually on the lookout for a man to rescue them from the crippling loneliness of a ‘single’ existence.

It took me a couple of years to decide whether or not I even was a feminist to begin with. Feminism in Pakistan, largely revolves around the struggle for basic human rights for women. While the larger goal is equality between the sexes, day-to-day dealings centre around men who murder their sisters and daughters over pro-choice marriages; the bloody aftermath of honour killings; the sale and purchase of women to fuel red-light districts and whether or not women’s education is ‘important enough’ to merit government attention.

As I sat through my first week of women’s studies classes surrounded by western women speaking about sexual rights, gender hierarchies, fetishisation of the female form, socio-linguistics and homosexuality I recall feeling a desperate need to re-define what all of this meant to me and for me.  I recognized that whether or not we like to admit it, there is a deep chasm separating the goals of ‘Eastern’ feminism from those of ‘Western’ feminism. The former is still struggling with a woman being seen, heard and perceived as human, whereas the latter is struggling with ‘how’ that woman ‘should be’ seen, heard and perceived.

Last year I interviewed a 12-year-old refugee from Swat, who had been raped, flogged and locked in a room for over 3 months, during the Taliban occupancy of the northern valley. I asked her what her dream was and her words remain soldered into my conscience:
We don’t ask for equality or rights, that is all for you educated baji’s (mem sahib’s). We only ask for our men to treat us as well as they treat their animals. You know they never whip their cows; they take care of them. That would be enough for me.

The following month I read several articles in the foreign press hailing Lady Gaga as a new feminist icon. A couple of my feminist friends remarked then, that ‘feminism had lost its mind’ but I remember acknowledging for the first time that this was not the case at all. Feminism didn’t have a mind to lose. That is, if we are still working within the premise that feminism poses equality for ‘all women’. Women, constituting nearly half the human population of this planet cannot and should not be required to have ‘one mind’.

It was among Western feminists, that I recognized that most of my feminist arguments were constructed from within a space that Ranjit Guha referred to as ‘identity-in-differential’ and what Derrida termed as ‘antre’ – a third group of the ‘elite’ third-world woman speaking from a much-tainted, confused but necessary  ‘buffer zone’. So much of feminism today rides on highlighting ‘anti-feminist’ behaviour over building bridges between the various strands of feminism. We need agents that can get a ‘Sex and the City’ Samantha exclaiming ‘leg’s aren’t the enemy’ to acknowledge and/or even speak to a Pakistani rape survivor Mukhtara Mai. Many claim that this dialogue (should it happen) could prove counter-productive to ‘the Cause’. The latter being the mythical feminist holy grail for every denomination justifying its own bracketed agenda over what feminism was supposed to be all about: choice.

This is why Volpp’s question is utterly demeaning when it posits ‘or should they be allowed to be different from us?’ As if each and every one of us isn’t already different from the other.

We are all ‘others’.

What could possibly be more ‘feminist’ than working towards making all of those differences a choice rather than a consequence?
Maria Amir The writer has a Masters degree in Women's Studies from Oxford University and writes on identity, culture and current affairs
The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necassarily reflect the views and policies of the Express Tribune.