Patriarchy is about control. It is a method aimed at controlling the lives of women in a way that best suits the dominance of men over them. The foundations of that control have grown shakier as the feminist movement around the world has started to challenge the stereotypes that women have had to endure for far too long. That movement, blossoming out of the phrase ‘Me Too’ has come to Pakistan. And Pakistan’s patriarchy is squirming.
The aftermath of the ‘Aurat March’ has exposed just how insecure men in Pakistan are about women being free. There is a thread of hatred running through the reactions of many men (and sadly some women) towards women having the gall to talk about wanting the same freedom that men have enjoyed for centuries. The critics have come forward in droves. Picking and choosing certain posters from the Aurat March to try and reinforce the common stereotype in Pakistan that feminism is a gateway to vulgar and obscene behaviour. They call the Aurat March a failure because they ask: what has it achieved? Aren’t women in poor rural areas still oppressed? Aren’t things like honour killings still happening?
These people are missing the point — because they want to.
No one who participated in the ‘Aurat March’ thought that by marching from point A to point B they would magically eliminate all forms of discrimination against women. Instead, the ‘Aurat March’ was about women obtaining a platform to exercise free speech and their right to protest. It was a means of catharsis. Of generating debate about issues that people in Pakistan don’t want women to talk about. In doing that, it was a resounding success. It generated a debate that exposed just how entrenched patriarchy is in our society. Notice, for example, how women mentioning the problems they have to face while on their periods was met with a gale of anger on social media. See also how a poster speaking about women being free from unsolicited male pictures was met with mockery. If anything, the ‘Aurat March’ has convinced me that women talking about issues that plague them day in and day out terrifies men in Pakistan.
Let’s address for a second some of the popular arguments that have been put forward against the ‘Aurat March’. First, the argument that has gained a significant amount of traction in recent days is that the march took away from the ‘real issues’ women face in this country.
Now I have to put aside the irony of men telling women what their ‘real issues’ are if I want to take this argument seriously. This argument reeks of perspective bias. The ‘Aurat March’ was about freedom. It was as much about social and economic issues as it was about micro-aggressive behaviour that many women have to face on a daily basis. Had the people who are so quick to criticise the march actually participated in it, they would have seen the plethora of posters and slogans regarding equal pay, freedom to work, elimination of honour killings, etc. But people didn’t see those posters on social media. Because that’s how perspective bias works. You pick and choose the slogans and posters that reinforce the stereotypes in your head.
Even otherwise, why do people act like arguments regarding what women can wear and arguments regarding, say, equal pay for equal work are mutually exclusive? As if women can only choose one strand of freedom to speak about while forsaking the other. How does a woman saying she doesn’t want your filthy text messages in her inbox undermine the woman who is arguing for equal pay for equal work? I’m sure wherever a woman works, she would appreciate the freedom from vulgar messages from her male colleagues.
Consider also the popular argument of the moral crusader. We all know the one who has a predilection towards comparing women to wrapped lollipops. The argument goes that feminism is a one-way ticket to vulgarity. It will lead to the deterioration of the moral compass of society. Nature has, after all, prescribed a place for women. It is immoral to go against that.
A reminder is necessary here that the moral code that people harp on has been crafted by men, not women, over centuries. No prizes for guessing who that moral code favours. It’s the same moral code that said it was a woman’s natural place to stay at home and not work. The same one that prevented women from voting. The same one that said your wife was your property and there was no such thing as marital rape.
As for feminism and vulgarity, it is hilarious how some men, when faced with a woman demanding that she be free to wear what she wants, act like this will lead to women running naked in the streets. They don’t understand that this is merely women demanding the same rights that men have enjoyed for centuries. You know, the ability to choose what to wear and when. And yet, we — thankfully — don’t see an abundance of men running naked in the streets. So why the anxiety about women?
I have no reason to fear feminism, because I understand it. It is not a movement that hates men, it is a movement that hates patriarchy. The distinction is right there for anyone who wishes to understand it. If you have come to understand feminism through a steady diet of memes, then, you probably think that feminism is about women hating men and wanting a world without them. The remedy for your myopia is available at the nearest library and I would urge you to read some Catherine MacKinnon.
For men who have grown accustomed to patriarchy’s ability to let them control women, feminism is a scary thing. If feminism scares you, perhaps you need to introspect. Because feminism will only scare you if you are the sort who likes controlling women.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 12th, 2019.