Understanding feminism

Published: August 22, 2012
The writer is an author, most recently of Slum Child (2010). She has written for numerous publications including Dawn, The Friday Times and Chowk

The writer is an author, most recently of Slum Child (2010). She has written for numerous publications including Dawn, The Friday Times and Chowk

A recent report about women in Iran being banned from over 70 university courses is cause for alarm: the academic achievements of Iran’s women have angered its conservatives, who have now decreed that women cannot study in certain faculties, including English literature, nuclear physics, hotel management and engineering. This proves that women’s rights can never be taken for granted because there is always a backlash. It also illustrates how in patriarchal societies that want to be seen as ‘benevolent’, they will only let women go so far before shoving them back in their ‘place’. It’s all too common for the powers that be to see women’s rights as threatening men’s rights, not seeing that both can coexist. But this is endemic narrow-minded thinking: the belief that a woman rising up means a man being co-opted from his position of dominance.

People respond negatively to the idea of equal rights for women: “Why are feminists always angry?” and “Why do you always want to bash men and put them down?” Yet, feminists aren’t trying to put men down; we’re trying to pull ourselves up, to rise out of the underground pits into which we’ve been consigned since the beginning of history. People don’t understand that social injustice should make you very, very angry and chauvinism and patriarchy are inherently unjust.

In an essay by the author, poet and feminist bell hooks (who intentionally does not capitalise her name) called “Understanding Patriarchy“, hooks says:

“Patriarchy is a political-social system that insists that males are inherently dominating, superior to everything and everyone deemed weak, especially females, and endowed with the right to dominate and rule over the weak and to maintain that dominance through various forms of psychological terrorism and violence.”

hooks makes a strong argument that if patriarchy was really so beneficial to men, they’d be a lot more mentally, emotionally and physically healthy than they are now. She classifies the way men treat women under patriarchal systems as a mental illness. And she says that both men and women are complicit in perpetuating this system because they’ve been brainwashed to do so since birth. There are paybacks to participating in patriarchy: control and dominance for men and a vicarious form of power, which trickles down to the women who help to maintain it by riding over their sisters and enforcing the patriarchal status quo.

In Pakistan, ‘feminism’ is seen as a dirty word but patriarchy is a word that is hardly even discussed or understood, although it is the social and political code by which we live our lives. It is the system that allows a myriad of abuses against women to take place: the obvious ones, which result in the grievous injury or death of a girl or woman, but also the subtle ones in which women are demeaned, insulted, harassed, excluded, sidelined, and diminished.

Patriarchy is why men feel justified in saying ‘there should be limits for women’ or ‘you can’t allow women to have all freedoms because that would result in the destruction of society’. It distorts the verses of the Holy Quran to justify laws, behaviours and crimes that discriminate against women, running completely against the spirit of Islam, which guarantees equality and fairness towards both sexes. It thinks of a boy baby as more desirable than a girl baby, it feeds a boy more than a girl, it sends a boy to school and keeps a girl at home. It is a system that is inherently destructive, unhealthy and holds us back from economic, intellectual, social and spiritual progress.

Patriarchy has dominated our lives but it has only given power and control to one half of society, while keeping the other half in a position not dissimilar to that of servants and slaves, no matter how much lip service is paid to how much women are respected in our society. Anyone with open eyes can see that this is simply another one of the lies that we comfort ourselves with while social injustice plagues our lives.

One day, both men and women of Pakistan will recognise there’s another way of living our lives, one that gives both genders equality, respect and dignity. Feminism will also be recognised as the struggle to make that dream a reality: not a worldview that sees men as the enemy but a way of encouraging and empowering women to rise and stand side-by-side with men as their partners, helpmates and friends. And men, too, will realise that they must free themselves from the prison of patriarchy in order to preserve both their sanity and their humanity.

Published in The Express Tribune, August 23rd, 2012.

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Reader Comments (24)

  • Sinclair
    Aug 22, 2012 - 9:53PM

    It would have been great if you had explained in a little detail why religion cannot override this, since people keep saying that Islam was the first religion which gave women equal rights. Why is this not true in Saudi, Iran, even Turkey?


  • observer
    Aug 22, 2012 - 10:06PM

    One day, both men and women of Pakistan will recognise there’s another way of living our lives, one that gives both genders equality, respect and dignity.


    You mean someday they will realise that they have been living under a falsehood and been calling it divine.


  • Lubna Khan
    Aug 22, 2012 - 10:10PM

    Some of the most misogynistic people i’ve know in life have been pakistani women.The amount of self-loathing present in our ladies is disturbing.They pass on this hatred of the female gender to their daughters and grand daughters.Women in our society inherently think of girls as inferior to men,they keep this attitude in the way they raise their daughters and sons,daughters are always taught to sacrifice their desires for the benefit of the brothers because the brothers are more important,their needs are more important.
    It’s high time the women of pakistan got criticised and condemned for further perpetuating the interests of patriarchy in our society.Misogynistic women shouldn’t be given a free pass just because they’re women.


  • M Baloch
    Aug 22, 2012 - 10:19PM

    As Goebbals said repeatedly spoken lie becomes truth, an Islamic republic who gave voice to the women in the country, allowed them to become vice president how they can ban female education. All propganda is there and no one cites a sngle reference from the country’s media where they balme. Here is what happened in past when presidient AhmadiNejad himself disapproved such moves: http://www.radiozamaneh.com/english/content/science-minister-halts-gender-segregation-universities

    A country of such high rate of female literacy which was promoted by the revolution how can ban it? A simple question which author didn’t bother to think and relied on reports in westren media. As for as what is feminism, no can explain better than this US-Iranian philosopher:


  • BlackJack
    Aug 22, 2012 - 11:43PM

    Patriarchy sanctioned by tribal society is bad enough; patriarchy enforced by religious diktat is when it gets truly stifling – one would imagine that this patience and forbearance of women would be appreciated atleast in the afterlife. But no, rewards even in the hereafter are also supposed to be much more attractive for men (I haven’t heard of 72 male models sitting around waiting for you up there) – so they have it good in this world and the next; Guess you just can’t win.


  • Syed
    Aug 23, 2012 - 12:34AM

    Women have done so much in Iran. They are working in almost every field possible. I really doubt this report and most likely its a western propaganda


  • Aug 23, 2012 - 1:26AM

    Patriarchy has been beneficial in evolutionary terms. It allowed men to dominate and adopt the hunter-gatherer role and restrict women from joining him. Moreover, women’s bodies also played a role in this ingrained patriarchy: they look for a male mate who will provide them security. They do not mate with a male who cannot provide them and their fertilized egg with security and resources. This very need and weakness of a woman perpetuates the patriarchal behaviors.

    Ms Bina Shah, I am brave enough to find beauty in science, evolutionary and patriarchal behaviors that support human evolution. Are you brave enough to delegate to yourself what evolution dictates you ought to be like?


  • pmbm
    Aug 23, 2012 - 7:17AM

    Writer has made good points, but she does not need to use feminism to correct.She did quote Quran where women can find most support. Let us not forget prophet (PBUH) worked for a business woman who later married him. One need to ignore idiotic comments [email protected] blackjack, obviously knowing nothing about Islam,and blinded by prejudice.Recommend

  • Imran Con
    Aug 23, 2012 - 7:39AM

    @Lubna Khan:
    Misery loves company. It’s a little cliche, but the scenario you give is probably one of the best representation of it being true to life.


  • wonderer
    Aug 23, 2012 - 8:41AM

    Men are actually not sure of their own superiority. They would not allow equality for women fearing the women may instead prove to be superior.


  • Tina
    Aug 23, 2012 - 9:36AM

    We live in a society where women are bashed by women for speaking for women’s rights and supporting Feminism!


  • Aug 23, 2012 - 12:35PM

    Dear Bina, there is a fundamental misunderstanding perpetuated by the Telegraph article and conbstantly repeated. We all tend to get misled. please have a read here.
    Feminism is Iran is not weak. I was there recently as well. there are restrictions but underneath there are also a lot of positives that we in in Pakistan are far behind in concerning issuesthat relate to gender.


  • SharifL
    Aug 23, 2012 - 1:44PM

    Nice article written with optimism, although highlighting the problems women face. I was reading somewhere, that Gender-based violence in 3rd world causes more deaths and disabilities among women aged 15 to 44 than cancer, malaria, traffic accidents and war. Basically it’s safer to spend Friday nights chain smoking on the autobahn in Africa with a bag of Congolese mosquitoes, in fog, than to be a woman in large swathes of the world. It’s not possible to have a daughter and ignore the fact that every year, 60 million girls are sexually assaulted at or en route to school. One in five women will become a victim of rape or attempted rape in her lifetime. One in four women will be a victim of domestic violence in her lifetime – many of these on a number of occasions. Women who experience violence are up to three times more likely to acquire HIV. Indeed, it is now among women and children, not the men spreading it, that Aids is most prevalent. Among national governments, 29% lack laws or policies to prevent violence against women. Women hold only 19% of the world’s parliamentary seats.Have you had enough yet? I certainly had.


  • Mohni
    Aug 23, 2012 - 2:39PM

    @Sinclair: Very valid point!


  • Hala
    Aug 23, 2012 - 3:44PM

    @Nikhil Banerjee:
    patriarchy might have been beneficial at some point in time. but now it is harmful and also not working. if a system doesnt work you change it not stick to it religiously fearing any divergence from the status quo


  • Ebad
    Aug 23, 2012 - 4:20PM

    @wonderer: If women need men to “allow” them to have equal rights, it is sufficient proof that women consider themselves inferior. Any person who is equal to another person never require their permission. Hence, its not men who are unsure, it you is unsure.


  • wonderer
    Aug 23, 2012 - 5:08PM



    Your observation, Sir, would be perfectly valid if women were living in an equal society. They live in Man’s world. (Don’t women need the permission of some man to allow them even the “privilege” of driving a car in Saudi Arabia?)

    May I recommend to you, if you have not already read it The Second Sex by the French existentialist Simone de Beauvoir. I am sure you would enjoy reading it, and learn so much more about women all over the world, and then perhaps agree with me.


  • Muhammad Ishaq
    Aug 23, 2012 - 5:21PM

    Patriarchy is criminal. All religions and old idealogies perpetrated it. But now it is past. We should learn like all progressive societies to make our mothers, daughters and wives parterners in progress and not become hurdle in their life.


  • nikhil banerjee
    Aug 23, 2012 - 7:39PM

    @ Hala : i am an evolutionist and i dont believe in any system other than evolution to human societies and behaviors. You used the word ‘might’ in your comment. If you are not sure then maybe ylu might want to read about evolution of humans and human anthropology.

    And how do you know patriarchy is not working ? I see it as working flawlessly todah creating selective pressures and boosting human evolution. Can you believe that male orgasm and desire for lots of sex resulted in evolution of orgasm in women too. It however was not perfect and that is why upto 40% of women never experience orgasm.


  • Babar
    Aug 23, 2012 - 8:51PM

    I would have given some credence to your arguments if I had not read your views on feudalism. Clearly, you think that feudals are benevolent masters and like parents and if their control over peasants, though maybe morally wrong, is taken away, the poor peasants wont know how to survive and the society will crumble. So , by same arguments, men are benevolent masters who only exercise their power for the benefit of the family and if their control is taken away, the society will crumble. Because what do the poor women know?


  • khan
    Aug 24, 2012 - 4:41AM

    @pmbm … I think the author is not so naive as to quote quran for supporting feminism. She is just held back by the blasphemy law from talking openly obout islam.. Anyone with a little sanity and an open mind knows that islam has never really been for women.. It is the biggest obstacle in our path to equality in our society… And how can you ignore the comment of BlackJack?.. Well, ofcourse u will ignore such comments as u have been trained since childhood to ignore questions which attack ur deeply held prejudices for ur unjust religion…


  • M
    Aug 24, 2012 - 10:30PM

    Equality is not feminism.

    The rights of women is not the same as feminism.

    Both genders NEED to be equal. Feminism cannot not deliver that.

    Search the web for “GirlWritesWhat” and listen to what she has to say. It might just change your world-view.


  • Bina Shah
    Aug 26, 2012 - 9:38AM


    GirlWritesWhat – Oh, you mean that video blogger who’s on the Men’s Rights boards at Reddits? I have heard her stuff before. Not interested in that kind of Judas, thanks very much.

    As for those of you stating the report on Iran must be “Western propaganda”, I hope you’ve had a chance to realize that it’s been confirmed by at least two dozen independent news outlets. Not only that, but it was never reported as sanctioned by Iran’s government,but by 36 universities. And I hope you realize that in Iran’s power structure, conservative clerics I fluency everything, including the government and the education sectors. Now try to pin that one on”Western propaganda”.


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