Womansplaining: A Conversation With Sherry Rehman

Womansplaining: A Conversation With Sherry Rehman
Raza Rumi: Welcome to Think Fest Conversations, and it is a great pleasure and honour to be with Senator Sherry Rehman who is Pakistan's foremost parliamentarian, a leading voice on women's rights, human rights, and democracy. Senator Rehman has a long list of accomplishments, but let me just name a few. She's a fourth-term parliamentarian, a diplomat, a civil society activist, and is currently the leader of opposition in the Pakistani senate. She's also been the ambassador of Pakistan to the US, as well as the federal minister for information and broadcasting. It is such a great pleasure, Sherry, to talk about your new book: a volume that comes at a very critical time when we see a new wave of feminism and women's activism in the country, and I thought that you know that the title is so provocative and catchy. So maybe I'll start with that, you know. We know about mansplaining, but I think let's talk a bit about mansplaining and womansplaining. You mentioned in your introduction that you appropriated this to articulate certain voices, so maybe let's start with the title. How did you come up with the title?

Sherry Rehman: Thank you very much, Raza. You've always been a supporter of women's rights in not just Pakistan but everywhere in the world, so you will understand, and I'm sure many of our viewers would. There's been a long history of women not speaking out or constantly being asked to hold back or being the last to have their say, if at all. So I mean, one of the factors keeping women's voices off the public agenda anywhere in the world–and I'm not just saying Pakistan, I mean anywhere in the world and particularly in South Asia and Pakistan–has been, you know, a large infrastructure of insidious patriarchy that keeps women always slightly off the center, slightly not in charge, perhaps token. So you know when men always speak out before or speak for women and make decisions for then. The term mansplaining has come into play, not from me or anybody. It has a pejorative and a negative term, and I explained in my book that often I would say to people, “let me just womansplain this to you because you’re mansplaining to me,” and very often, I think women just want to have their say. They're not trying to talk anyone down, nor are they looking to shut men out of the conversation or exclude the voices of women. I think women are naturally inclusive, and we're nurturers; we run the largest care economy in the world, as you know. In Pakistan, it's just become very challenging as the years go on to even speak out today. We are seeing young women who are angry and unka ghussa bohot jaiz hai. I apologise if I slip into Urdu once in a while. It's very valid and looks at the lives they have to lead just, every statement, har mutalba, jo bhi maangein, jo bhi kahein, jitna bhi choti baat ho, it just gets met with such violent responses that, you know, naturally women are beginning to say: this is the 21st century, we should not really be having to talk about the same things we spoke about 30 40 years ago, but here we are. We are not even only talking about the same things, but we are now being questioned about why we are actually speaking out. I'm not saying we weren't questioned before, but there were some easier binaries to operate in. Today, it's a world where the culture of misogyny is so insidious. It's so spread out, and it's in every fragment, you know, it's in every texture of conversation, society, public, private, that women really need the ability to hold on to some hope that they have people speaking for them. That there's a history of women speaking out and that there will always continue to be those that speak out for others. And for that I include my male friends too, such as yourself and supporters and colleagues. So this is not an exclusive term. It includes women in our circle of growth and nurturing, and I think this is something that we need to claim for ourselves in terms of space and rights.


RR: Thank you, and you know, I do want to ask many questions about your own journey, but I think I would like to first focus a bit on the anthology itself: 22 leading voices, younger and older. You know, from Hina Jilani to Rimmal, and the new upcoming feminists. How did you put together that list and bring them all together. I mean, it is a difficult selection. You've been an editor as well, and so what was the process? I mean, how did you identify them? I know there's a great essay by Nighat Daad on the digital age, and how feminists are navigating social media. So maybe a bit about the process?

SR: Yes, so Raza, as you know, things are not easy, especially when you're putting big voices together. People tend to feel that they must say what they think, and that's fair. What I did was to curate this over a period of time. It's something I wanted to do for a long time, and actually, it was a commitment I had made to other women. Asma Shirazi once said, two-three years ago at a lecture (I was keynoting there) and I made some corrections to what the younger women had perceived or understood to be outcomes of the old women's struggles […] They turned around and said to me, including Asma Shirazi, that “this is your responsibility. We don't know about these things. We don't know that you actually took the teeth out of the Hudood ordinance and all sorts of other activisms that went on.” I said, “hmm, you're actually quite right,” and so that this germ stayed in my mind, and then during the first COVID wave, I had a bit of time to think about it with my collaborator in this. I have to say that it was another man Hassan Akbar who was working at GI at that time: we put together a list we thrashed and thrashed, so I said that I want the older women, the heroes, as I call them, to actually speak about their own journeys; the context they worked in how they saw movements at that time linked to South Asia’s larger movements – because that was the case. […] I saw that the two generations had different impetuses different contexts, and I felt there was a need to build a bridge.

This book is a sort of, you know, an intellectual convening of sorts, and those are needed. And then, after getting some of the stories out, we started thinking, “Now let's assign actual areas of concern to women who have actually achieved and spoken out in those areas.” […]
We are not even only talking about the same things, but we are now being questioned about why we are actually speaking out. I'm not saying we weren't questioned before, but there were some easier binaries to operate in. Today, it's a world where the culture of misogyny is so insidious

RR: Yes, I mean, it kind of brings in a wide variety of contemporary challenges, especially where patriarchy sort of makes either services or rights difficult.

SR: I had to badger Rafia Zakaria to write about the COVID pandemic for women, domestic violence, and all. So people were forthcoming. They just responded so generously. I'm very grateful, and I mean even to the edits to everything.


RR:  Yes, we know. The work speaks for itself, and that's what strikes you when you read through. I mean, it's also a kind of alternative commentary and insight into contemporary Pakistan. So I find that as a most valuable part of this book. But I also I do wonder how you, Senator Rehman, see your own essay on the parliament, which is of course, not only very interesting, but a central sort of piece in this volume. We have seen contradictory trends. We have seen, on the one hand, women such as yourselves, you know, tabling all these laws bringing about legislative changes, generating business in the parliament, and on the other hand, we also see a push back in on the reserved quotas. You know, the current ruling party. In the past, they have been challenging these seats, and they've been saying this is all the “elite women” coming to the parliament – and you address this issue. I'd like to know a bit more, and I'm sure viewers would be interested: as a parliamentarian and politician, how have you navigated this space, and what do you think of women's role in the parliament at large?

SR: Raza, it's a very tough space. (If I may call you Raza since you're hell-bent on calling me Senator Rehman!) So you know it's been it's a challenge, and it's like women's lives are activisms. […] Now it feels very often like ‘one step forward two steps backward.’ Which is why I, as the journalist said to me the other day, I have felt that I had to do the book – because there have been many steps taken forward. Women have been stellar performers despite the drawbacks, their lack of parliamentary literacy, etc. Having been stellar performers in parliament and still having to confront things like “Oh what are women actually doing?”

There was an educated people's group – I have to say ‘literate people's WhatsApp,’ you know, these WhatsApps! And one of them said “Oh why aren't the women standing up and changing all this tomorrow?” I was gobsmacked, and I said “You know which context you are living in and why must the women actually speak out. What are you doing about it? Very often, 17 to 21 percent of parliament is the total that we woman have ever risen to, including general seats. At times the parliamentary business quota has reached 72 percent by women: by that 17 to 21 percent of parliamentarians who are women. And literally, it's the core of 10 percent: they just pushed. That transformed parliamentary discourse. People don't realize that from the 2002 assembly onwards, where I had moved five bills for women's empowerment, media freedoms, freedom of information and all of that. It changed the discourse and women have stayed that course.

They speak about everything and they move on everything but they're vigilant. They do their homework and despite the media glare that we are subjected to – “oh what colour was she wearing, uh what was her bag looking like?” – and this objectification carries on but women just have stayed the course and are even more forthcoming in supporting each other across the divide. When I became chair of the foreign relations committee, I noticed that women across the divide were actually very supportive and one person actually not from my party transferred into the committee saying that “I want to be in your committee” – so there is this kind of edginess to our lives there […]

You know, mine is a party that is clear about these things, so very often we are ending up standing alone in telling the rest of the parliament that you cannot speak like this to women or about women or somehow you know there's always a kind of insidious mummy track: that your “real” job is at home. I mean you're all mothers and sisters, aren't you? I have to stand up and say “well, my identity is mine entirely. I’ve navigated this and it doesn't matter whose wife mother sister daughter I am. I’m sorry that's not the source of my identity” – and you have to keep saying this to give you know courage and hope and hosla to others. […]
Benazir Bhutto was a believer in not just mainstreaming women but giving outspoken women a megaphone. And she did that and basically recruited me in politics, and I was quite difficult about coming out from a from a civil society and journalists’ role, which allows you a certain amount of freedom. Politics has its own restrictions, so I said, “I’m not sure you want somebody as outspoken and undiplomatic as myself. I like to be candid, I like to speak my mind.”


RR: In your introduction, you also mentioned somewhere how these changes and steps forward are vulnerable . You dwell a bit on the new wave, Aurat March, you know – which the late Rubina Saigol who just recently passed away called the fourth wave in Pakistan. I think it will be great to hear from you about these young women marching in big cities and the kind of backlash that they're getting. So how do you see this and how do you frame the journey from the Women’s Action Forum (WAF) or the kind of work that your generation did this sort of newer feminism of the younger women?

S.R.: I mean we as the older lot feel that they are living in a much more complex setup. They're facing a far more complex set of challenges. Violent extremism has come to the surface since you know the 1990s onwards in ways that we have not seen before. The space for progressive conversations and public discourse as you know keeps shrinking so women get caught in the crosshairs of that. They have no longer the first elected woman prime ministers of the Muslim world like Benazir Bhutto inviting them into parliament, giving them hosla – there's none of that anymore. There's a different culture and while digital forums do create a space for change, they are very predatory, and women are facing different predations […] The younger women, I’m fascinated at the stunning array of classes and voices – you know, backgrounds – that come together on International Women's Day when they do the Aurat March. It's actually become a beautiful movement but it's not really cohered into a movement as such and many of us sisters would say that it's not a movement with identifiable outcomes attached to it. […] They have goals, and they identify them. Every year, they put down an impressive list of tasks from the state and from society. The underlying issues are structural of course, but you still have to chip away somewhere. You have to start with the unglamorous part of the increment and keep at it and in this I think they have not connected to the power of the political – or the partisan political. I mean they don't engage with political parties, they don't engage with the state. […] And they learn to engage when there's a backlash against them. When there was a backlash, they found me and I said I always open arms for you and support you, but realize that you will have to engage in a sustained coherent manner for achievable outcomes. You're grappling with too much. They are talking about body politics and personal needs, which is very refreshing, and we only engaged with laws and dismantling Zia. We were obsessed with dismantling Zia. So it’s opened up a glittering and spectacular array of possibilities, yes, and there needs to be an intergenerational conversation: lessons learned from each other, solidarities across the board that last through the year and not just when a backlash is encountered. There needs to be a proactive set of agenda items that they want from the state and governments and political parties to give them.
Journalism is not what it used to be. There are no moderators. The editors would moderate every newspaper, even television. So social media or new media is not moderated, it seems, by anyone. The digital spaces are too open for exploitation and they still lead to witch hunts, literally, of people

RR: Yes I totally agree with you. I’m myself fascinated by the resolve and also the digital sort of advocacy. When our prime minister made some extremely inappropriate comments about women's dressing and all of that, he had to take a step back because of the pressure that was mounted by women and by leaders like yourself. That was, you know, a small victory I would say, but of course navigating in a sea of misogyny, unfortunately.

So I also want to quickly talk about the media, because I mean many viewers may not know that you originally are a journalist and then editor, and you touch upon this in the book. And so, the book raises these issues, you know, like the columnists who are completely anti-women and anti-Aurat March, so for instance a TV presenter and a member of parliament from the ruling party who's been making really offensive remarks about women and women’s activism. So what do you think has changed in the media? Do you see any change in the mainstream media with regard to women's projection of their roles, their place in society, their concerns? Is it better or has it regressed?

SR: You know that’s a multi-layered question and it deserves a layered response as opposed to talking in binaries. I won't talk in binaries because that's just not the real world. That may make for a catchier headline or a better hashtag, but I think that's where we get trapped in passing judgment and that's what you're really talking about. Of course social media tends towards click bait and catchiness, and in that space and in that search for attention in a minefield of information right now, there's too much to go through in a day. You have to choose and you don’t want your algorithm to choose for you. So you have to choose, but real research and intellectual pathways go through many rigorous and unrigorous methods and intellectual alleyways. This environment actually pits women in a very in a serious maelstrom of misogyny where the trends veer towards the right, and the moderate voices – let alone the leftist or progressive voices –then find themselves defending their space. Right? They're just on the defensive, of fighting back, and the trends and the bots and the troll farms go towards the right. So a lot of women, vulnerable people and generally just younger people think, “Oh maybe we should not be engaging in this space, which then basically means that you're retreating from the platform and there is a huge human temptation to do that. There's so much filth out there that you're like “Oh my God, I want to not be in this mud, in this whirlpool of misogyny and, you know, of jeers and insults and calling out people. But that's what the women are facing today, especially young girls and adolescents. It's a very hostile predatory space for them. One should not have to have the confidence to say “I’m not even going to look at the nonsense they're spewing, I’m just going to keep saying what I think is important and engage with the few moderate voices that are out there.” […]

But you know, journalism is not what it used to be. There are no moderators. The editors would moderate every newspaper, even television. So social media or new media is not moderated, it seems, by anyone. The digital spaces are too open for exploitation and they still lead to witch hunts, literally, of people. You've seen it. We've all been subject to them.


RR:  Yes, exactly. I know that; thank you for, as you rightly said, the layered response. Before I open it up for audience questions, I do want to ask you one more question about the book. So you dedicated it to the late Benazir Bhutto Shaheed, and I wanted to talk to you a bit about that dedication and also your own personal journey. I mean Benazir Bhutto played a very important role for you, so you were brought into politics and mentored in a way by such a towering woman. And that also negates this misogynistic trope that “aurat hi auraton ko aagay nahi aane deti,” you know that kind of nonsense that we hear. So could you talk a bit about that?

SR: Dekho Raza, Benazir Bhutto was a believer in not just mainstreaming women but giving outspoken women a megaphone. And she did that and basically recruited me in politics, and I was quite difficult about coming out from a from a civil society and journalists’ role, which allows you a certain amount of freedom. Politics has its own restrictions, so I said, “I’m not sure you want somebody as outspoken and undiplomatic as myself. I like to be candid, I like to speak my mind.”

I’ve learned to moderate much of it. You can imagine sending me as ambassador. It was a learning process and a journey. Just like this book, everything has to be a journey or it means nothing, right?

Benazir Bhutto had so much time for the little person, in terms of mentoring and actually responding to queries that were just not necessarily leading to her gain at all. I mean I sent an email sometimes saying, “Can one still be virtuous and do good politics?” […] And she said “Yes, of course.” And now she’s laboriously responding – curating and cultivating a political persona, giving you confidence. I was not a speaker, I was a writer and she would just say, “I saw you on TV, how you held yourself with great confidence.” One gets encouraged by that, so I try to do that for young women wherever I meet and see them. It's the taking out of time – they need the time and that's the most important thing you can do for people, you know, because in today's world time is the new money, really. So, she did that and I learned that.

And then the model of politics of not rolling up the ladder behind you – keep it there, give a hand to those trying to climb that ladder and you will be rewarded tenfold. I mean this is what is important. And I really want to – I keep telling my institute, maybe you can help, Raza – I really want to spend an hour or more of a week just giving time, mentoring. And I think the Zoom space and the digital space that I just want to mentor – speed-mentor if needed – a whole horde of young women out there, in need of just support and encouragement. And it anguishes me to see women on Twitter etc. speak out saying, “I’m no longer wanting to speak anymore.”

We see such aggression against us and such vilification. So I DM some of them […] And I’ve shared my number, so that's the kind of thing Benazir Bhutto always did. Nobody was too small for her attention, which is a very big thing for such a big leader. […]

I don't have a constituency. I don't come from a landed family or a big business family, so I’m always having to I bring ideas and whatever possible of my intellect to the table and that's what she wanted. But even while she was there, she would say “Yes I understand how hard you have to push for a seat at the table, even with my being there and a constant reinvention of your gravitas every day.” […]

I stayed on after she passed away because I was understood by the leadership even then. You know, Bilawal came later. He, of course, is very pro-women, but you would be surprised at how Mr. Zardari actually prefers women. I mean he doesn't tokenise them […] I mean which party in these days makes a woman leader of opposition in the political pitch? I mean I’m now the parliamentary leader but it's a very tough job and it's a choice no party is willing to make right now. Putting women in executive jobs is different […] you're in the political pit every day, making bargains, and you have to still keep your political qibla durust, you know, to keep your political compass and not bargain away women's rights. It is very difficult but the progressive parties allow you to do that.


RR:  We have a few audience questions, and you know we'll just take a couple, but before I do that, I do want to add – because younger people must be seeing this – […] I should also remind them that since I have worked with you, I've had the pleasure of working with you and you're very hardworking indeed, so naujawan loug ye bhi dekh lein ke mehnat bohot kerni parti hai. So the first question that I want for my audience is: how should this movement, I mean the feminist movement, include women on the religious right? Afiya touches upon that as well, in the volume, you know, but maybe let's hear from you?

SR: Yeah it's very difficult. This is a difficult question and it's something that we still grapple with every day. You don't want to exclude any woman, you want to have them in the room, in the tent, on the table, contributing because they're women, too, and they're often subject to another layer of exclusions if you like […] Those women are also working harder. I notice it: they're competent, they're smart, I’m talking about the best of the lot in every party. Women just have to do double the hours only to be taken seriously. You can't just slide into the room and say, “Oh well, you know, I haven't read my stuff!”

So the women of the religious right have a few disadvantages. They are sadly often used as shock troops. All parties, by the way, especially the younger junior women you know, they're put there very often in token positions to talk about a restricted area of achievable outcomes and rights that they seek, so they end up circumscribing their own spaces and often having to limit how far they can cut a swathe, if you like. And then they're never made leaders are they? […] But I feel that they deserve more and I never disengage with them. I always engage that with them. Unfortunately the decisions for the votes always come from their male leadership[…]

It's tough for women from the religious right. They may disagree with me violently, they'll say, “This is what we want!” but I’m not so sure. I mean they're talented, they're bright and they're very hard-working – so they need to be taken more seriously by their own leadership[…]