Naked Feminists And No Feminists

“Pakistani feminist is the girl or woman who is outspoken, hates men, disrespects the elders and goes to Aurat March.” 

Naked Feminists And No Feminists
Caption: Feminism in Pakistan

For the vast majority in Pakistan, the terms feminism, and feminist are either vague, or stand for a disregard of religion, exceeding the limits of moral values, and only concerned with issues of elite-class women. This understanding has become more complex since the popularity of Aurat March, a women-led movement that demands socio-economic equality and gender justice. This article draws upon the opinions of postgraduate students at one university in Lahore collected to show that a significant majority of literate, urban Pakistanis, naturally connect the English term feminism with the popular national feminist movement, Aurat March, and consider it to be a negative thing.

In traditional Pakistani patriarchal settings, a woman’s primary role is caregiving as a homemaker, with limited education that focuses on building her strong moral character. To quote Saadia Toor, women in Pakistan are looked at as “repositories of their culture and tradition,” and as upholders of the honor of their family and community. I started gathering data in 2019 when I was teaching feminism to postgraduate students of English literature and linguistics, as part of a course titled “Literary Theory.” Prior to my lecture and tutorials on feminist theory, I conducted an anonymous survey in which the students were asked the following three questions:

1.         Your gender [options: (i) female (ii) male (iii) prefer not to mention]

2.         Are you familiar with the term “feminism”? [(i) yes (ii) no]

3.         Can you share your opinion about feminism? 

I shared the survey with students of the Master of Philosophy in English literature and a linguistics degree program at a public sector university in Lahore and received 107 responses in four years. Of course, this limited collection of responses does not represent the opinion of all Pakistanis, but it may help in analysing how women rights are understood by a subset of highly educated individuals. Around 22 individuals preferred not to mention their gender, 11 identified as male, and 74 as females. My assumption is that students with most anti-feminist stances chose not to mention their gender to further safeguard their anonymity within a small cohort.

Although the questionnaire did not mention the popular national feminist movement called Aurat March, 98 responses either mentioned it or hinted towards it. All of these respondents were graduates of English studies and most of them understood feminism as a complicated and negative Western construct. The responses that can be considered positive, had fewer words and a general stance, for example, “yes, I know about feminism. Everyone should be a feminist because it is about everyone’s rights and duties.”

However, the respondents who shared negative opinions were clear and eloquent in their views: “Pakistani feminist is the girl or woman who is outspoken, hates men, disrespects the elders and goes to Aurat March.” 

Another one wrote that “When I think of the word feminism, all I can hear in my head is, ‘Ye bhi maghrib walo ki aek chaal hai’ (It is a Western conspiracy). Have not seen normal women going to Aurt March.” Key words emerging from the collected responses were “elite,” “Islam,” “liberal,” “Western,” “feminist,” and “Aurat March.” One respondent wrote, “I’m not a feminist because I don’t like women shouting on road. Islam give you all rights and good Muslim women must have good character.” So, this student’s idea of feminism was linked with religion and raised voices of women in public spaces.

In another response, a student observed that “Rich women who want to go naked on streets are feminists. It is very fashionable in elite class as they don’t have to worry about where the food is coming from next day.”

In a similar statement, the respondent used more sexually explicit vocabulary: “NOT PAKISTANI CONTEXT. Only imported Western narrative. We call them landey ki aurtein meaning old worn clothes. In Pakistan women have rights as per Islamic Laws with full respect.” The idea conveyed was that feminism cannot and should not be understood in Pakistani context. Women who have sexual relations outside marriage are being called “landey ki aurtein,” which loosely translates as “used women.” “Landa” is the Urdu slang for the market of pre-owned clothes. This respondent used the term to shame and question the sexual morals of women who talk about feminism. The high level of rigidity and the absence of scholarly reflection in the responses makes one think about the social and intellectual settings in which the students exist.

Basic search will lead you to research articles published in journals recognised by Pakistan Higher Education Commission that too often take a one-dimensional, conservative approach towards feminism/women’s rights. In one such article, the authors attempt to prove that feminism is a “Western notion,” which aims to destroy Islamic values and family system in Pakistan and provokes women to evade their domestic duties. My observations as an academic show that the national reception of feminism as a concept, and an English term, appears to go down one notch with each passing year.

Sharing his views on feminism, one student from the 2022 cohort wrote, “When someone uses the term ‘feminist’ in Pakistan, I see a bunch of women on the roads who somehow found a channel through which they release or target their negative emotions, and that channel or target is a Man. Honestly, I see them as fools and biased toward many points.” This perspective indicates the growing strength of antipathy for women’s rights. Backlash against feminism and the frequent negative interpretation of the word has enveloped both the theory and its practical implication in Pakistani patriarchal society.

Students who identified as females were very keen to defend themselves against the accusation of being a feminist. To quote one such respondent, “Feminism must mean that I can walk freely one day. Not now, but some day. I am not bold and I believe in family values, but it will be so good if I can just breathe without fear. No other vulgar rights wanted.” Evidently the student associated freedom of movement with feminism, but she had to clarify that she is not a feminist per se. The conscious feminine effort to create ambiguity around a concept they might be clear about, reflects the pressure of misogyny, which is highlighted in the comments of male students. The idea of being labelled as a feminist is a threat to social and moral structures that is disturbing for many Pakistani women, regardless of the strength of their economic or educational status. The complexity surrounding the feminist movement in Pakistan is a result, in parts, of the various comprehensions of religion, cultural norms, language associations, and power dynamics in the classed society. The bulk of conservative censure of all feminist collectives, specifically Aurat March, is directed towards the elite socio-economic class of the women who are linked with such activism.

When the opponents of feminist activism analyse the power structures inhabited by Pakistani feminists, they ignore the nuances of the meaning of elite in the society where access to the basic right of mobility is a privilege that most women cannot dream of. To quote a respondent, “My family allows me to study in Lahore and I can go out to eat with my friends too (no boys). If you have this much freedom you don’t need feminism. Women in my village don’t know ABC and get kids in young age.” The respondent felt grateful for her access to education and the right to go out. Her comment showed her awareness of her social boundaries as interacting with the opposite gender is off limits. Censoring feminism, and embracing whatever freedom of movement is available, is the way she has learnt to survive in the conservative patriarchal system.

The purpose of sharing the responses of students was to provide an assessment of the negative reception of feminist activism in highly educated social circles in Pakistan. There is a dire need to develop a national feminist standpoint that considers the lived experiences of women and the complexities of their religious, social, and economic perspectives to acknowledge that the activism of elite women cannot be judged on the regular rubrics of class differences. Women’s voices are, perhaps, doubly marginalised when their socioeconomic class privileges are questioned. We have to think of ways to promote an understanding of  what basic human rights mean for women in Pakistan.