New Waves of Feminism and Pakistan
Nobody gives you power; you just take it
Despite having been through a long quest of motley waves, has feminism compassed its purported mark of gender equality in Pakistan? Ever since its independence, this beloved country of ours has been toiling to meet women rights and to bring womenfolk to the fore—making them empowered. Knowingly, feminism now is in its course of new waves during which beaucoup achievements regarding women rights in the form of women-friendly legislation and policies have been accomplished. In spite of that, it still is battling in the face of multitudinous impediments to win the bout on behalf of women.
Feminism, to quote Merriam Webster, is the “belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities.” It endeavours for social, political, economic and intellectual equality between the sexes. Bell hooks, a prominent American author and feminist, in her book “Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center” calls feminism “a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation and oppression.”
Knowingly, women have experienced subordination, discrimination and oppression over the years. Thus, feminists dare to challenge this status quo and want to change it in favour of women, equal to men. Consequently, feminism advocates for women’s legal rights (right to contract, to own property, to vote); right to bodily integrity and autonomy; reproductive rights (including access to contraception and prenatal care); protection of women and girls from domestic violence, sexual harassment and rape; workplace rights (including maternity leave and equal pay); and many other such rights of the womankind.
Historically, feminism has been through a long way, aiming to uplift women’s status in society and to give them equal rights. Depending on demanding nature of women’s rights, the feminist movement has been through various periods, called the waves of feminism which help us differentiate between movements with motley purposes and characteristics of women rights movement.
Chronologically, the history of feminist movement is divided into four waves: first, second, third and fourth wave of feminism. These waves, although started in Europe and America, have impacted the status of women the world over.
To discuss new waves of feminism, the latest advancements in women rights—the third and fourth waves of feminism, in the context of Pakistan, it may be prudent to first have some prior knowledge about these waves. For an easy understanding the third and the fourth waves, first and second waves, though not in the realm of the topic in question, are also enumerated succinctly hereunder.
To start with, first-wave feminism initiated in 1848 and lasted till 1920 when women were granted suffrage. In the beginning, the first-wavers focused on women’s rights to vote, employment, education, contract and own property. However, they later primarily emphasized on women’s suffrage, for which they are also called suffragists, because they thought political representation would be a panacea for all the problems women face.
Though the first-wavers triumphed in gaining women suffrage, they could not mitigate the women’s sufferings at the hand of men, for which the second-wavers, after a short hiatus, came to the fore.
Second-wave feminism, which lasted from 1960s to 1980s, dealt with issues women were still faced with. It mainly focused on women’s reproductive rights; protection of women against domestic violence, marital rape and sexual harassment in public places; equality in education; ending gender pay gap; personal identity of women; other legal and social rights of women; and to end the stereotypicality of society that women are made only for domestic and aesthetic purposes.
The second-wavers, to become equal like men, had worked to somehow reject things peculiar to the muliebrity, e.g. makeup, high heels and high girliness. The second wave accomplished many of its targets; however, this disregard and other related failures led to the third-wave feminism.
The third wave, which started in the 1990s and is believed to have lasted till 2012, was a continuation of, and a reaction to, the perceived failure of the second-wave feminism. The third-wavers sought to reclaim the ideas about sexuality, gender, beauty, femininity and masculinity, and fought for their rights maintaining their uniqueness of being femmes. They focused on issues like sexual harassment, sexual objectification, violence against women and reproductive rights, as well as on increasing the number of women in positions of power. Also, they included rights of all other marginalized communities that were previously left out by first and second waves, in their campaign.
Furthermore, the third-wavers emphasized on issues which appear to limit or oppress women; and demanded that free choice be given to women—whether she chooses homemaking or a professional career to be economically independent or both at same time, having or not having children, choice of fashion and personal expression.
Virtually, all these demands were somehow met, but with the advancement of information technology and the advent of social media, the course of claiming women’s rights has, somehow, if not completely, changed from strikes, speeches and street walks to digital pathways. Such revolution spearheaded to the fourth-wave feminism, which is believed to have started in 2012 and has continued its course till this day. Prior to the fourth wave, not all women could participate in public debates due to cultural, economic and social impediments. However, with the growing use of the internet and social media, powerful tools of, and backbone to, the fourth wave, virtually every woman now can partake in feminist debates.
Although feminism, during its first three waves, has made considerable achievements, it is still battling for, during its course of fourth wave, its unsolved issues such as sexual harassment, marital rape, reproductive rights; bodily autonomy; equal job opportunities; gender pay gap; equality in education; equal political representation, greater representation in business; and self-expression.
Fortunately, during this era of fourth wave, women are now more vocal for their due rights than ever before. Now they can independently raise voice for their rights by writing blogs and articles and using social media. Further, access to the internet has empowered women such that they can now buy things online, start online businesses and work from home, making it feasible for her to be a homemaker and a professional simultaneously.
After discussing feminism and its waves in general, let’s take an overview of feminism and the promises it made during its new waves in Pakistan.
Like all other countries, understanding of feminism has been low in Pakistan. It is completely a myth over here. Ever since the country’s independence, women in Pakistan have been battling exploitative treatment at the hands of their male counterparts. Moreover, the social, economic and political environment is making it difficult for them to progress and fight for their rights. There have almost always been some backlashes against women who wish to empower themselves be it by studying, working or even choosing a spouse for themselves. NGOs and other institutions that work to help oppressed women are accused of misleading and ‘brainwashing’ them. Most women internalize their sufferings either out of fear or lack of resources to resort to. Here, feminists are labelled as protagonists of Western culture.
Throughout its history, feminism has been enduring hard to gain women rights. Luckily, a number of advancements have been made during the course of new waves. Let’s analyze these advancements in third- and fourth-wave feminism, respectively, in the following section.
During third-wave feminism, the Government of Pakistan aimed at promoting gender equality by involving women in all spheres of life. Besides, women enabled themselves in gaining higher participation in socio-political and economic fields. They have secured their quota in local government departments, bureaucracy, media houses and parliament.
Unsurprisingly, during the government of Benazir Bhutto, feminism gained momentum when NGOs and other women rights organizations were given considerable power. They urged the government to make certain amendments to laws regarding women. Unfortunately, this momentum waned during the governments of Mian Nawaz Sharif and, resultantly, women soon found themselves losing grounds to political conservatism and religious revivalism.
However, gratefully, some lost grounds were reclaimed when Musharraf government rallied for women rights and encouraged their involvement in media, sports and other socio-political activities. This struggle, albeit with lesser intensity than before, has continued to this day. Due to these and other such efforts, many women-friendly bills such as Criminal Law Amendment Act, the Anti-Sexual Harassment Bill, the Criminal Acid Act, Protection of Women Act, Status of Women Bill and other miscellaneous regulations condemning honor killing and other vices faced by Pakistani women were successfully passed.
Additionally, the government of Pakistan recently has passed the Maternity Leave Bill which makes it mandatory to grant paid leave up to six months (six months leave on first child, four months on second and three months on third child).
Though feminism in Pakistan has compassed landmark achievements during the third wave, many loopholes were also identified. For instance, the Domestic Violence (Prevention and Protection) Bill was passed unanimously by the National Assembly, but, due to apathy of the government towards women, the same lapsed after the Senate failed to pass it within the three-month period required under the constitution.
Similarly, the so-called sharia system of the Taliban in areas of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and erstwhile FATA also hampered efforts to women empowerment. The so-called preachers manipulated women’s freedom in the name of sharia. Girls’ schools and colleges were attacked and demolished, and women were restricted to their homes in the name of parda (veil).
Moreover, feminism was labelled as a Western construct which deserves no place in the Islamic structure. Conservatives pretended that it is tantamount to exploiting women in the name of feminism and giving them more responsibilities would increase the burden on them.
Likewise, in Pakistani parliament, women are still considered ‘extra’ and dealt as ‘minority’. The disgusting incident, in which a PML-N lawmaker ridiculed his political rival Dr Shireen Mazari of PTI by calling her “tractor trolley,” paints a dismal picture in this regard. This sadistic attitude, indeed, exposes status of Pakistani women.
With the emerging power of the internet and social media, feminism in Pakistan has been moving fast toward its targets. Due to parda culture in Pakistan, most women cannot freely participate in public debates. Women have almost been excluded from the public arena. In such a scenario, access to the internet enables women to speak for their rights. After all, this is the peculiarity of the fourth-wave feminism.
Knowingly, the internet is changing the very social fabric of Pakistan. Women, nowadays, can access almost everything online. Additionally, through the internet and social media, incidents of sexual harassment and rape are exposed to the public using hashtags, and pressure is mounted on government to take stringent actions against the culprits. For instance, when Zainab Ansari, a six-year-old girl from Kasur district of Punjab, was raped and ruthlessly killed and her body was found dumped in litter, the feminists took to Twitter, Facebook and Instagram clamouring for justice for the victim. Such agitation compelled the government to the extent that the culprit was soon arrested, sentenced and hanged to death in record time.
Moreover, the recent agitation and exposing incidences of killing after rape of minor girls have compelled the parliament to pass Zainab Alert Law, a law regarding protection and rescuing of minor girls. Initially, this law was restricted to Islamabad Capital Territory, but due to pressure from the public on social media, the same was then extended to the whole country.
Likewise, recently, Zainab Alert App’s reporting system has been launched to help recovering missing children—another step toward child protection using the internet.
Similarly, campaigns on social media and mainstream media against honour killing and acid throwing are also powerful tools to seek justice for the victims. For instance, Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, in her documentary “A Girl in The River: The Price of Forgiveness” of a 19-year-old honour killing survivor girl, sensitized to the menace in Pakistan. This documentary has had such impact that after meeting with Chinoy, Nawaz Sharif, the then prime minister of Pakistan, promised to legislate on honour killing to prevent it.
Furthermore, Chinoy also sensitized to incidents of acid attacks on Pakistani women through her Oscar-winning movie “Saving Face”. Predictably, the impact of this movie was such that Punjab government immediately categorized acid throwing as a terrorist activity rather than an ordinary offence.
Knowingly, social media has empowered women by giving them access to information and providing platforms to fearlessly demand their rights and ask for justice. In this regard, the launch of Prime Minister Citizen Portal, an internet-based application, is a landmark step. On this portal, everyone, including women, can complain and record their grievances which are then addressed on urgent footings.
Though the internet has sped up the feminist movement during its fourth wave, still there are hurdles in digital pathways to women empowerment in Pakistan. For instance, women face cyber bullying, blackmailing, leak of personal information, cyber attacks, threatening messages and backlashes from the misogynist lobby. A survey conducted by Digital Rights Foundation of Pakistan recently found that 70 percent women fear of posting their pictures online because of potential misuse, while 40 percent have experienced threatening and harassment via messaging apps.
Similarly, Qandeel Baloch, a Pakistani social media star, was assassinated by her brother for posting ‘objectionable’ pictures on social media.
To cut long story short, feminism in Pakistan has been striving for equal rights and opportunities of women as well as other marginalized communities. Undoubtedly, major achievements and legislation have taken, and are taking, place throughout the new waves of feminism. It still faces challenges from chauvinists and misogynists, however. For now, the immediate priority for Pakistani women is to put on the government whatever pressure they can muster to persuade it to grant equal opportunities to women. That will be the route to women’s self-realization in an environment of love, tolerance and peace.