Exploring the Radical Notion of Feminism
The 21st century has seen various worldwide movements gain momentum, with feminism being a prominent one. Women have faced countless cruel forms of institutionalized discrimination, in different cultural settings since time immemorial. This is an undeniable truth, making feminism — a movement seeking to create equality for women in the social, political, economic and occupational spheres — laudable. There is no moral reason behind not allowing a woman to vote, denying her equal access to education and healthcare, or not giving her equal pay for the same job as a man. Feminism has addressed these deeply sexist social injustices. This is what many qualify as compassionate feminism and identify with as well.
What is feminism?
The term feminism describes political, cultural and economic movements that aim to establish equal rights and legal protections for women. Over time, feminist activists have campaigned for issues such as women’s legal rights, especially in regard to contracts, property and voting; body integrity and autonomy; abortion and reproductive rights, including contraception and prenatal care; protection from domestic violence, sexual harassment and rape; workplace rights, including maternity leave and equal pay; and against all forms of discrimination women encounter.
Four Waves of Feminism
Some feminist scholars are moving away from “waves” since it can give the appearance that feminists aren’t always actively fighting inequality. But if you see them, here’s generally what they’re referring to:
- First wave feminism: Kicked off with the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention to discuss the “social, civil and religious condition of woman” and continued into the early twentieth century. It culminated in 1920 with the passage of the 19th amendment to the US Constitution, which gave women the right to vote, though some states made it difficult for women of colour to exercise this right until well into the 1960s.
- Second wave feminism: It began in the 1960s and bloomed in the 1970s with a push for greater equality. Think Gloria Steinem, Dorothy Pitman Hughes, Betty Friedan. It was marked by huge gains for women in legal and structural equality.
- Third-wave feminism: Beginning in the 1990s, it looked to make feminism more inclusive, intersectional and to allow women to define what being a feminist means to them personally.
Fourth-wave Feminism: Although debated by some, many claim that a fourth wave of feminism began about 2012, with a focus on sexual harassment, body shaming, and rape culture, among other issues. A key component was the use of social media to highlight and address these concerns. The new wave arose amid a number of high-profile incidents. Birthed in the digital sphere, the Fourth Wave of feminism has been ridiculed for what has disparagingly been called Hashtag Feminism. But it is in this medium that the new wave acquired relevance, found it’s voice, and built momentum.
Feminism in Islam
“…a concise definition of Islamic feminism gleaned from the writings and works of Muslim protagonists as a feminist discourse and practice that derives its understanding and mandate from the Quran, seeking rights and justice within the framework of gender equality for women and men in the totality of their existence. Islamic feminism explicates the idea of gender equality as part and parcel of the Quranic notion of equality of all human beings and calls for the implementation of gender equality in the state, civil institutions and everyday life. It rejects the notion of a public/private dichotomy (by the way, absent in early Islamic jurisprudence, or fiqh) conceptualising a holistic umma in which Quranic ideals are operative in all spaces.”
This is an important distinction. “Islamic feminism” is not simply a feminism that is born from Muslim cultures, but one that engages Islamic theology through the text and canonical traditions. A distinctly “Islamic” feminism, at its core, draws on the Quranic concept of equality of all human beings, and insists on the application of this theology to everyday life. Stemming from this basic definition, we encounter a plethora of different interpretations, movements, projects and personalities, creating feminisms that have diverse faces. Often, women’s issues are trivialised into whether or not to wear the veil or shake hands with men outside their family, and while larger issues, such as domestic violence, are being strongly addressed, the central issue of what “equality” means and how it is expressed goes largely ignored. For example, domestic violence is wrong because it creates pain and suffering and is unjust, but the central belief of a man’s right to rule over his wife is not always part of this discussion.
Feminism in Pakistan
Patriarchy is deeply entrenched in Pakistani society, with most people looking down upon the feminist movement. As feminism is considered a women-owned and women-led movement in Pakistan, it has become a highly-contested ideology. It is indeed a perplexing idea since it has numerous types, diversions and contestations. It always ignites a battle within women who dare to take this ideology and try to implement. It gets arduous after one claims to be part of the process. They always are on a double-edged sword and making ferocious choices. It gets complicated about juggling things in life. There is always a fear of a hidden guilt which others can’t comprehend. Then there are people who discourage work and prefer women to focus on family planning.
Broadly speaking, there are two dominant threads of feminist discourse in Pakistan: a modern, Islamic feminism and a secular feminism. Modern Islamic feminists seek to further women’s rights by redefining Islamic views and focusing on the female-centric laws Islam offers. This form of feminism appeals largely to the lower, middle and upper-middle strata of society which look to religion for answers. Secular feminists consider feminism an extension of basic human rights, regardless of any religious connotations.
In politics, the undertones of feminist ideals have existed throughout, coming to the forefront only recently thanks to advancements in media and education. Fatima Jinnah, for instance, fearlessly led thousands of women to stand up for their well-being even before Pakistan was created. Soon after, Begum Ra’ana Liaquat Ali Khan founded the All Pakistan Women’s Association (APWA) in 1949, aiming to further the moral, social and economic standing of women across the country. Similarly, the Women’s Action Forum (WMA) was established in September 1981, lobbying and advocating on behalf of women without the resources to do it themselves.
However, the real wave of feminist struggle arose in 1980 as a reaction to General Zia-ul-Haq’s controversial implementation of the Hudood Ordinance which asked rape victims to present four eye-witnesses for their claim to be accepted. The WMA publically opposed the unjust rulings passed under the bill, raising awareness. The forum included women from all spheres who spoke against the government in the media, protested on the streets, conducted educational campaigns in schools and devised the famous ‘Men, money, mullahs and military’ slogan.
Benevolent sexism: Seems like a compliment, even though it’s rooted in men’s feelings of superiority. It’s when men say women are worthy of their protection
Bropropriating: Stealing an idea from a woman and putting it into the world as your own.
Feminazi: A derogatory term for a radical feminist.
Feminism: Belief in and desire for equality between the sexes.
Gender fluidity: Not identifying with a single, fixed gender.
Hostile sexism: Openly insulting, objectifying and degrading women.
Internalized sexism: When the belief in women’s inferiority becomes part of one’s own worldview and self-concept.
Male gaze: A way of looking at the world through a masculine lens that views women as sexual objects.
Mansplain (verb) mansplainy (adjective): When a man explains something to a woman in a condescending way when he either 1) doesn’t know anything about it or 2) knows far less than the woman he is talking to.
Manspreading: When men take up excess space by sitting with their legs far apart.
Manterrupting: When a man interrupts a woman, especially excessively.
Misandry: Hatred of men.
Misogyny: Hatred of women.
Non-binary: An umbrella term for people who don’t identify as female/male or woman/man.
Patriarchy: A hierarchical-structured society in which men hold more power.
Sexism: The idea that women are inferior to men.
Transgender: A person whose gender identity differs from the cultural expectations of the sex they were assigned at birth.
Transphobia: Prejudice toward trans people.
Trigger: Something that forces you to relive a trauma.
Victim-blaming: When the victim of a crime or harmful act is held fully or partially responsible for it. If you hear someone questioning what a victim could have done to prevent a crime, that’s victim-blaming.
Whimpster: A white, wimpy, emo guy who uses his male insecurity to prey on women who want to nurture.
Women of colour: A political term to unite women from marginalized communities of colour who have experienced oppression. It could include women of African, Asian, Latin or Native American descent.
Yes means yes: A paradigm shift in the way we look at rape, moving beyond “no means no” toward the idea that consent must be explicit.
Unsurprisingly, feminism gained most traction during Benazir Bhutto’s two terms as Prime Minister (1988-1990 and 1993-1996), during which time NGOs and focus groups were given considerable power. They urged the government to make amends. Unfortunately, the momentum decreased once Nawaz Sharif took office in 1997 and women found themselves losing ground to political conservatism and religious revivalism. In 1997, the Council of Islamic Ideology recommended making burqa mandatory, and honour killings also rose to new highs. Some lost ground was reclaimed when General Pervez Musharraf rallied for women’s rights and encouraged their involvement in media, sports and other socio-political activities. The movement has continued to this day, albeit with lesser intensity than before.
Islamic feminism vs western feminism
Over fourteen hundred years ago, Islam gave women rights that women in the West have only recently began to enjoy. In the 1930’s, Annie Besant observed, “It is only in the last twenty years that Christian England has recognised the right of woman to property, while Islam has allowed this right from all times. It is a slander to say that Islam preaches that women have no souls.” (The Life and Teachings of Mohammed, 1932).
There are significant differences between Islamic and western feminism. Islamic feminism is based on certain non-negotiable values, i.e. equality with honour and dignity. Freedom has a certain Islamic responsibility whereas in the West freedom tends to degenerate into licentiousness, not in law but certainly in social and cultural practices. In Western culture, sexual freedoms have become a matter of human right and sex has become a matter of enjoyment, losing its sanctity as an instrument of procreation.
Though the Quran does not prescribe hijab or niqab (covering the whole body with a loose garment, including the face), as generally thought, it lays down certain strict norms for sexual behaviour. Both men and women have right to gratification (a woman has as much right as a man) but within a marital framework. There is no concept of freedom for extramarital sex in any form. In a marital framework, it is an act of procreation and has much sanctity attached to it.
It is important to emphasise that in a patriarchal society men decided the norms of sexual behaviour. It was theorised that a man has greater urge for sex and hence needed multiple wives and that a woman tended to be passive and hence had to be content with one husband at a time. The Quran’s approach is very different. It is not a greater or lesser degree of urge which necessitates multiple or monogamous marriages.
There is emphatic emphasis placed on a monogamous marriage in the Quranic verses 4:3 and 4:129. Multiple marriages were permitted only to take care of widows and orphans and not to satisfy man’s greater urge. Verse 4:129 gives the norm of monogamy and not to leave the first wife in suspense or negligence. Thus, as far as the Quran is concerned, sexual gratification is a non-negotiable right for both man and woman tied in wedlock. Hence a divorcee and a widow are also permitted to remarry and gratify their urge.
In Western capitalist countries, woman’s dignity has been compromised and she has been reduced to a commodity to be exploited. Her semi-naked postures and her sexuality are exploited commercially and unabashedly. It is totally against the concept of woman’s honour and dignity. Unfortunately, many Western feminists do not consider this objectionable but accept it as part of women’s freedom. Some (though not as many) even advocate prostitution as a woman’s right to earn a living.
This is against the concept of Islamic feminism, which while sanctioning sexual gratification to be as much of a woman’s basic right as a man’s, prohibits extramarital sexual liaison. This, on one hand, upholds a woman’s honour and dignity, and on the other, exalts marital relations to the level of sanctity, restricting it for procreation. Islamic feminists have to observe certain norms which Western feminists are not obliged to.