Bridging the gap

February 18, 2024

An anthology exploring how modern-day movements for women’s empowerment aren’t detached from those in the past

Bridging the gap


or nearly half a decade, Aurat March has been viewed as a potent symbol of resistance against the behemoth of patriarchy, which has deprived women and other marginalised groups of a dignified existence. In the preface to Feminisms of Our Mothers – an anthology of essays she has co-edited – researcher and writer Daanika Kamal draws attention to an unintended, though predictable, fallout of this spirited movement for empowerment. Aurat March, she writes, has been perceived as a radical departure from the country’s “retrospective women’s movement” owing to its disproportionate emphasis on the private sphere. Kamal argues feminism in Pakistan has become the prisoner of a ‘PR problem’ and is in desperate need of vindication. It would be a misnomer to view the essays in Feminisms of Our Mothers as mere vindications. The 21 essays in this anthology – written by women from various professional backgrounds – are a celebration of feminism as a plurality unto itself. The term ‘feminisms’ has been used in the title to depict the rich, multi-hued nature of feminist ideals in the Pakistani context.

At their core, the essays seek to explore the hidden layers of complexity seeded into mother-daughter relationships. Indoctrination would have us believe that the relationship between mothers and daughters is steered by an intergenerational clash of values. Even if they are driven by conflict, mother-daughter relationships are pivotal in shaping a woman’s outlook on feminism. Using this motif to significant effect, this anthology aims to build bridges between the Pakistani feminisms of yore and their more contemporary variants. The cover image depicts the act of hair-braiding to acknowledge the connection between these diverse manifestations of feminism across time. This intimate activity provides an avenue for conversation among women of different age groups and thereby serves as a means of transferring wisdom and enlightenment across generations.

The themes explored in Kamal’s anthology have been the subject of numerous academic treatises. However, the essays in Feminisms of Our Mothers aren’t academic in nature. Instead, the writers use their own personal experiences as a template for a deeper investigation of Pakistan’s varied and complex equation with feminism. Fuelled by the creative resonance of memoirs, with some generous sprinklings of the factual rigor often ascribed to journalistic pieces, these accounts have their own validity and appeal.

A common problem with theme-based anthologies, irrespective of whether they focus on fiction or non-fiction, is that some readers tend to find the contributions to be repetitive. Others might feel certain clichés about the topic are being carelessly reinforced. Readers are urged against harbouring such perceptions on the essays in Feminisms of Our Mothers. Laden with a powerful blend of personal and political hues, each piece mines a separate vein of truth. Any similarities in the experiences of the contributors can be attributed to the uniquely uniform ways in which the hammer strokes of patriarchy affect the lives of Pakistani women.

Sadia Khatri’s What is Behind You is the only piece that has been excluded from the Pakistani edition of the anthology. Interestingly, her biographical note has not been removed – a reminder that censorship puts words out of sight, but cannot entirely erase their existence.

While most of the essays have the inner courtyard as their epicentres, they aren’t detached from the prevailing public realities. As readers make their way through the anthology, they will encounter numerous familiar insights and epiphanies, many of which seldom find utterance in public discourse. In an essay titled All the Women in Me are on Fire, Maria Amir examines how double standards can sow the seeds for the rage running through a “generational mill of women. “Trauma in the women of my family,” she writes, “has been passed down in both what was said and what was left unsaid.”

A vast majority of the essays come through as poignant odes to mothers who quietly yet potently navigate – if not flout – boundaries and help their daughters make their own choices. Sabah Bano Malik’s The Evolving Feminist offers a candid glimpse of how one of her mother’s initial feminist acts was to not force her to fit into a stereotypical mould of physical desirability. Maheen Humayun’s eloquent piece, titled The Stories We Tell Ourselves, explores how the women in her life, including her mother, gave her the gift of independence, which provided a much-needed counter to Western ideals of feminism. Kamal’s essay demonstrates how her feminist identity is, by turns, a transmission of and transition from those of women from previous generations of her family.

Other essays delve into the highs and lows of mother-daughter relationships to extract some compelling truths about the intricacies of human emotions. Maham Javaid’s What My Mother Taught Me reveals how her mother showed her how to love unconditionally. In Poems for Sophia, Shameen Raza writes about her complex relationship with a mother who gave her away to her maternal grandmother. The nature of their relationship opens the portals to an animated discussion on how her mother’s feminism taught Raza the power of emotional intelligence.

Quite a few essays tackle the darker truths surrounding the position of women in an inherently patriarchal society. Through a moving personal account, Amina Baig’s Caged Within raises questions about whether the injustices faced by women could bear an invisible and subliminal quality. The essays by Sualeha Kamal, Manal Khan, Aiman Rizvi and Mahwish Bhatti stand out for their distinct maturity of observation.

Sadia Khatri’s What is Behind You deserves a special mention as it has been excluded from the Pakistani edition of the anthology. This lyrical essay narrates how the writer’s experience of abortion led her to develop an unspoken yet potent affinity with her mother. Interestingly, Khatri’s biographical note has not been removed – a reminder that censorship puts words out of sight, but cannot entirely erase their existence.

A promising and multifaceted anthology, Feminisms of Our Mothers is welcome proof that modern-day movements for women’s empowerment in Pakistan aren’t narrow in their purview or detached from those adopted in the past. In their inherent diversity, the ‘feminisms’ that surround us are a plausible means of tackling a collective, decades-long struggle for equality.

Feminisms of Our Mothers

Editor: Daanika Kamal

Publisher: Zubaan Books

Pages: 204

The reviewer is a freelance journalist and the author of No Funeral for Nazia

Bridging the gap