Feminism in the age of Twitter

Social media has proven an enormously effective tool of mobilisation for feminist politics in urban Pakistan. But its increasingly significant role may ultimately have a debilitating impact on this movement

Feminism in the age of Twitter

This year, feminists in Pakistan celebrated a spring of hope and joy. Only a few years ago, it would have seemed virtually impossible to see not hundreds but thousands of women marching across major cities in this country, all in the name of gender equality and justice. But recently, young women and their allies made what may have once been considered a virtuous unlikelihood; a beautiful reality. Loudly they proclaimed that no longer is any woman an island -- whether discriminated against or harassed, whether abused or victimised, whether shamed or ostracised; no longer is any woman alone. "She is us and we are her", said they, "and together, our collective prowess will lead to freedom".

Following this moment of victory, feminists in Pakistan stood facing some enormous questions. What exactly does it mean to be free from the patriarchy in Pakistan in 2019? Where does the patriarchy reside, what are its many avatars, what feeds and sustains it, what are its levers, its nodes of power and its mode of operation? When is a gendered pattern of behaviour violently criminal; when is it simply nasty and dishonourable; and how do we adjudicate between these nuances? Most importantly, what are this movement’s priorities, it demands and its ultimate ambitions and to whom are these addressed?

Here it was then -- a chance for the proverbial hundred flowers to bloom. Here was an opportunity for feminist essays and painting and plays and films and fiction and music and murals and photography and poetry to flourish. Here was occasion to read and reread the history of this country, of this region, of past feminist movements, of political action, of social change. Here was the point for everyone who so identifies, to ponder on the difficult question of what it means to be a feminist in 21st century Pakistan. In short, it was the most opportune time to foster discourse.

But in a tragic turn, much of the energy in those streets has gotten transposed to a fundamentally anti-discursive space -- social media. Forums like Twitter and Facebook are incapable of producing meaningful political dialogue; not because they are base or common; but because they are intrinsically designed to not allow for it. They convert every user into a brand and brands have to be clear, concise and without contradiction. Thus discourse gets swapped out for derision, complexity for promotion, thinking for marketing. Social media transforms political actors into store-fronts; it can convert an incipient political movement into a social club. And social clubs seldom make history. Social media clubs even less so.

Forums like Twitter and Facebook are incapable of producing meaningful political dialogue; not because they are base or common; but because they are intrinsically designed to not allow for it.

This is because social media prevents three necessary conditions for any progressive political programme, including and especially a feminist one. First, it violates the principle of self-reflection. Social media compels people to turn their gaze outward rather than inward. It keeps everyone from confronting an important truth: that all systems of oppression, such as this patriarchy, consume everyone in their wake but also rely on everyone. So the line of victim and perpetrator runs through all of us, albeit in myriad and unequal ways. Instead, the current conversations amongst feminist circles on social media often engage in a simple binary of feminist ally/enemy. It makes clean camps, simplistic dichotomies, within and without. It disallows the presence of fruitful paradoxes and generative ambiguities. It leaves little space to pose difficult questions -- ones that cannot be answered in easy, pithy terms.

Second, it fails to allow for thought to be constructive. The all-important question of, what is to be done, remains not just unanswered; it remains unasked. Instead, every feminist person, institution and ally seems to be precariously perched on a moral cliff as the rest of us watch with baited breath to see who shall fall from greatness next. Hence, spectacle and drama take the place of political thought and action. This is completely logical because social media, with its ability to squeeze time and space or in other words make things go "viral", is obviously better suited for sensationalism than for contemplation. A politics that is blunt and shallow needs not much more than accusations and clarifications, claims and counterclaims. A politics that is critical however does not only require connectivity, it also requires quiet; it does only demand community but necessitates solitude and pause.

Finally, social media politics becomes an end in itself and as such makes feminist politics synthetic and lifeless. Feminism on social media can be perfectly intersectional, it can check all boxes, it shall offend no one and leave no one behind. But done this way, it shall also be a myth and will have no real prowess or ability to affect institutional, legal or social change in Pakistan.

Historically, feminist movements everywhere, like the people who constitute them, have had severe limitations, have had to make strategic choices and been contingent and sometimes even paradoxical. But they have also been alive and organic and as such have grown, changed, morphed and adapted. And it is only then that they have been forces of change and indeed forces of nature. History has judged them as such, even if a social media show trial today would find their flag-bearers quite guilty.

This is not to suggest that social media is not significant. The #metoo movement worldwide and the recent feminist activism within Pakistan is undeniable proof of its great efficacy as a medium of connection. But a feminist movement that mistakes the medium for the message, the tool for the purpose, is incapable of being anything other than angry.

And anger is important, necessary, even urgent. But, we must ask ourselves, what happens after the storm? What happens after everyone is spent, when all stones have been cast, when everyone has been tried? What then? How does anger alone fulfill a lacuna left by the lack of social justice and well-being?

We, as feminists, need to imagine a new future out loud. A movement without objective is not a movement at all. It is aimless wandering, and ultimately, it may lead us away from the status quo but it shan’t keep us from being lost.

Feminism in the age of Twitter