Know your feminists

It is difficult to define feminism succinctly, because it means different things to different people. But, one thing is for sure: feminism isn’t a practice in perfection

On a recent episode of Bulbulay, Khoobsurat is visited by her aunt Basharat, who is shocked to find that Momo and Khoobsurat do all the housework while Mehmood Sahab and Nabeel never lift a finger. Aunt Basharat has no patience for men, she is unmarried and has dedicated her life to her NGO. She convinces Khoobsurat and Momo to go on strike, forbidding them from doing housework until the men start doing their part. The two women go on ‘strike’, ‘protesting’ with placards andtelling off their husbands. Eventually, Aunt Basharat falls for Mehmood Sahab, and starts serving him food and cleaning up after him.

Sitcoms rely on stock characters because they are easy to make fun of. This is why the characters in Bulbulay are always so one-dimensional. Aunt Basharat is no exception. Many people in Pakistan believe that a feminist is an unpleasant, angry woman with no husband and zero regard for Pakistani culture and values. That perhaps all feminists really need is to get married and take up their rightful place in the kitchen. For years, this has been the stock image of a feminist that has dominated our television screens. Mainstream media has ensured that when we think of what a feminist looks like, we see just one kind of woman, talking about one kind of problem.

In the 1970s, my grandmother ran a fish and chips shop on Tariq Road in Karachi. She did this not because she had distant dreams of becoming a successful business woman, but because she had a family of seven to feed, their school fees to pay, and a husband who was not particularly inclined to work or earn. Dadi had never been to school and she was married off with very little say in the matter. She bore seven children out of a sense of duty, not desire. For years, she woke up before everyone else. She sent the kids to school, ran the kitchen, delegated responsibilities and would oversee the shop. In the evenings, she did all the housework and looked over the accounts.

I choose to tell her story because when people think of feminism, they may never think about someone like her. But I believe she was a feminist because she lived her life according to feminist principles. That is not to say that she was perfect, but to reiterate that feminism is not a practice in perfection.

Many would differ, pointing out that a feminist wishes to be free from societal expectations, and that my dadi uncomplainingly shouldered the burdens the society placed on her. This is the argument put forward by people who think there are only two kinds of women in this world; those who resist and those who submit. But shepherding women into these two simplistic categories only serves to divide us further and does not help our cause.

Khudmukhtaari, is the theme for this year’s Aurat March, the biggest celebration of feminism in this country. Khudmukhtaari roughly translates to ideas of independence, autonomy, self-governance and freedom. I think my dadi would have approved of this theme. She saw how her life would pan out if she did not take charge, and she took matters into her own hands. Her business thrived, she put her youngest son through medical school with the money she made. When she passed away, the shop closed down. Nobody could manage it as well as she had done.

Aurat March challenges popular (mis)conceptions of who a feminist is and what a feminist looks like. This is not just seen in the attendance, although the diversity at the march is a joy to behold, but also in the very bones of the march, the charter of demands and manifesto. This year, the first demand in the charter is raising the minimum monthly wage of Rs40,000, to ensure a life of dignity for all. The charter includes a variety of demands, such as an amendment to anti-harassment laws and sexual assault laws to include all genders as potential complainants, the demilitirisation of campuses, the repealing of all laws curtailing civic freedoms, and the passing of an anti-discrimination law to provide remedies for discrimination on the basis of sex, sexuality, class, race or differently-abled persons in employment, housing, healthcare and education.

Aurat March names the many violences that different communities negotiate with on a daily basis. The purpose of the march is to illustrate how all these problems, that we have always been told are disparate, are actually firmly intertwined in their propping up of the patriarchy.

It is difficult to define feminism in a manner that is succinct, simply because it can mean so many different things to different people. Who a feminist is, is not defined by her marital status, her class, or by how she understands freedom. A feminist is someone, anyone, who desires more from this world, who comes together with other marginalised groups to struggle for a better tomorrow.

The typical image of a feminist in mainstream discourse is that she is always angry. And yes, the marchers are certainly angry. Aunt Basharat has a right to her anger, my dadi had a right to her’s (whether she ever expressed it, I cannot say). Yet, what is often overlooked is that despite this anger, or perhaps because of it, we are also hopeful about the future. In the lead up to this march, I have come to believe that the essence of feminism is to create space for hope. The hope we experience in our resistance against the patriarchal structures that try to constrain all of us. The radical hope that we derive from one another.

The writer is a feminist based in Lahore. She tweets @amnachaudhry03 

Know your feminists