Imagine a poor, young girl in a village. She calls herself a feminist and has organized a small group of friends to discuss the personal hygiene issues they face in the village. She passionately describes her right to the basic necessity of clean and safe sanitary products. Now imagine the discussions being covered by a news channel from the city. The reporter is in search of his next big story. A young girl demanding a basic right is hardly a headliner. But, the reporter would add spiced up details about the way she spoke. Her tone will be scrutinized as loud and rash. Her claims will be drowned by a simple disapproving sentence: This girl has fallen prey to the dangers of feminism.
The described scenario, although fictional, represents the vast majorities’ experience of feminism in Pakistan. The difference between a city based NGO fighting for the rights of the village girl and she herself speaking is that of agency.
In our country, females are stripped off their agency, i.e. their right to think and speak their minds. This phenomenon of agency is aptly captured by the renowned scholar Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak in her infamous essay titled: “Can the Subaltern Speak?”. Theorizing South Asian feminism, Spivak questions whether the subaltern is allowed to talk.
The subaltern in this case is the young girl from the anecdote. She is a subaltern because on a scale of the socially privileged, the girl sits on the lowest point. She is both; a woman and impoverished. Spivak explores whether the words of the subaltern have substance. She reckons that it is the way she speaks that is policed, rather than giving attention to what she says.
With this in mind, two basic rules of Pakistani feminist conduct may be articulated. One may define feminism as gender equality. Another may cite gender differences as the essence of feminism. Either way, certain complexities cannot be done away with. Due heed must be paid to the following rules:
1) “Feminism and The Reclamation of Narrative Voices” Rule
If an NGO was rallying for the subaltern’s rights, all would praise the heads of the NGO for their benevolence. It’s truly unfortunate that even our charitable endeavours wreak of elitist politics. It appears that the concept of narrative voices is entirely lost on us in our feminist journeys.
We take pride in speaking for subaltern females. In other, more literal words; we snatch their right to speak for themselves. A reclamation of first person narratives is entirely necessary if we wish to rid ourselves of the mainstream definitions. Let the subaltern speak. Our job is to listen, absorb and empathize. Not merely sympathize.
2) The “Context Specificity” rule.
When categorizing an argument as feminism, it must be noted that western scholarship is an ill fitting dress for the eastern female. The emancipatory needs of a western female are in no way synonymous with that of an eastern one. These categories are merely geographic and may not take into account the original roots of the woman. A Canadian woman with Pakistani lineage, for instance, cannot be representative of the experiences of the young girl in the village. They might share a heritage, yet their journey’s of emancipation follow two divergent paths in the patriarchal order. Subjecting both narratives to simplistic definitions of feminism dumbs down the complex experiences of Pakistani women in different situations.
We should aim to contextualise first and then theorise. Moreover, avoiding using redundant and inapplicable theories from western scholars might be a start. They fallaciously use themselves as a yardstick to measure universal female emancipation. This paints all Pakistani women as utterly destitute and therefore viable candidates for western saviorism.
Do all the Pakistani ladies a favour, let them narrate their own stories. Better yet, step down as managers of the self-assigned feminism projects. Hand over the managerial positions to the concerned women themselves. Let them decide and lead how they wish to emancipate themselves.
It will be better for the development of Pakistani feminism and certainly the best for the abysmal state of social segregation amongst our people. The rules may seem like common sense. However, as the saying goes, common sense is not that common after all.