Pakistan and India have shared a close love-hate relationship ever since the nations gained freedom. However the women in both nations share a long history of oppression through patriarchy. We have also seen a drastic shift in the global feminist movement when women from South and South-East Asia started coming forward and citing their concerns.

Just recently a feminist open mic was organized by a group of masters students in Lahore, Pakistan where women from all walks of life came forward and spoke about issues that were intrinsic to their culture and society. In this piece Sakshi Sirari talks with Fatima Anwar, the founding member of the movement.

1. How did you get the idea of starting these discussions?

Through discussions with friends and like-minded colleagues, we realized that there were certain conversations that people (students in our case) did want to have but it was very difficult to be the person to start that conversation–especially in an informal, social setting. It was hard to find the right moment to start a conversation about something as horrific as sexual abuse, and it put you in a very vulnerable position to be the person to start that conversation regardless of the fact that it’s something that has affected almost everyone directly or indirectly in our society. We started off by providing safe spaces on our own campus where these conversations about so-called taboo subjects could start taking place and those safe spaces became both places of healing and creative expression. The Feminist Open
Mic was an attempt to provide a safe space like that to the public, to move outside the confines of the walls of our campus and engage with people of all backgrounds, of all ages, of all genders about their lived experiences under patriarchy and the way the social construct of gender affects our personal lives.

Mic was an attempt to provide a safe space like that to the public, to move outside the confines of the walls of our campus and engage with people of all backgrounds

2. What are the main concerns of feminism in Pakistan? 
Feminist concerns in Pakistan, like in any other place, vary according to context and intersections with class and the concerns of linguistic and religious minorities in the country. I can only speak from my personal experience as a student at a relatively upper-class educational institution living in Lahore. One factor that I do think concerns most women is that of mobility and how mobility is restricted by street harassment and how that in turn restricts women’s access to education, work, healthcare, and so on–which is why initiatives like ‘Girls at Dhabas’ and any other movements where women occupy and reclaim public space are so important. As for the open mic, different men and women spoke about different things–some of the main themes being every day sexism, the restrictions on self-expression created by gender roles, body-shaming, and child sexual abuse. Sexual abuse was something that came up again and again, and not just sexual abuse of women but also the importance of recognizing that men too can be victims and survivors of abuse and how, as difficult as it is to be a woman and speak about your abuse, in our cultural context it becomes even more difficult to be a man and speak about your abuse.

Islamic feminism can provide a very important framework for women’s rights movements in places like Pakistan where Islam is the dominant religion

3. What is your take on Islamic feminism?
I think Islamic feminism can provide a very important framework for women’s rights movements in places like Pakistan where Islam is the dominant religion and does play a very intimate role in many people’s lives. I do think, however, for this approach to work it has to be engaged with sincerely and the serious scholarship on the subject has to be made accessible.
“Islamic feminism” cannot simply be a catchphrase that’s thrown around under the assumption that the word “Islamic” will make feminism more palatable to a specific group of people. My introduction to Islamic feminism was through the work of scholars like Amina Wadud and Farid Esack who address the very serious concerns that exist regarding the chasm between traditional Islamic interpretations and the progressive changes that we wish to see in Muslim communities.
Feminist Movements in Pakistan
Feminist Movements in Pakistan

4. What kind of institutional support/resistance did you face initially?

 
We work on a university campus as a student society and off the university campus as a network of progressive students. On the campus there is usually support from faculty that engages with issues around gender and resistance from those working in purely administrative positions. I think much of the resistance comes from the general assumptions that surround the word “feminism” in Pakistan: that it is not a local phenomenon, that it is an imperialist western import that does not ‘fit’ here.
However, recently a new gender initiative was started on our campus and we do think that mindsets are slowly changing and that we will receive a bit more institutional support now. There have been some initiatives and talks surrounding gender that were organized not by the feminist society but by other student societies as well which I think is a very good sign that there is change happening.

Personally I’ve come across very dedicated and self-aware feminists who are men in the movement

5. What kind of male participation is there in the feminist movement in Pakistan?
 
While I cannot speak for Pakistan as a whole, personally I’ve come across very dedicated and self-aware feminists who are men in the movement. The student society that I’m part of has very dedicated male members and the open mic that we just hosted had very respectful and constructive male participation.
As with everywhere else, there are of course heightened difficulties with being a male feminist in a very chauvinistic environment and there are also problems with male feminists who, knowingly or unknowingly, hijack feminist spaces and make them about themselves but I see improvement in the personal experiences I’ve had and that makes me hopeful about the future of the movement.

As with everywhere else, there are of course heightened difficulties with being a male feminist in a very chauvinistic environment and there are also problems with male feminists who, knowingly or unknowingly, hijack feminist spaces