Artwork by Maheen Amer
There’s a part of our culture that deserves to be called what it is. Without any excuses. And that’s our collective confusion about women. Religion, pop culture, our region’s culture, our household culture, there is so much consistently being bombarded to us about women, their place in society, their place in the household, that there has developed a collective awkwardness/unease in being around them, in thinking about them and in interacting with them. We feel, overall, as if the West has determined and is determining the future women, and there’s a sense of inadequacy of the role of our religious and cultural ideas about women in shaping her and discourse about her (most of this discourse is by men, and many aren’t ready to lose their role as women’s spokesperson). With the absence of a progressive religious outlook in Pakistan, discussion about women easily becomes a very, very binary debate. For one who talks about her but in essence is defending the relevance of their religion and culture. And the other who feels that religion and religious ideas are obsolete and at odds with anything progressive.
We see women working, hear about women working, read about them, but internally we don’t approve because of some misplaced understanding of religious and cultural values. In many ‘educated’ circles, women’s job either comes with a timeline or with conditions, ‘women can work, and when they get married, they can still work depending upon their husband’s family’, but there’s a real sense of their work being something they’re doing for passing time, keeping busy, lending a somewhat supportive hand in the household income. Hardly do we hear, women work because they enjoy the work. Because they can and have contributed to its existing and future shape. Because they can and have radically shifted its frontiers. Women work because they can and have created new lines of work, original fields of thoughts, novel paths for research. That their lens can and has added to the lens of looking, pereceiving and understanding this complex world. But, we’ve been directly and indirectly whispered, women lose an integrate part of their ‘feminine’ nature when they do any of the above.
The adjectives we describe women with reflect the power we want them to hold. When hearing about rishtas, the most common adjectives revolve around innocence/sharaafat/seedhi saadhi/pyaari/aagay se nahi bolti OR khsuh rakhti hai/bohat gup shup lagaati hai/bohat hansaati hai/chup nai rehne deti. In both typifications, she serves the role of a support and an entertainer. Someone we know relative to us. Not with an independent existence. Adjectives that we do NOT hear are: creative/clear hai woh kia karni chahti hai/pyaar fierecely karti hai.
We are told to respect women but only when they act like the women in our household stories and in our texts. When they step out of the defined roles, they become outliers who we can demean, and ridicule. One recent example is that of Mehwish Hayat and her song in an item number. There is one moral perspective about the impact of item songs on a sexually frustrated culture. There’s another opposing moral argument about how art is both a collective and individual act that shouldn’t bow down to existing norms. Both arguments, amongst others, can and should be discussed. But the nature of our debate centers on social media reactions that range from calling her a g***** to just plain hatred. There is something very personal here. As if individuals feel a disruption in their values by the act of one individual. There is a very real sense of power when we use these words. What will be the male equivalent of a slut? Playboy, womanizer? But these words have admiration instead of moral condemnation.
There is a serious need to introspect about our sources of information whether they be family members, clerics, print & social media, ideals from the West. Who is determining our perception? How do we evaluate the accuracy of these sources? How flexible is our understanding of women? How often are we questioning our own assumptions and modes of operating with and about them? How can we shape our role as listeners? How do we retract our judgements and acknowledge that we don’t understand what it is like to be a women, in the house, in the public space, public bus, elevator, walking on a street at night, in fighting for being able to work, for wanting to relocate because of work without being called too ambitious, for being able to express who they love and wanting to pursue without being called promiscuous, for being able to disagree with authority (parents, bosses etc) without being considered a bitch. A lot has to happen but it can begin with listening and dropping the pretense of knowing.
Bio: I’m Zain and I come from a background of teaching and learning. I love to write and read (in this order) and am frequently in search of writing/other art forms that, as Kafka put it, serve as and feel like an axe for the frozen sea inside us.