Creating Behenchara – Salima Hashmi

Question 1: To you, what is the meaning of creating sisterhood and strength amongst women and why do you think it’s so important?

For me, it is important because I have seen through my own life, through my childhood, through watching my mother, through watching the people who came to her help in very difficult times, and having lived through such a time but I have found that the women are the main source of hope in Pakistan because they face the most difficult of circumstances with great courage and great innovation and I think that they carry this country on their backs and that is why I feel that when we talk of sisterhood we need to make these networks to give one another strength to share our experiences and also to make women feel that they are not alone. That they are a part of a very very large movement, in which women all over the world especially today because this pandemic has shown us that the brunt of the problem is being faced by women and their children. So, for me the idea of sisterhood is really something I have grown up with lived with and that I have supported and I hope we’ll live to see the day women will have true equality.

Q2. When it comes to bringing awareness around feminism, and the need for it, how can we educate young boys and girls and how do you think that will help in giving rise to feminism?

I think firstly we should understand that when you use the word feminism or sisterhood, we find that it evokes very different kinds of responses in different kinds of people. And men who have a vested interest in keeping women subjugated they will immediately say this is a western concept and they say ‘ye auraton ko kharab karnay ke leyay- ye kya hai what is this feminism? We don’t need feminism.’ Etc. Well, first and foremost it’s not a western concept. Okay it’s convenient, maybe, but the concept of women coming together and struggling for their rights is as old as human kind. And we have many examples in our past in which you will find women helping other women. How to create this awareness is something we need to struggle with because very often you find that it will be in a very patriarchal society, which is our society. I say this because as I look across the numbers and the statistics in Pakistan, women in the informal sector of work, they are often simply not counted in those statistics. If you go to the rural population, men will be ‘acting’ -as head of the household as the people who own the wealth whatever the kind of wealth is, and yet it will be the women who will be lighting the fires. It will be the women who will be feeding the animals, cooking food, will be looking after the children, will be taking the food to the fields, and very often will be equal partners in the harvesting. But do they get a share in the harvest? No, they don’t. Look at the cotton crop, it is entirely harvested by women and children. And yet, when the time comes for the reimbursement of what that crop is worth, the whole cost goes to the male.

So, we live in a patriarchal setup in which actually women do not get the fruits of their labour. They labour on, but it goes to somebody else. You come in to the urban areas, and you will find the same. Men will be sitting at home, women will be going out to work: they’ll be cleaning you house they’ll be doing the jharoo they’ll be washing your clothes, and cooking your food. And where are the men? Jee, unu kaam ni labeya. And you’ll be finding this more and more in rural areas also that the men are on drugs, men are sitting no the charpais and smoking the hukkas, and ultimately the man is being protected by the sisters. It’s not surprising. It’s not that women don’t believe in sisterhood, but as happens in this kind of a situation, women become the protector of males and they become patriarchs, instead of matriarchs. And we see this phenomenon over and over and over, it’s perpetuated.

I also believe that women can not claim feminists to be the only friends. I think men have to be brought in, those men that have the courage to say I am a feminist, and there are many many men who have the courage to say I am a feminist. And they are the men who are our friends. We need them. We need them so that the next generation is not ashamed of being pro-women.

I was very lucky. I had a thoroughly emancipated father, who believed in complete equality for men and women. And he said that women should be given the edge because society was not fair. And therefore, I was intelligent enough to choose my partner who is also a very emancipated man. And Shoaib was very often fond of saying that ‘the women of Pakistan are a superior species.’ And he used to say this in his MA class and the male students used to be very annoyed with him because he used to say listen look around you, the female students are so much ahead of you. And I find in the last couple of years, women have proved to be superior to men. In every field almost. Yet, women still don’t get equal opportunity. We call it a ‘glass ceiling’ but is it a glass ceiling? No. It’s a big huge fat iron blanket you’ve put on women’s progress. And I think that it’s nonsensical to have a cabinet which is practically all male.

You know you’re not even willing to understand that men they get together and they are thinking through a prism which is entirely blurred their machoism. And I at least have great respect for Sania Nishtar, ‘cause I’ve worked with her and I mean a very progressive woman, but she’s been given a job she’s doing as well as she can because she’s an intelligent woman. But there are many other Sania Nishtar that could have taken over those portfolios and done them better. But they don’t look in that direction. So, there’s some kind of awareness we need to give to young men and young women, and say you have to demand equality because it’s for the future of Pakistan. Can’t go in this manner in which you’re depending on- you know- you’re ignoring half the population.

I remember, I remember once a long time ago when I was reading about when South Africa had not come out from under apartheid and it was a report on it and it said you know some of the worst atrocities that are committed on the black population is by the black policemen. Because they learn the lesson of how to subjugate from their white masters, and they become replicas of their white masters. That happens in patriarchy also.

Q3: As someone who has been surrounded by strong women and feminists, how important do you think it is for girls to be surrounded by such women especially when it comes to their upbringing and growth?

I should also- and I’ve already said that to you in this interview- that I was lucky enough to be surrounded by emancipated men who were not afraid to acknowledge the fact that they believed in women being equal, if not more than equal. And I think that this is something that I have appreciated in many of my male colleagues that they have learnt and it has not been easy for them because they come out of a system in which they think they are doing you a great big favor if they are listening to you. I really don’t want that kind of curtesy. I would much rather it be respect grows out of a belief that what you have to say is as important as what I have to say. And therefore, I think having strong women around one is a place to start, but it is equally important for those women to cultivate men and to educate them and train them. And very important for women not to take on the characteristics of men. The aggressiveness that is there in men is not what you need to play with. You don’t want to show that you can outsmart a man by becoming as prone to aggressiveness as he is. A very good friend of mine who is a feminist poet, Javed Akhtar, he once said to me that for centuries men had the upper hand because they had the brawn and they smashed the rocks and they made the weapons. But you know the 21st century is a century of the brain, and that quietly over the centuries these women have been perfecting the brain. And now of course they’re going to outsmart you. Outsmart and outshine the men. Because you know they don’t need the brawn. And I think this is something feminists must understand. We don’t need the brawn. We don’t need their aggressiveness, their rat races you know we can make our own rain for our part of the sky based on our intelligence and the way that we came to strategize. Strategy is terribly terribly important.

I think that the greatest gift that women can give to the future is their commitment to peace. And their refusal to be drawn in to the discourse, which is a military discourse. The discourse which is aggressive which assumes one kind of person is superior to another kind of person. That one kind of state is superior to another kind of state. This kind of superiority and I’m better than you I’m sorry it comes from the male ego and I don’t want to be rude and we know where it comes from. We don’t have to replicate that. Peace can be more persuasive because you can see the fruits of peace. You can not see the fruits of aggressiveness and war making. They lead you nowhere they lead you to destruction and worst thing they lead to the death of your children. So why would you subscribe to a war like rhetoric? Never. Women must always stand for peace and building bridges with every kind of person and believe in dialogue. That’s my standpoint.

Q4) How did you help NCA become a safer space for the female students. Especially considering there were so many sexual harassment incidents against faculty members. How did you try to ensure that justice was served, if any, and how did you help create better policies against harassment and bullying on campus and in the hostels?

That’s a very critical question and I’m glad that someone has asked you this. You have to remember that I left NCA in 1999- a very long time ago- it was when I took retirement, a year before my time, but it took retirement. I had already worked there for thirty years; I’d done my bit. A lot of terminology that you have today like ‘sexual harassment’ it didn’t exist when I was a young teacher. It’s not that sexual harassment didn’t exist, but the terminology was absent. So, and in fact they had a very good seminar two years ago at NCA which I was invited in to moderate, and I was telling the audience that there was an instance I was a very young teacher and at that time there were only two female teachers in the college. Two or three; very few of us. And we had a female principal at the time and these female students came to me, not from my department, but they were very like hesitant and embarrassed and they told me about an instance or several instances in which a teacher- as you call it in urdu dastarazi ki. And it was done in such a way nobody else could see. And of course, I was very taken aback because that teacher was like such a ‘chui mui’ as though butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth ever. And they said we don’t know if we should say this and I said that no I’m glad you said that.

So, I went to the principal and as you know when somebody is a government servant it is next to impossible to get them out of government service. Today you have a law against harassment in the workplace and you can imagine if this occurred in the late 70’s this incident, how long, and think about now sexual harassment law is only two three years old, think about how long it has taken for this law to come in to existence, so at that time and so I’ve said to her of course she said we have to do something but what can we do?  Will the girls give it in writing? So, they said no no no no we can’t have our names. And I could understand that even if today people are hesitant.

And so, you know to cut a long story short, none of the faculty supported me. They said nahi nahi nahi esi koi baat nahi hui esay he karti hain sort of thing. But the principal did and she warned the person and said I can’t throw you out of the job but I’ll have you transferred etc. When I took over as principal, the first talk I gave to my faculty among other things I expected them to do I brought up this matter. And I said, again the terminology was not there, but I said that if there is any kind of a hint of somebody taking advantage of their position etc. I later heard, nobody said anything to me then and one of the head of the departments who was a psychologist talk to the faculty about this, that some of the faculty members were very annoyed ke mein ne unki bayizzati kar di. It wasn’t meant like that, but maybe chor ki dari mei tinka tha I don’t know. I certainly, I maneuvered to make a change and I had allies in the faculty who were on my side enough. There was one faculty member who was told categorically by his head of department that he could not invite female teachers in to his office. And he was furious but that was before the law.

So, all of these things had to be done on the basis of getting information (students were very hesitant) and then taking action on that information in which you made sure there was no trouble created for you.  Because there could be instances of people making trouble for you. I tried my best is my answer to this. And I think that it is a responsibility of both the faculty and the students to ensure a safe environment.

Having said that I think it is not only with the female students, male students also deserve because there can be instances of sexual harassment against male students also. We should ensure that it is fair and it it’s just, and if there is reports to law and in recent years I don’t know if people know this, there have been reports to law. One person was dismissed. So, I think that we shouldn’t think that nothing is possible. I think if there is a steady well-informed way of complaining, I think there will be a response. I’m not on social media so I can’t see very much except WhatsApp, which doesn’t really count I suppose, um but I do feel DISTORTION 25.40 its far better to use the means that are legal means and which is to file your complaints and stay steady with it. If you stay steady with it, and don’t resort to making a great big splash and go for what is correct I think there should be a response. 

Q5: Living in Pakistan how do you suppose we should defend feminism while living in this patriarchal society?

A very good question. Something I’ve dealt with all my life. You know you have to have strategies. One of my main strategies has been to use humour. It should’nt be like the emperor has no clothes on. The best thing about the Zia era were the jokes, the anti-Zia jokes which took down the dictator and every week there would be a new joke so it showed that you were alive and well. When you confront patriarchy, don’t do it on their terms: because they can out shout you, they can beat you but do it on your own terms. For me my terms are, you can use humor, to use ridicule, to use stories, to use songs, to use legends and to do it in such a way that people can’t yell and shout at you because your voice is a soft voice, your voice is a persistent voice and you keep repeating what someone has yelled and shouted at you and say oh really? Is that so? Aik minute I didn’t know that. I thought so and so so and so so and so. And you should have enough instances enough stories enough songs enough jokes in your little patari that you can take out and show them how ridiculous they are.  And I think that was our only weapon during Zia’s period. Humor was our only weapon.

I was going to visit my father in Beirut in those years of exile and the first thing he said to me was acha mujhe ab baith ke ab Zia ke latifay sunao. That’s all he wanted to hear. Use humor, use the things you are good at: which is music, which is stories, whicb is art. You will leave a person speechless because you are not using the same weapons they are. You change the way of discourse. You change the term to your benefit. Use strategies all the time.

Humein musharaf ke zamanay mei pick up keya geya tha from Human Rights Commission of Pakistan and we were taken to the police station in Model Town and auratein jo hain, koi bees ikees aurtoun ko pakra tha  bees pachis admi thay aadmi neechay thi auratein ooper thanay mein. Tou ab hum baithey ve hain logon ke gahr waoun ko bhi pata hai ya nahi. Tou one of us said lets start signing aur model town thanay mein hum bees pachis auratoun ne ganay gai hain. The ganas were from the feminist times, the rap songs, we sang Indian movie songs, we sang noor jehan songs the whole thaana was shaking with our voices. And the men downstairs were astounded ke aurtein kya kar rahin hain. Hum ne kaha hum who kar rahay hain jo hum acha karty hain. So the thing was you know you um you have to find ways to go into combat magar jo aap ke combat ke tareekay hain who aap ke apnay hotay hain

Q6:  What is some advice you have for us young feminists?

Well I think you have to believe in yourself and you have to believe in your cause and there will be times when the world seems so dark and you will feel you have lost the battle and that has happened many times in my life also but you know the thing is each of us carries within us the promise of a new life.and therefore we know that it is our sacred duty to keep that hope alive and therefore even when it seems like everything is against you without anger but with love and with humor you have to carry it forward and the advice that I always give, make friends. Make friends. Dost banao. Among men among people who are older than you people who were your enemies. Make friends. And you will find that you are a part of a wider network its always good its always good to have friends. Make friends.


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