By: Bina Shah
The writer is an author, most recently of Slum Child (2010). She has written for numerous publications including Dawn, The Friday Times and Chowk
A recent report about women in Iran being banned from over 70 university courses is cause for alarm: the academic achievements of Iran’s women have angered its conservatives, who have now decreed that women cannot study in certain faculties, including English literature, nuclear physics, hotel management and engineering. This proves that women’s rights can never be taken for granted because there is always a backlash. It also illustrates how in patriarchal societies that want to be seen as ‘benevolent’, they will only let women go so far before shoving them back in their ‘place’. It’s all too common for the powers that be to see women’s rights as threatening men’s rights, not seeing that both can coexist. But this is endemic narrow-minded thinking: the belief that a woman rising up means a man being co-opted from his position of dominance.
People respond negatively to the idea of equal rights for women: “Why are feminists always angry?” and “Why do you always want to bash men and put them down?” Yet, feminists aren’t trying to put men down; we’re trying to pull ourselves up, to rise out of the underground pits into which we’ve been consigned since the beginning of history. People don’t understand that social injustice should make you very, very angry and chauvinism and patriarchy are inherently unjust.
In an essay by the author, poet and feminist bell hooks (who intentionally does not capitalise her name) called “Understanding Patriarchy“, hooks says:
“Patriarchy is a political-social system that insists that males are inherently dominating, superior to everything and everyone deemed weak, especially females, and endowed with the right to dominate and rule over the weak and to maintain that dominance through various forms of psychological terrorism and violence.”
Hooks makes a strong argument that if patriarchy was really so beneficial to men, they’d be a lot more mentally, emotionally and physically healthy than they are now. She classifies the way men treat women under patriarchal systems as a mental illness. And she says that both men and women are complicit in perpetuating this system because they’ve been brainwashed to do so since birth. There are paybacks to participating in patriarchy: control and dominance for men and a vicarious form of power, which trickles down to the women who help to maintain it by riding over their sisters and enforcing the patriarchal status quo.
In Pakistan, ‘feminism’ is seen as a dirty word but patriarchy is a word that is hardly even discussed or understood, although it is the social and political code by which we live our lives. It is the system that allows a myriad of abuses against women to take place: the obvious ones, which result in the grievous injury or death of a girl or woman, but also the subtle ones in which women are demeaned, insulted, harassed, excluded, sidelined, and diminished.
Patriarchy is why men feel justified in saying ‘there should be limits for women’ or ‘you can’t allow women to have all freedoms because that would result in the destruction of society’. It distorts the verses of the Holy Quran to justify laws, behaviours and crimes that discriminate against women, running completely against the spirit of Islam, which guarantees equality and fairness towards both sexes. It thinks of a boy baby as more desirable than a girl baby, it feeds a boy more than a girl, it sends a boy to school and keeps a girl at home. It is a system that is inherently destructive, unhealthy and holds us back from economic, intellectual, social and spiritual progress.
Patriarchy has dominated our lives but it has only given power and control to one half of society, while keeping the other half in a position not dissimilar to that of servants and slaves, no matter how much lip service is paid to how much women are respected in our society. Anyone with open eyes can see that this is simply another one of the lies that we comfort ourselves with while social injustice plagues our lives.
One day, both men and women of Pakistan will recognise there’s another way of living our lives, one that gives genders equality, respect and dignity. Feminism will also be recognised as the struggle to make that dream a reality: not a worldview that sees men as the enemy but a way of encouraging and empowering women to rise and stand side-by-side with men as their partners, helpmates and friends. And men, too, will realise that they must free themselves from the prison of patriarchy in order to preserve both their sanity and their humanity.