Dissecting the F word

Recently, the feminist slogan “my body, my choice” has elicited a significant amount of backlash and offended many individuals in Pakistan. This has prompted me to question the source of their dissatisfaction with the phrase. If the choice regarding one’s own body does not belong to the individual, then to whom does it belong?

The perceptions of feminism in Pakistan are diverse and encompass a broad spectrum ranging from skepticism to endorsement. Cultural and religious values have a significant impact on shaping attitudes, with some individuals viewing it as a challenge to conventional gender roles and cultural customs and as an alien ideology that is inconsistent with their beliefs. In the urban areas of Pakistan, there is a limited but notable presence of pro-equality groups and individuals who advocate for and work toward gender equality. They view feminism as a means of addressing issues such as discrimination, violence, and limited access to education and economic opportunities for women.

Conversely, a significant portion of the population perceives it as Western-oriented propaganda that runs counter to Islamic principles and traditional values viewing it as a deviation from established gender norms and customs. The term “feminist” is often used as an expletive and is employed disparagingly without a comprehensive comprehension of its definition and core principles. This may result in the marginalisation and ridicule of those who support gender equality. Some may believe that feminists are aggressive, man-haters seeking to disrupt traditional gender roles. Many also confuse feminism with radical feminism, due to a lack of awareness of the different factions of the feminist movement and their corresponding principles and ideologies.

The term “feminism” encompasses a diverse range of beliefs and practices aimed at achieving gender equality. At its core, feminism upholds the principle that women and men should have equal rights and opportunities. However, over time, various forms of feminism have emerged, each with distinct focuses and approaches. One of these forms is radical feminism, which posits that patriarchal systems are the source of women’s oppression and that a complete overhaul of society is required to attain true equality. Radical feminists tend to adopt a more militant stance, and their views can be perceived as more extreme than other forms of feminism but it does not represent other forms of feminism such as liberal feminism or Islamic feminism.

Feminism is simply a movement advocating for gender equality in social, political, and ideological realms. It seeks to end discrimination and challenge patriarchal norms and structures that restrict women’s rights, including access to education, employment, healthcare, and political representation, and highlights issues such as sexual harassment, domestic violence, and reproductive rights. Feminism has evolved, marked by three distinct waves. The first wave, in the late 19 and early 20 centuries, focused on women’s suffrage. The second wave, in the 1960s, expanded to include reproductive rights and equality in the workplace. The third wave, starting in the 1990s, stressed intersectionality, recognising the interplay of multiple factors such as race, class, and sexuality in shaping experiences of oppression.

Its compatibility with Islam is often debated, however, there is evidence to support that the two are not inherently incompatible. While some feminist ideals such as equality and empowerment may challenge traditional gender norms, they align with Islamic values of justice and equality for all. The Quran emphasises the equal worth and importance of all human beings regardless of gender, and Muslim history is rich with women leaders and activists promoting equality. Islamic feminist scholars believe that gender equality can only be realised by interpreting and applying Islamic principles in a manner that is fair to women.

In the last few years’ Aurat March, an annual event aimed at promoting women’s rights and gender equality in Pakistan, gained widespread support followed by brutal criticism and trolling. The march has been criticised for its perceived lack of inclusivity and representation of marginalised groups and it also faced opposition from religious groups, who claim that the march’s demands and slogans are un-Islamic and promote immoral Western values. This criticism has led some women to avoid participating in the march. Although it is a significant platform for raising awareness about women’s rights and gender equality in Pakistan, it may not fully encompass the diversity of views within the feminist movement.

Gender inequality remains a persistent issue globally, necessitating the continued relevance of feminism. Despite progress in recent years, women still experience discrimination and unequal treatment in areas such as education, employment, healthcare, and political representation. Additionally, women are disproportionately impacted by violence and often lack adequate resources and support to escape it. Apart from the official record of 63,367 cases of violence against women by the Ministry of Human Rights over the past three years, the number of unreported cases remains alarmingly high. This highlights the critical importance of ongoing efforts toward gender equality and women’s rights through the lens of feminism. The negative connotations often associated with the term “feminism” in Pakistan can only be countered through increased education and awareness initiatives that accurately communicate the true essence and objectives of feminist movements.

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