Dawn, Karachi, Pakistan / Asia News Network.
This week, I attended the HeForShe event at the United Nations General Assembly.
HeForShe is a campaign for men and boys worldwide to advocate an end to gender inequality spearheaded by UN Women.
At the event, I heard Emma Watson, British actress and UN Women Global Goodwill Ambassador speak passionately about feminism and gender equality.
The speech not only earned her a standing ovation from the audience present at the UN headquarters in New York, but also great viewership online and appraisal on social media.
Like Watson, I identify myself as a feminist, too. And I couldn’t help feeling she was speaking my mind when she said:
“My recent research has shown me that feminism has become an unpopular word. Apparently I am among the ranks of women whose expressions are seen as too strong, too aggressive, isolating, anti-men and, unattractive.”
I started calling myself a feminist openly after taking a women and gender studies class in college. It was that specific course which taught me what feminism actually entailed — “The belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities. It is the theory of the political, economic and social equality of the sexes.”
When I first wrote an article about being a feminist openly, two years ago, I remember getting negative reactions from some of my friends and family members on using the term, ‘feminist’.
They all thought it was too strong and bold a term for me to use. It did not align with my “gentle” and “docile” upbringing.
In the long phone calls and email threads which ensued (and where I spent myself convincing them that I had not turned into an aggressive man-hating militant and will not die an old maid or as a cranky cat lady), I only found myself growing more sensitive to the feminist movement.
Time and time again, I brought this topic during dinner conversations, phone conversations with old friends and somehow, I was never able to wrap my head around how some people cringe on hearing the ‘f’ word.
Emma Watson asked: “Why has the word ‘feminist’ become such an uncomfortable one?”
It only stands for helping women and girls achieve equal rights as men, and for liberating them from stereotypes.
It not only benefits women but also men, on a societal level. If women enter the workforce, getting equal pay as their male counterparts, the society is bound to thrive economically.
It aims to make women aware of their rights and choices, so as to not let men (or other women, for that matter) trample them.
Feminism does NOT blame the male for all the atrocities faced by women — it’s the female as well that perpetuates her own role in the patriarchal hierarchy.
It does NOT advocate superiority of females over males, just like racial justice or religious tolerance are not doctrines that advocate racial or religious supremacy.
What surprises me the most is that many who are opposed to the word “feminist” actually agree with all the values that feminism holds. Then, why the vehement opposition?
One fine morning, if you were to tell a male that he isn’t allowed to keep his job anymore; that he has to get married in order to support himself financially and socially; he is not allowed to leave the premises of his own house without the permission of his wife; he is bound to put up a fight and tell you how outrageously absurd it is.
But when a female reacts the same way, she is labelled rebellious and stubborn.
The recent criticism over female participation at PTI dharnas (sit-in protest) wasn’t particularly surprising for me.
In my opinion, the criticism was less of an opposition to female presence in public sphere and more of a political backlash and a party-shaming tactic.
It was extremely irksome to see all the eyebrows raised and fingers pointed at female chanters and dancers — the key word being female here.
Why weren’t the men and boys at the jalsa (gathering) not shamed for dancing to patriotic songs?
Why were the women accused of having “bad” characters and as coming from the “dark side” of society?
It is easy to insult women and get away with it.
I am not saying that gender inequality is only a Pakistani problem. I have been living in the US since the last four years and have seen women work and fight very hard to get the same pay as men.
Gender inequality still thrives in the developed world. Pakistan may have seen its first female prime minister but the US is still to witness that day.
Sexual assault and rape, especially on college campuses is rampant. One in five women in the US claim that they have been sexually assaulted.
Sheryl Sandberg, in her book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead writes about her daily struggles as a female living in the United States, to become equal to her male colleagues, even in this day and age.
This notion of gender inequality is what has been riling up feminists around the world, stirring up new traditions and working towards changing cultures and mindsets.
The problem is as urgent as it is universal. In Emma Watson’s words:
“If not me, who? If not now, when?”
Think about it.