The women that fight

Published 22 Apr, 2019 12:22am

Since the Aurat March happened a few weeks ago, Pakistan has seen two Hindu girls abducted for conversions/marriages and there is a harrowing domestic abuse case simmering in Lahore where a woman refused to dance for her husband's friends, at his insistence, and was then beaten and humiliated.

All this, days after detractors questioned whether a women's solidarity movement was at all needed. And isn't feminism against our culture, they asked? Well if our culture is rape, mutilation and ownership of women's bodies then feminism is against our culture, yes.

Meanwhile a cleric issued what was practically a fatwa endorsing sexual assault against these marching women because they have the audacity to demand their basic human rights.

These aren't empty threats either. It doesn't matter if the cleric himself is picked up or restrained; what he has uttered is venom that will now seep into misogynistic heads. I was in the middle of writing this piece when a student did that very thing in the context of blasphemy. He stabbed his professor to death because Islam was apparently imperiled. He decided to take it upon himself to do what his Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan preacher enjoined upon all his followers to do. Take lives.

But sure, this country is perfectly safe for women as the public relations facelift and white validation agent Cynthia D Ritchie wants to demonstrate; she was photographed cycling in Peshawar - presumably accompanied by armed protocol and possibly a tank - and she was looking ecstatic (but not looking at the road, safety first lady).

It has been a lot to process, so let's start small shall we. People of my gender; men, for lack of a better word; I know testosterone fuels a lot of the things we do, but I'm fairly certain it doesn't clog eardrums. For a few days every year, it's okay to listen, give the mouth a much needed rest.

Why am I writing about the Aurat March then? It's not my place to say what problems women are or are not facing, after all. To mansplain them. But what I wish to talk about is the reaction from men themselves that has been petrifyingly bad.

We have had Amir Liaquat, Orya Maqbool Jaan and even film star Shaan go on bizarre rants against the Aurat March for putting our Islamic society in peril. Then, of course, we had the 'there should be a Mard March' crowd. I am all for a Mard March really. As long as they march into the ocean and never come back.

Other reactionary complaints include decrying vulgar placards. This one is relatively straight forward. Shame and decency are cultural constructs and the culture here is patriarchy. You can't fight a culture while still obeying its rules. So the resistance has to be vulgar.

And how exactly does one make a placard against unsolicited pictures of male genitalia without mentioning male genitalia? Men send pictures of a specific organ; not premature baldness, not overgrown chest hair, one specific thing. There is literally no other way to talk about those pictures.

Having genitalia flung in your face isn't a minor issue either. The first time someone told me she had seen a man at a busy signal undo his shalwar and proceed to masturbate in front of her, I wasn't shocked at the perversion; we all know perverts exist; what was shocking was that this was broad daylight. This was a Monday afternoon. This was normal.

There is no polite way to talk about unpaid domestic labour either. What are the polite things women are supposed to write? I can teach you how to use an iron? A microwave? How to throw both socks in the same direction? That placard itself would be unpaid labour.

Oh, there's also criticism that making dinner or squabbling over socks are benign problems. Why talk about these when there are much 'bigger' issues to address? I don't think these things can be looked at in isolation. It's all additive; hundreds of domestic duties which are taken for granted as women's performative functions pave the way for bigger problems. Foster the culture for them. So, unlike the aforementioned male genitalia, there is no issue that is too small.

No transgression that is too minor.

Does all of this sound suspiciously feminist? Don't worry I have never made claims to being one. I don't think men can call themselves feminists. At least not yet. Not now. We can be allies at best, or more accurately the men who try not adding to the existing problems.

Male privilege isn't selective. It exists even when you try to opt out of it, because the way people's behaviour and perception is affected by your gender is not in your control. I live in a bubble of male privilege and it's still very easy to stay mostly silent and live out a comfortable, privileged existence.

Also, becoming a baseline non-douchey human being is nothing to thump one’s chest about. Nobody should wear this like a badge of honour.

Men my age aren't the woke generation. A couple of generations down from here they'll have internalised personal boundaries and how not to address women and so on. For this generation our progressiveness is learned behaviour. Learning from these very women at these marches.

When the Meesha Shafi sexual harassment case broke out, men had similar reactions as the Aurat March ones. One Hamza Ali Abbasi tweeted asking where to draw the line between flirting and harassment. He probably meant that as a rhetorical question but unwittingly he has stumbled upon an important consideration (even a stopped clock is right twice a day); men do have to relearn everything they know about personal space and the behaviour that they should not be exhibiting.

Women have always known what harassment is, we haven't. Still don't. I can think back on my life and catch transgressions too. I don't put myself up on a pedestal. I don't have the knees to climb up onto a pedestal anyway.

I went to an all-boys school. I can't even begin to explain the ways boys think about gender and sexuality. What they think about women. Boys that grow up to be men.

I do try to unlearn my toxic attitudes but there is no way to erase the almost three decades of conditioning in a handful of years. I make mistakes. I say horrible things.

The only thing men my age and above has is relative morality. "At least I'm not as bad as him". "At least I didn't do that". This will change in future generations of men, and accomplishing that is what these women are marching for. To start long lasting conversations that span the ages.

Nobody let's go of their privilege without a fight and these women are that fight. So please don't belittle their efforts with what aboutery like poverty, war or western cultural imperialism.

I wish I could say we men are smarter than that, but that wouldn't be true.

The writer was previously a staffer at the Herald.