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The Curious Case of Female Emancipation in the Context of Pakistan

photo by sakhtar©2009.jpg

The Curious Case of Female Emancipation in the Context of Pakistan

In Pakistan, there is a gaping differentiation in the various degrees of “modernization” of womankind. One can look at this via the lens of clothing.The varieties of garb are to be noted in certain public areas such as urban centres, airports, coach stations and bus stops. The differential is more pronounced in the urban centres.

It is crucial to note that the concept of “modernization,” in the upper tier of urbanized society appears to befriend without much thought notions of Westernization.

What is an emancipated woman, truly? Through the lens of Western media, certain ideals have infiltrated human society in general. The American show Sex and The City, went far towards ideals of empowerment in women. From conversations with many urbanized self-sufficient women, Samantha the most promiscuous of the quartet, is seen to be the truly emancipated woman. Sexualization, seems to play a large part in notions of modernity and emancipation for women.

This has always been true in the West. A woman showing sex, wanting sex, and going after sex is believed emancipated. Liberation and sex then, why do they go hand-in-hand?

The differential in women’s clothing in Pakistan goes from full-on Nikaab, in which nothing may be visible but the eyes, to the shuttlecock burkha with no face at all, to chaddar(large loose scarf) with no face, to dupatta(large loose scarf) on head with face, to dupatta on front of body. In the urban upper classes wearing clothes with no sleeves appears to be the new symbol of emancipation in the last 10 years. Sari blouses have evolved into tangents. At a party of young twenty-somethings in Karachi, an urban centre strappy dresses worn with tights are the mood du jour- a contemporary take on the traditional shalwar kameez.

The younger segment though has always adapted more “modern” ideals in Pakistan. And these same women in many instances change when they are older, i.e.once they are married and “settled down”. The emancipation begins with fashion and clothing and in many cases ends there.

These are the limitations in Pakistani society and culture. “True” emancipation of womankind is not forthcoming so easily. It is confused with Western notions of modernity as symbolized through superficial and surface symbols such as fashion.

Interestingly, the Eastern cultures have always deified the woman. The subcontinental female ideal is heavily adorned, heavily perfumed, however she must be submissive. Even if the woman is a “patakha,” or firecracker, as I have heard used in common conversation, this too comes under the filter of a patriarchal lens. Patakhas are acceptable as a man likes a woman with some attitude.

Let us examine another facet of the female subjugation to patriarchal values. Amongst the upper and middle classes, it is unheard of not to engage in painful hair removal. Threading of the upper lip is a must at the very least. Hair, on the arms, legs, back, front, must be removed.

In the West, female hair growth is a particularly interesting subject. Certain women, one could say emancipated, or who consider themselves emancipated do not subscribe to these beauty ideals. In some cases, they will deliberately allow their facial hair, their underarm hair to grow out. The legs will be enshrouded in hair, as will the arms.

In some cases, these women are disparaged by other women still well-ensconced within the lens-vision of patriarchy, as dykes, butch etc when in truth, not all women who choose to disregard such restrictive norms are gay.

Is it a self-perpetuating vicious cycle? Do women do it for the men, and the men in turn, cannot move past such superficialities. Men have been said to call armpit hair, “disgusting” whereas sometimes the most "disgusting" specimens of hair growth can be seen on men! It seems by this argument perfectly legitimate to ask a man to remove his bodily hair. However, this is quite rare, because interestingly enough, the male bodily hair symbolizes masculinity; that elusive yet much required trait in the male of the species.

A woman, then is making herself more feminine for male approval by removing hair. It is a deeply rooted ideal in consciousness that women adhere to.

Amongst the rural women, in Pakistan hair removal is not amongst the number one things that they do. Moustaches are not uncommon. Are they then the more emancipated women in a country that represses its woman? If we are taking hair removal as a symbol of emancipation, then certainly. However, it seems rather superficial.

How then can we dissect this rather vague and broad subject of emancipation? It is all emancipation really. A woman choosing to show her arms, her belly, her legs, her cleavage all denote a degree of it, particularly in Pakistani culture affected by all kinds of conflicting notions of morality, tradition and culture. But it must not end, at clothing.

The upper echelon of society in the metropoles of Karachi, Lahore, Islamabad have been known to take a degree of pride in how much skin is shown. Yet a huge percentage of women are still treated like second-class citizens. They are raised and actually bred, to be married off. Recently, I discovered that many women who are sent off to college in America and England, by their families, are not sent for reasons of education and enlightenment, rather like show horses to increase their value and stature. The number of fantastic degrees that are languishing in the closets of many begums is truly disheartening. One imagines the king’s ransoms that went into their education, and wonders what it was all for.

Even the most seemingly emancipated woman, who shows skin, has studied abroad, perhaps smokes, another symbol of a free woman, (as depicted in Virginia Slims ads from America) can show no signs of inner emancipation.

The desire to marry and be married off is so strong in Pakistani society, that it appears to transcend all. Second to this or perhaps even stronger then this is the desire to have women procreate. Neither of which necessarily mean that a woman who chooses to be a mother or wife is not emancipated, if she has had choices and made the ones she wants.

90% of so-called emancipated women, from upper classes have had three children by their mid-twenties. The role of woman has not changed much. It is still homemaker, mother, wife. This then is where the secret perhaps of true emancipation lies.

Will the roles ever be able to change? Or as men and women both like to remind us, in a strongly engrained patriarchy, do women want them to change? And who can they truly change for within the class structure? Will the options to make other choices ever increase? In the workplace opportunities for women have only in the last ten years increased for example we started seeing women working in restaurants, never as waitstaff, but as maitre d’s or counter servers which in itself denotes a social change.

The Pakistani women who are fortunate enough to break through the societal & cultural stereotypes & find themselves in a position of power have a tempestuous battle to fight. Sherry Rahman, the first female Government minister, for example of the Information Ministry resigned just today in the face of mounting tension and adversity.


In terms of Pakistani society, religion cannot be over-looked in thinking of women’s emancipation. There is an ideal of woman in this context that is a woman who is completely hidden and therefore "pure". No other man besides her husband will ever see her hair, and in many cases her face, never her body.

There are varying degrees of comprehension of this concept. There are the pseudo-moderns, usually in the middle classes who will rally against what they see as out-moded traditions and values. They are reactionary and as a result lash out at religion in a haphazard and chaotic manner. Notions of atheism, and a total lack of respect for all forms of belief can arise from this reactionary mindset.

However, spirituality is an entirely disparate entity from organized religion, and the degrees to which spirituality vs a fundamamentalist outlook is ruling is not easily judged. So whereas it may be easy to scorn women in parda (the veil) and disapprove for the sake of reacting, it is again a culture albeit ruled by religious beliefs. To a great extent, one can dismiss it as patriarchy, with the women subjugated by the men, and indeed, there are many cases of fundamentalist religious notions leading to the permissibility of vile actions by men against women whom they consider their “property”.

In this regard, an interesting idea that some Islamicists talk of is that in a true sense, in an essential Islam, the women are in fact empowered because the men recognize their power, respect it and protect it.

If a woman chooses to cover herself it naturally to most minds does not follow that she is emancipated. However, in one way, if you think outside the box, this is a way towards emancipation from the warped ideals of beauty that pervade the media. The manner in which fashion and beauty standards have distorted the perceptions of women the world over of their own self-image is not to be taken lightly. It is a kind of sickness. Therefore, in choosing not to partake in the carnival of fashion & beauty standards & making a choice to rebel as it were against this, is a form of emancipation.

It also does not follow that by merely showing more skin, and having more sex one is in fact emancipated, and again this is primarily in the context of Pakistani society. However, after centuries of societal & cultural suppression, if a woman feels emancipated by doing so, and chooses to do so, than naturally it is a form of emancipation. What is a hollow promise is making choices based on the ideals of others, or in a reactionary manner.

What these many examples illuminate is one word, choice. There is no one thing or one way for a woman to be, & be emancipated. In the early years of the women’s movement, in the West womankind was urged to burn their bras. That’s all very well. We could do so, however, now we realize we actually don’t mind our bras too much. Bras have come a long way. Originally designed by a man, interestingly enough, but over the decades men have paid attention, & tried to understand what exactly women need from their bras. Many women feel stronger & more powerful if wearing the right bra, and some women have learnt that the right bra can possibly get them exactly what they want! Cleavage= Power.

So by getting up & burning your bra you are not emancipated, however, to feel like you could choose to do so if you wanted, that is emancipated; a subtle distinction, but an important one to make.

Choice then, in tantamount to emancipation; which is why we need to educate our daughters, not with the intention to sell them off to the highest bidder, but in order to strengthen them with all the ammunition they need to make whatever choice they need to make, and truly be emancipated.

Knowing exactly what you are doing, or want to be doing & why you are doing it is half the battle. Following blindly courses of action prescribed by cultures either our own or others, and societies is never really the answer. A woman needs to have the ability to question everything to be emancipated.

In Pakistan, it seems true emancipation is indeed coming from the women of the rural areas in many cases &/or from less prosperous families; women who are not born into privilege & often have to support their families as I learnt from my conversations with girls who work in beauty salons. One girl told me that she commutes on public transport two maybe three hours outside Karachi to a household of three sisters and a brother. For those not aware of the trials & tribulations of such an action anywhere in Pakistan, I can tell you this journey she makes in itself is like battling hell. I didn’t ask her, but I could bet anything that there is always some modicum of fear lurking in her mind: Will I make it to work today? Will I make it home?

She told me that her brother was absolutely “useless” & the onus of helping support the family was on her. For her though it was not a burden, as she was actually being given permission to be independent. She said it was the same with many families she knew. Women are now being allowed to leave the house & work because they are better breadwinners!

Another area I visited was in the heart of the rural outback as it were, in Pakistan. I visited a village where an NGO, NRSP, has been working for some time now to empower the rural poor & socially mobilize them. I attended a Community Organization meeting which was comprised of about 50 men. Only one women was there besides myself, Hameeda Bibi. She was covered in a nikaab, only her eyes were visible. I was truly in awe of this woman, and couldn’t wait for the meeting to be over so I could talk to her.

These same men had their womenfolk all nestled away in a room shuttlecock burkhas firmly in place. They refused to let me use my video camera, but permitted me to record their voices. The women were too excited, afraid of the men & confused unfortunately to say much, but Hameeda BiBi was truly inspirational. She travelled from village to village in the district in which she worked under strenuous condtions i.e. extreme heat, dirt roads, for no other reason but to work. To DO something. To make a difference. More often than not, as I had seen myself, she was the only woman in a conference of men.

In her younger years she insisted on being educated. Her parents did help her but when the time came for her to go to college she ran into many obstacles. Some family members were jealous of her emancipation & held her back. As she told me though she persevered for three years, waiting for her chance & surprisingly never lost her motivation, and eventually she secretly figured out a way to get a degree through the post, even though this wasn’t something that was available.

To me Hameeda BiBi displays true emancipation. She asked me in a manner that indicated her awe for “women of the city”, “How is it that you, a woman from the city have come here?” And I told her, “Hameeda BiBi, you have no reason to think that the “women of the city” are somehow better than you!” What you have done, and are doing here, is much much more than most of the city women ever get around to doing!”

Naturally, I am not making a blanket statement about women from the urban areas of Pakistan. There are many who prevail steadfastly on the stormy seas of female emancipation taking no prisoners.

There was a pop song in the 80’s that had the very simple lyrics: Free your mind and the rest will follow. Sometimes wisdom is embedded in the simplest of things…



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