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Feminism vs. Hyperfeminism In Pakistan: Where to Draw the Line?

I recently came across an Instagram post by a popular feminist page in Pakistan, and this is what its caption said: “From university campuses […] to mosques… where is a girl free of the moral police, pray tell?”

This is what got me thinking that we urgently need to have a debate about whether or not this comparison is valid. Personally, I don’t consider the above mentioned argument valid and don’t agree with the claim that a girl is being morally policed when asked to cover up in a mosque, and thus wanted to know what other girls think. The reason behind what I think is that mosques are generally counted as religious sites, and like any other religious site, have the right to have a code of dressing in order for its managers to be able to ensure that due respect is paid to the site.  This could not be compared with universities, where dress codes are applied for other reasons. World-known celebrities like Rihanna and Kendall Jenner, who also happen to be feminist icons, have also previously donned the hijab visiting mosques in the UAE. In my opinion, covering up for a religious site is a form of respect to the site, if it requires so. If a woman is asked to cover up for a religious site, in no way do I count that as “moral policing.”

I asked for girls’ opinions regarding whether or not there was such a thing as hyperfeminism. I got a few comprehensive responses from Pakistani Muslim women, and among them was Hareem’s. Hareem is a young resident of Pakistan and shared her valuable opinion with me as follows: “Feminism is just a casual word being thrown around these days. And when it started off, I did actually consider myself a feminist because the basic idea was that feminism is basically women rights on basis of gender equality. But that was in the past. Now I think it has mostly come down to women overshadowing men, which was never the point,” Hareem said. She added that “Don’t get me wrong. There is a dire need of women having rights in Pakistan. Because here everyone just shuns the conversation by saying ‘actually, Islam has given more rights to women’ and nobody actually implements that.”

I can resonate with Hareem on this one to a certain extent. When the feminist movement was first introduced in Pakistan, I felt that it was something that gave me the right to voice my frustrations over the double standards and gender discrimination I face as a female in a traditional Pakistani setting. Gradually, the feminist narrative was adopted by the Pakistani elite and liberal class, and the word “feminist” started to be widely attached to women who discriminated women with hijabs and other religious coverings, did not respect choice and demanded the right to practice unhealthy social habits in the name of freedom. I was perplexed. Identifying as a feminist had become more and more of an offensive characteristic among the middle class. It almost became as hard to come out as a feminist as a Trump supporter in Pakistan, the hate both categories of people faced in the country was almost equal. Over time, I developed an aversion to Pakistani “feminists,” who, in their fight for personal freedom, left out the religious and marginalized women and saw religious coverings as emblems of oppression, much to the likeness of Western White Feminism. It was then that I stopped counting myself as a feminist and preferred using the word “woman empowerment” over “feminism,” much like other outspoken girls in the middle class community. By this time, two distinct groups in this relation had been formed in the Pakistani society: woman empowerment activists and feminists. “Woman empowerment activists” were generally middle-class, young girls demanding more work opportunities and fighting against the male superiority system, while never straying away from religion. “Feminists,” on the other hand, were rich liberal women, and in some cases their liberalism meant humiliating and talking ill of religious women and religious dress codes. This class of women usually dealt with micro-aggressions and in my opinion, most times these cases were over-evaluated such as in the case mentioned in the beginning of this article.  Now, as my views have further developed with age, I think that the terms for both these groups were wrongly allotted. The latter group was far better represented by the terms “hyperfeminists” or “faux/pseudo feminists.” This being explained, in the next few excerpts from girls who shared their opinions about feminism in Pakistan, I want you to pay attention to how the participants use the word feminism/feminist and women empowerment differently with reference to their location.

Continuing her debate, Hareem added that: “I think feminists are going way over top now. So now those who are against this whole deal are thought to be oppressed or dependent on men. I think what we all need to understand is that genders are there for a reason. You can’t expect both to do similar things. It’s a collaborative relation. Saying there are differences between the genders should not be sexist or offensive. It’s just facts. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have equal opportunities, but there are differences between the both. Having said that, I do strongly believe in women empowerment. That’s a term I would like to be associated with. As there are many arenas where women are not considered equal to men when they should be. For example, there are barely any female cardiologists in Karachi because people don’t trust to be operated by a female. Why have we as a society allowed this belief to grow this high that even teachers question female students if they’re sure about their choices?”

She further said that:

“And something that always gets on my nerve: blaming bad driving on women. That is just so stereotypical, which annoys me a lot. There’s that. I do certainly believe that we have a long way to go before women properly get the respect and rights that they deserve. But, the amount of hate feminism is generating right now I don’t think that it is going to help us in the long run. We might actually end up turning the tables on men and destroying any chance of true equality.”

Another girl I had the chance of hearing the opinion of was Farhana Khan, a Pakistani residing in Germany. She said: “Feminism for me is the availability of equal opportunities and rights for both genders. Yes, I am a feminist. I totally believe that not everything that men can do can also be done by women. So, people who say that a woman can do anything a man can or when they say that something done by a woman is acceptable but when done by a man isn’t, that is what I consider hyperfeminism. Also, blindly supporting women when they are wrong instead of telling them they are wrong is hyperfeminism.” When asked about whether feminism can be overdone, she replied: “Yes, feminism can be overdone … Talking about my country of residence (Germany), feminism is required for equal pay/salary. But, in most day to day things, men and women have equal opportunities and rights.”

She further added that:

“Feminism loses credibility/efficiency when you start making it about somehow proving that women are better than men & all men are trash. If you overdo feminism with the right definition, then I feel you can’t really overdo it. But, if your definition is flawed, forget about overdoing, just a little can make feminists seem like power hungry monsters who will do anything to demean men in any way possible.”

Khan’s view point also appears to be really compelling. She talked about how there were flawed definitions of feminism, which is exactly the case most Pakistani females who are passionate about women’s rights are not very enthusiastic to take up the feminist title. Note how not living in a Pakistani atmosphere has enabled her to see through the two definitions of feminism, in a country where the majority does not view “feminism” as something negative and there are little to no negative reactions (and thus, social pressure) to a person’s feminist identity. Rather, it’s seen positively. She sees hyperfeminism as the problem, and not feminism itself. Her opinion differs slightly from Hareem, who considers feminism the problem itself. In short, both of them are calling out the same thing, but giving them different names.

As the debate about what is feminism and what is not continues, we slowly move forward to answering the question: feminism vs. hyperfeminism in Pakistan: where to draw the line? As for me, I still choose not to take a final decision on whether to associate myself with “feminism” or not, keeping in mind the social context within the Pakistani society. Not until the majority of the middle-class Pakistani society sorts out and manifests the definition of feminism. Until then, I’m a woman empowerment activist.

The messages of the interviewees were recorded through Instagram Direct Message and the screenshots are available upon request. Slight changes in grammar and spelling were made to clarify the content of their messages with no alteration in content. In case of any inquiries, I can be reached out via Instagram and e-mail.

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