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Politics of Harassment: Is ‘feminism’ used as a political instrument?

Writers, two Pakistani academics, argue that feminism is being used as a political instrument to achieve vested interests in the age of surveillance and corporate capitalism. Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, Chairman PPP, stood up for the women journalists allegedly harassed by PTI supporters on Twitter but there was deafening silence when Cynthia D. Ritchie, an American blogger, accused PPP leaders of harassment and rape, they argue. Read an interesting and provocative piece!

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Prof. Rana Eijaz Ahmad/Farah Adeed |

The concept of power is at the heart of social sciences. We deal with its origin, development, forms, manifestations, and impacts. We see it everywhere but we don’t find an agreed-upon definition of power in the academic literature. For the sake of conceptual clarity, scholars have divided it into various compartments while adding some nouns and adjectives with it to achieve some academic and political objectives. Before getting into the politics of harassment, we may deduce, power is a capability to shift the probability into one’s own favor when circumstances are going against someone.

The deliberation about giving power to women or to make women powerful (women empowerment) is ongoing in the developed as well as developing societies. Generally, the feminist discourses are treated as a result of the culmination of the intellectual and scientific revolution in the west. This is, however, contestable on multiple grounds.

In this piece, we intend to argue that a) there is no agreed-upon definition of power/empowerment; b) collectively determined social goals decide the meaning of success and power; c) Pakistani women are empowered in many ways but may look otherwise if seen through the prism of western feminism.

Read More: The case of Dr. Wasif Nauman: Does it reflect misuse of #MeToo?

At the outset, it may be clarified that feminist discourse in any society is the reflection of organic and localized debates to upgrade the position of women. However, in the age of corporate and surveillance capitalism, the process of determination of social goals has considerably been hijacked. In other words, feminist discourses sometimes tend to serve the instrumental purposes of corporations and political elites, not of women at large.

There is no single definition or a democratically decided criterion to decide what it means to empower a woman; apart from cultural difference, it varies from person to person. A housewife feels empowered while staying at home with her in-laws, and a professional married lady may feel happy to cook at home once she is back. There can be no criteria for us to decide who is empowered and who is not. However, it may not be confused with a right to free-will. We firmly hold that every person has a right to decide about his/her life. Our main disagreement is with the feminists for imposing a criterion on all and sundry to treat them as independent thinkers or mere zombies.

Read more: Do male journalists in Pakistan face online abuse, harassment?

The meanings of success and empowerment are (measured as per the human capability of understanding about success and empowerment that varies from individual to individual or maybe from culture to culture) decided by the collective wisdom of a community. There can be no convincing justification for a group of individuals or some foreign-funded NGOs to develop a definition of success for the men and women of a particular community. It not only backfires but also proves to be the worst kind of exploitation in the name of modernism. The American experience of ‘imposing’ liberal values in ‘the underdeveloped societies’ is a lesson everyone must learn from.

Are Pakistani women empowered?

The answer to this question always reflects the intellectual background and cultural orientation of the person. For example, a person unaware of the fact that women in Pakistan are generally respected more than any other part of the world. The respect for women is demanded not only from cultural standpoints but the religion also places particular stress upon offering unconditional respect to women. The regard and respect women enjoy in traditional Pakistani setup is a graceful expression of affection rather than a miserable manifestation of some legal obligations.

There is no denying of the fact that there are some problems in Pakistan’s social system which demand immediate attention and careful deliberation. Every brutal act from honor killing to the exploitation of female workers in industries must stop.

However, it is important to distinguish between the politics of (sexual) harassment and noble intentions to strengthen women’s position in this society. If not clearly defined, the political use of harassment (or #MeToo) shall be disastrous.

Read More: Has #MeToo turned into an attack strategy by false accusers?

It deserves merit to be mentioned here that recently a group of well-known Pakistani female journalists and commentators have sought protection against what they termed “vicious attacks” directed at them through social media, allegedly by people linked to the ruling PTI government. Mehmal Sarfraz, Benazir Shah, Asma Shirazi, Reema Omer, and Munizae Jahangir are among the women journalists and analysts who have signed the document.

Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, Chairman PPP, assured the journalists of protection by promising them to take the matter up before the Parliament.

Later on, another group of journalists objected to the language of the document and pointed out that targeting only one party, PTI, is unfair since those harassing women are not restricted to any single political entity.

Cynthia D. Ritchie, an American blogger based in Pakistan, recently accused former interior minister Senator Rehman Malik of having raped her in Islamabad in 2011 and ex-prime minister Yousuf Raza Gilani of “physically manhandling” her while Gilani was staying at the “President’s House”. Both leaders denied the charges. However, the PPP chairman neither took any notice nor rushed to stand by Ritchie for a greater cause.

What has Pakistan done to ‘empower’ women?

Notably, Pakistani laws are being reformed in order to ensure women’s protection in line with cultural sensitivities and social goals. The Pakistan Penal Code 1860 and its sections 496C, 509, 354A, and 366A protects women from any kind of harassment in the country. Protection against Harassment of Women at Workplace Act (2010) gives more protection to women in Pakistan.

In all public sector employments, females are being given 3 years’ age relaxation. It has become mandatory that all recruitment committees or selection boards would have at least one woman member. Maternity leave is again a facility for women in Pakistan which is even not available in developed countries like the USA.

The government of Pakistan has allocated a 10 percent quota for women in public sector employment. The Punjab province has increased the women quota to 15 percent, and in Sindh, women job quota in the police has been amplified from 2 percent to 5 percent.

In August 2000, the Devolution of Power Plan announced, women were allotted with 33 percent of the local legislative seats at the union, tehsil (municipality), and district level. The national assembly of Pakistan has 33 percent representation as per Pervaiz Musharraf’s proposal. Women are also allowed to contest the election on general seats.

Read More: PU Professor Slammed for controversial FB post is Victim of harassment

BISP empowers women with an interest-free loan facility for financial assistance under their Waseela-e-Haq program to start their trade or business. The Waseela-e-Rozgar provides vocational and technical training of one month to a year’s duration, to the female beneficiary or her nominee, it is estimated 150,000 beneficiaries getting Rs 6,000 per month as a stipend for each trainee.

Politics of Harassment or Revolution through evolution?

Societal goals are set as a result of the collective intellectual experience of generations. The top-bottom approach to influence the process of social change is prone to disruptions and chaos. In this regard, it may be noted that the motto of the French Revolution (1789 to 1799) was Liberté, égalité, fraternité (liberty, equality, fraternity) but the French women gained the right to vote in 1944. More importantly, women won the right to work without getting permission from their husbands, in addition to the right to open personal bank accounts in France in the 1960s.

Therefore, we maintain that a) there must be an indigenized version of feminism in Pakistan to genuinely address the issues women faced in this society; b) those using the tag of harassment for political reasons must not be taken as champions of women rights; c) Pakistan’s social system is evolving and adapting new changes that is an indication of progress in these testing times.

Read More: Dawn chief inquiry: Filmmaker Jami counts the days

Finally, women enjoy social protections (properly understood) in the existing Pakistani social set-up. A woman’s importance as a sister, mother and wife is undisputed. Hence, we argue that this is where the shoe pinches; the NGOs or so-called rights organizations working to empower women keep maneuvering the facts to take heavy financial assistance from international donors.

Individuals and organizations deliberately targeting Pakistan’s ‘integrated family bond’ to disintegrate it to serve the interests of corporate capitalism. Imposition of ideas does not lead to empowerment rather it unprecedentedly disempowers them.

Dr. Rana Eijaz Ahmad is a Professor of International Relations at the Department of Political Science and Host Director Confucius Institute, University of the Punjab Lahore. He can be reached at ranaeijaz@gmail.com

Farah Adeed is working as an Assistant Editor with Global Village Space (GVS). The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Global Village Space’s Editorial Policy.

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