Sep 9 2016 (Dawn, Pakistan) – He world is dominated by men. It has not always been this way — throughout recorded history there have been societies in which women have exercised significant power over both their own lives and those of men. In the modern world, however, patriarchy is very much the rule. While it is possible to identify pockets in which men and women are relatively more equal, they remain the exceptions which make the rule.
As male domination goes, Pakistan is up there with the worst. A casual perusal of daily newspapers, TV bulletins and social media sites confirms this; not a day goes by without report of abuse against women, including murder, rape and disfigurement. Meanwhile, the systematic discrimination against women in public and private spheres is so taken for granted that it is virtually invisible.
The fact that more and more is said about the status of women and girls in this country speaks for some kind of change, however nominal. Public discussions about male domination are the first step towards addressing what is a deep, structural problem. Having said this, the ‘debate’ is limited to a very small cross section of society. It often feels like those talking about patriarchy and the need to challenge it are speaking amongst themselves.
Certainly, it would be impossible to suddenly involve those who are deeply hostile to even the idea that women and men are equally human. The sway exercised by mullahs and so-called ‘tradition’ over a large majority of people in this society means that many of us actually believe that women are born inferior to men and that they are fated to have certain social roles — indeed, reactions to women who transgress established boundaries suggest that we also feel entitled to undertake punitive actions in the name of maintaining moral order.
Public debate on male domination is limited to a small circle.
It is indicative of just how deeply patriarchal norms are internalised within us that many women are active agents of male domination both vis-à-vis their understanding of the world and their actions within it. This deep internalisation is reflected in how women interact with one another as well as in their deference to men, and this is why those who challenge patriarchy assert the need to ‘liberate’ women from their mental chains, so as to be able to stand up to the everyday oppression that they encounter.
Those who are suspicious of the feminist cause — men and women alike — tend to see it as an attempt to turn all women against men, a characterisation which is both ridiculous and inaccurate. It is precisely the fact that we are all products of patriarchal structures that there is no question of propagating a simple, no-holds-barred war between men and women. It is the task of conscious men and women both to understand and challenge the structure — which, in turn, is upheld by men and women both.
Yet there is little question that the primary beneficiaries and defenders of male domination are men. And this is why men are likely to react negatively to the cause of women’s liberation, to one extent or the other. After all, relinquishing a position of privilege — especially that which is seen as ordained — is far from easy.
There are, of course, some men who consider themselves enlightened, who take up the cause of women (sometimes despite their suspicions of ‘feminism’). Many husbands and fathers accord relative freedom to women and girls in the home which then translates into longer-term gains. At a more general level, progressive men are active participants in various political and social movements challenging patriarchy.
I would count myself as one of the latter. But I still feel hesitant in calling myself a ‘liberated man’. Having been politically active for many years, I can safely say that my understanding of and commitment to the feminist cause has evolved considerably over time, and is likely to do so further. I am increasingly aware of just how deeply I have internalised patriarchal ways of being. To be ‘liberated’ is not a discrete event, but a process that unfolds over an extended period of time.
Indeed, there is a danger that men who see themselves as liberated can overlook the most obvious transgressions. Unfortunately many progressives can talk, think, and act in ways that are not always consistent with their overt commitments. We may believe that we are enlightened because we don’t engage in the barbaric practices of unbridled misogynists; that we fight for women’s causes in public; that we sensitise other men to the feminist cause. But the fight does not end there. In fact the most important part of the fight is in our daily engagements, in our everyday conversations, in reining in our convictions that our opinions matter more.
Since the ‘debate’ is still largely amongst ourselves, it is worth remembering that patriarchy begins at home, and liberation does too.
The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.
Published in Dawn, September 9th, 2016
This story was originally published by Dawn, Pakistan