Category Archives: Gender

The Liberal Side of Pakistan

Before travelling to Pakistan, most of my friends and family warned me about the dangers I would face, urging me to stay safe. I didn’t know what to expect when I arrived – a country wracked by fanaticism and terrorism, or a nuanced experience of life filled with conservatives and liberals alike.

I found the latter – and I’ve mostly been immersed in the liberal side of Pakistani culture. Of course, this is giving me a bit of a skewed sense of Pakistan, but it is also a side of Pakistan we rarely see in the media.

The Pakistan I witnessed is a Pakistan where religious and secular people can live in harmony, working towards the common goal of countering extremism. A Pakistan where people drink alcohol and smoke pot in the evenings as they joke about the recent reports that ISIS killed two gay men by pushing them off tall buildings, saying “Well, that’s certainly a different interpretation of Sharia law.”

It’s a Pakistan where I mingled with people in the LGBT community, some who identify as activists and some who do not. And a Pakistan where a group of liberal youth hosted a civil society dialogue in the basement of an Islamabad hotel, a few blocks from the infamous Red Mosque, called “Thinking Beyond the Military Offensive; The Need to Challenge the Extremist Narrative.”

That same day, the Punjab government issued an ordinance declaring “A person shall not, by words spoken or written, use any formal forum to support terrorism or terrorists, or attempt to create sympathy for any terrorist or terrorist organisation, or to oppose action of Pakistan army, air or naval force, police or Rangers against any terrorist or terrorist organisation.”

These youth call their group Khudi. Their Twitter account describes them as “a youth-led initiative that challenges extremism & promotes tolerance, pluralism & democratic values through active citizenship & civic & political education.”

I had the opportunity to visit their offices in both Lahore and Islamabad last week. And the friend I stayed with happens to work for them 🙂

One of the speakers at the Khudi event in Islamabad was Mohammad Jibran Nasir who, in the wake of the Peshawar school attacks last month, has started a campaign against terrorism and terrorist sympathizers. He’s received threats from the Taliban and consequently sleeps in a different house each night. There’s an article about him on Buzzfeed for those who want more info.

So yes, this is a different Pakistan than the one I was warned to expect. And yet, it’s still a Pakistan where the majority of people having these discussions, at least in a public sphere, are men. The patriarchal culture definitely needs to be addressed, and perhaps one way of beginning to tackle that is by countering the religious fundamentalism in the country.

“All our hopes lie in this country becoming secular,” one lesbian activist told me. It seems that, on that front, and from what I experienced, progressive Pakistan agrees.

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The F Word – What’s in a Name?

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Yesterday was the 25th anniversary of the Montreal Massacre – a day when Marc Lépine entered the École Polytechnique, separated the women from the men, and executed 14 young women claiming he was “fighting feminism.”

Commentaries have been circulating on the Internet for the anniversary, a couple written by friends of mine such as this one for the Inside Agenda Blog and this one for The Ottawa Citizen.

I met up with one of those friends on Friday night and we talked about feminism. For her, part of a different generation than I am, she felt like the Montreal Massacre was the moment that really transformed her into being an “active feminist.” I’ve heard this sentiment a lot recently, or at least many of the women who are older than me have been taking to newspapers, blogs, Facebook, and other social media sites to speak about where they were when they heard about the Montreal massacre.

I was three-years-old when that attack happened. So it wasn’t a defining moment of my life. “So when did you become a feminist?” my friend asked me. “When did you first hear about feminism?”

I had to pause and think about that. I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t a feminist. And I know there’s a woman in particular who I have to thank for that: my godmother and aunt, Margaret Wells. Not only did she take me to my first human rights meeting when I was a baby – an anti-Apartheid meeting – but she also gave me a truck for my first birthday, hoping to instill some feminist ideology into me.

It worked. And I am forever grateful for that influence, and hope to nudge my goddaughter, Margaret’s granddaughter, in a similar direction.

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Me with my amazing goddaughter Olivia (and her puppy, Charlie)

I feel that my Aunt Margaret gave me a sense of righteous anger – I first learned about the Holocaust from her and she’s still my go-to date for human rights themed lectures and movies. That righteous anger swelled in me. It grew so that I felt enraged as a Catholic student towards the inequality I witnessed in that religion. Side note: there are of course many strong and empowering Catholic women in the world; I got to know one, a nun who was connected with my church, who told me something I’ll never forget: “Never stop asking those questions.”

And I never would stop asking those questions. I try to push the envelope, to ask why things are the way things are. I’m a shit disturber who tries to look at things from the viewpoint of the oppressed – who is benefitting from this?

It’s even reached the point where I’ve been told I’m “offensive as a Canadian” for speaking about Aboriginal rights. At a human rights conference at McGill University.

I digress a bit, but that was all to say that, basically, feminism and human rights and righteous anger over the injustices of the world are all bound up in the same snowball of activism for me. They’re in there with my anger about racism and homophobia.

Last night, my roommate and I had a heated discussion about feminism. We basically believe the same thing when it comes to women’s rights and the fact that women and men should have equal rights, but she refuses to call herself a feminist. For her, it’s a dirty word that excludes men and asserts that women are better than men.

We argued about how that’s not what feminism is about. I said that “real” feminists don’t think they’re better than men. Of course, there are extremists in every movement, so there are self-declared feminists who do hate men. But why tarnish the entire movement with the brush of a few?

Feminism, I argued, is not about being better than; it’s about acknowledging that women are not yet seen and treated as equal to men across the board. Because of that, we’re working to elevate women’s rights. Not so that they will be more or better than men’s rights, but so that they will be equal.

“Well then why call it feminism?” my roommate asks. “It’s equalism. So just call it equalism.”

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Can it really just come down to semantics? I wondered, why is claiming the word – feminist – so important to me?

For me, I think it comes down to the fact that women are not yet equal to men. So, if the word I use to state my belief that men and women are equal privileges women with its “fem” syllable, then so be it. I often see the same people who decry any privileging of women’s experiences over men’s being dismissive of attempts at inclusive language that seek to bring women into a male-dominated language.

I am a feminist because of the Montreal massacre. I am a feminist because the media of the day – and to some extent, this is still the case – tried to sanitize the event into being the “crazy act of a madman” rather than a direct result of the systemic misogyny in our society.

Shelley Page wrote a fantastic article about this in The Ottawa Citizen yesterday:

Twenty-five years later, as I re-evaluate my stories and with the benefit of analysis of the coverage that massacre spawned, I see how journalists— male and female producers, news directors, reporters, anchors — subtly changed the meaning of the tragedy to one that the public would get behind, silencing so-called “angry feminists.”

I like being a feminist. I call myself a fucking kick-ass feminist because it does push buttons. If it makes people uncomfortable, then I’m ok with that. People need to be uncomfortable if we’re going to bring about change.

If calling myself a feminist is being radical, then I welcome that radicalism. Because we need that kind of radicalism in this world. This is a world where fewer girls are born than naturally should be because of sex-selection abortion. A world where the birth of a son brings great joy while the birth of a daughter brings sorrow. A world where boys are not “supposed to” play with dolls lest they be seen as less masculine or, God forbid, even gay.

This is a world where homophobia is mired in misogyny, where the worst thing a man can do is become “like” a woman.

This is a country where women still make less than men for the same work, where over 1000 Aboriginal women and girls are missing and murdered and the government doesn’t give a damn. A country where women are afraid to complain about sexual harassment or press charges after an assault or rape because of the repercussions – against the women, not the perpetrators – that those accusations can bring.

Until all that changes, I’m calling myself a feminist. And I will do so unapologetically, and with pride.

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I changed my profile picture on FB to this image on the day I was sexually assaulted in London. It was my way of not being a victim.