Feminism is about Redefining Space for Women and Men

A few days ago, a newly appointed female civil servant of the Police Service of Pakistan (PSP) said in an interview how on duty she felt more like a police officer than a woman. This meant she could do her duty as well as a male officer. She didn’t feel discriminated against during training. Here was a tough woman ready to take on a tough job. Wish I could tell her and numerous women in her position to discard the idea of trying to be a man in a man’s world. All women in positions of power have tried the formula and ended up killing their feminism and all that good it can bring to the world. A woman trying to be a man and working according to those principles is setting herself up for failure even before she begins. In case it is misunderstood, I am not advocating laziness at work or taking relaxations on the basis of gender.

I also realise that in today’s Pakistan, feminism is considered as bad a word as ‘liberalism’. I will not be surprised if after reading this some pretentious analyst will trash feminism as an extension of liberalism. But feminism is not about disregarding or disrespecting values or being what is popularly understood as madar-piddar azad — a hippie of sorts. It is about enhancing space for yourself and others with greater sensitivity to life and those around you. Feminism does not preclude negotiating power or using power; it means a bigger and different vision than a man’s. While ‘man’-kind is known for total obsession with power (and please here we are not discussing exceptions), ‘woman’-kind bears the greater burden of creating life and taking care of it. Instinctively, it makes her different from a man. I am not even suggesting that all women are feminist. A lot of women lose their sense of feminism or what it is to be a woman by constantly trying to play by the rules laid down by men. Just go down a list of women in authority and see how their power brought greater disappointment because in an urge to compete with men, they forgot to be women and thus bring to the table a sensitivity towards life and humanity that a male-oriented system doesn’t.

May I also take the opportunity to remind the young police officer to debunk the idea that she would be treated equally or that she ever was. A training system and its norms do not mean equal opportunity. Perhaps, at junior positions she may not notice this but the system does discriminate. Having been a civil servant myself and with my continued engagement with many others, I couldn’t miss how women are always treated as a different category. They have to disprove their womanhood every minute by stating that they are professionals and not women, as if that is something bad. Male colleagues often indulge in gossip to explain the success of a female co-worker. It may be her looks, her style or something else but rarely her work. And even if her work is accepted, it is done with a pinch of salt. Or she is immediately categorised as one of the men. The female police officer would be expected to be tougher and do more to prove her competence than fellow male officers. The minute she can’t deliver on something, she will be reminded of being a fragile species from whom nothing better was expected. By the way, these men are educated. But so were those who would argue with you that why crib about Mukhtaran Mai as she had been compensated sufficiently for the deed done to her.


I am not arguing that this is completely the fault of men. Women in professional lives can be equally brutal in mistreating themselves. There are many in the civil service who would emphasise their gender to get some relaxation at work. These women are not feminists. There is always more gossip about women at the workplace or the accusation that women can’t work together. The stigma always hides the fact that men are some of the worst gossipmongers and have a killer instinct when it comes to competition. The stories of the unimaginable extra miles that men go to for ensuring success both in the civil and military bureaucracy are a fact, not fiction.

In the past decade or so, Pakistan has done a lot to market its ability to compete with the world in giving opportunities to women. We now have women as police officers, and as fighter pilots in the army and navy. The short biographical notes published about them basically convey the following: these women are treated the same as men. But do we know about how many of these fighter pilots are actually deployed on active duty? You could count the numbers on your fingers. Many end up doing office work rather than operations. I remember from my time at the naval headquarters, the vice chief refused to entertain my request to provide a proper toilet. There were occasions when male officers would point out female naval officers doing secondary duties wearing nice saris and ask you how nice (read: cute) they looked. It goes without saying that by asking such questions, they either tested your limits or treated you as one of the men. Surely, new spaces have been created but that they do not really provide breathing space to women is another issue.

Remember, in our part of the world women’s accomplishments are still accepted grudgingly. Recently at a conference in India, which reminded me of many such I had attended in my own country, I realised how the female PhDs really had to strive to remind people that they had a doctorate just like the male presenters. Our societies are programmed to give respect of even a qualification much more easily to men than to women. In such an environment, policing would certainly not be easy. Hope the police officer remembers she is far more capable and stronger to have survived this environment and can contribute much more as a woman.

Published in The Express Tribune, April 9th, 2015.

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