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The hijacking of Pakistani feminism The women's march is more pronouns than poverty

How many women in Pakistan know what "non-binary" means? Credit: Betsy Joles/Getty Images

How many women in Pakistan know what "non-binary" means? Credit: Betsy Joles/Getty Images


February 8, 2023   5 mins

My first thought after reading the form to express interest in volunteering at Pakistan’s annual Women’s March was: how many women in Pakistan know what “non-binary” and “cis woman” mean? In a country with a literacy rate of less than 50% for women, who was Aurat March hoping to attract with this questionnaire? Instead of being inclusive, the menu of gender options would probably make a majority of Pakistani women feel unqualified to participate, effectively excluding the aurat from Aurat March. But maybe that was the whole point. 

Aurat March is set to take place on International Women’s Day, March 8th, across the country — for the sixth year running. It has been riven with controversy ever since its first iteration in 2018, when slogans like “Mera Jism, Meri Marzi” (“My body, my choice”) caused public outcry, the event being deemed un-Islamic. It’s common to hear Aurat March and the ideology it supports described as “foreign funded”, to advance “Western interests” in Pakistan. Over the years, there have been many accusations that the organisation only represents the first-world problems of the country’s bourgeois class, while offering lip service to the issues of poverty, illiteracy, and domestic abuse suffered by millions of working- and middle-class Pakistani women. Aurat March claims that this is misinformation to discredit the movement. 

While it’s not the most sophisticated way of framing the issue, there is a grain of truth in the “foreign funded” claim. Aurat March, and its sister movement Aurat Azadi (Women’s Freedom) March, are progressive Left organisations dominated by Western-educated women who skew heavily upper- and middle-class. Many of these women completed their post-secondary education in the UK or the US, majoring in gender studies, South Asian studies, and political science. Armed with Fulbright and Rhodes scholarships, these “resistance feminists” pick up the rhetoric of anti-capitalist and, ironically, anti-imperialist activism and transport it wholesale to Pakistan. It is these Western progressive orthodoxies fuelling the Aurat March movement. It’s hardly surprising that trans rights — the fad du jour in American colleges — would show up in Aurat March’s communication channels, couched in the language of intersectionality and Critical Theory.

Why bend over backwards to champion the rights of Pakistan’s transgender community (a mere 0.24% of the population), instead of trying to extend an olive branch to the majority of the country’s 220 million citizens, men and women, in language they can understand? In her 2017 book, The New Pakistani Middle Class, Ammara Maqsood argues that, since the Nineties, “progress” in Pakistan has been defined by connections to the outside world. It is only when “an imagined audience, an outsider that needs to be addressed and convinced” believes that Pakistan is modern that Pakistanis will see themselves as modern, she writes. Concerned about how they’re portrayed on the global stage, elite Pakistani feminists want to signal to their comrades in the West: Look, we’re not the backwards and uncivilised country that we seem to be, we believe trans women are women. This tactic seems to be working, looking at the glowing coverage Aurat March gets from mainstream news media in the West, which frames the movement as an “Us versus Them”, zero sum game for which Pakistani feminists are risking their lives. But who exactly is “them”?

The Aurat March would have it that “they” are “radical, Right-wing Islamists”. But the truth is, “they” are the millions of women who — having ascended to middle-class life since the Nineties — reject the idea that modernity in Pakistan must operate in lockstep with the West. These women instead embrace “Islamic feminism” and aspire to be part of the global Muslim community, turning to countries like Turkey for inspiration. They advocate for women’s rights within an Islamic framework, encouraging women to interpret the Quran and highlight the teachings of equality in the religion. 

These members of the “new” Pakistani middle class — in contrast to the “old” middle class that came into its own during the sixties and seventies — don’t relate to Aurat March’s narrative about living in an “oppressed, patriarchal” society, because they believe their emancipation lies in applying the wisdom of the Quran to their daily lives. They do not respond kindly to the idea that they need privileged elites to free them from the obligations of caring for their children and in-laws. The “dismantle the family” feminism of Aurat March goes against everything the new middle-class women seek out for themselves: they take pride in being supportive wives, for instance, or attending female-only religious study circles (dars).

Whether Pakistani women turning to the Quran to understand their rights is a good thing is up for debate. But the fact remains that large swathes of educated Pakistani women do not feel that Aurat March represents them or their values, and the March’s leadership has done diddly-squat to change this perception. Instead, the established middle class, whose beliefs Aurat March champions, has been actively hostile towards such women, lumping them in with Taliban-sympathisers, and painting religious-minded critics as being brainwashed by Saudi-style Wahhabism. Accusing those who you claim to speak for of internalised sexism and stripping them of agency is hardly a winning strategy.

Nor is practically ignoring the working-class, rural population of Pakistan. 75% of women and girls are employed in the nation’s unregulated agriculture sector. But in the inter-middle-class battle of Pakistani feminism, working-class issues hardly get any airtime. These are the women who don’t have access to medical care. Hundreds of thousands die during maternity labour every year. Others are subjected to superstitious wedlock, underage marriage, and denied education. Aurat March has little to say about how to help any of these vulnerable women. Slogans to “dismantle the patriarchy” and “decolonise gender” don’t do much to affect real change.

But if Aurat March were to abandon this language, and incorporate terminology and manifesto demands more in line with the growing Islamic feminist movement in the country, its international brand would be irreparably damaged. Fighting for environmental justice, demanding to defund the police, and putting transgender politics at the centre of one’s activism — all part of Aurat March’s 2022 manifesto — is much more palatable to readers of the New York Times than engaging in “backward” practices like debating what rights women have in Islam. If Pakistan’s elites dared do such a thing, the West would write off the nation as another “shithole country” overrun by Islamists. Feminism’s status as a “luxury belief” would fall away — and so too would the Pakistani elite’s sense of itself.

As Maqsood writes in her book, it is from “a global stage which recognises only the language of development
 that the progressiveness of the established groups becomes imbued with a moral purpose that distinguishes them from other classes”. In the absence of economic factors separating the old middle class from the new, their own sense of moral superiority is all that Pakistan’s elites can cling to. It’s why Aurat March only wants volunteers who will list their pronouns in their bios, and have no qualms about excluding millions of women from their vision of feminism. By this point, it doesn’t even matter what their 2023 manifesto demands are (I wouldn’t be surprised if self-ID is a prominent topic) — Aurat March has alienated most of the population, and seems uninterested in winning them back. As one representative tweet argues: “So many amazing feminist organisers I know have distanced themselves from Aurat March, which is fair, but also alarming. The march organisers need to be able to take criticism, esp if its coming from those who’ve supported them from the beginning.”

Judging from their volunteer form and most recent social media activity, Aurat March is comfortable with its solid position on the “lifestyle Left”. It promotes questions of identity, consumption, and moral attitudes over tradition and community. The annual event has become nothing more than an exercise in intellectual gatekeeping: a reminder to the upwardly mobile masses that the definition of modernity in Pakistan is a way for the established elite to preserve their dominant position in society. There is no room for either the new and growing middle class, or concern for the working-class women who can’t even read — let alone win a Rhodes scholarship.


Hina Husain is a Pakistani-Canadian freelance writer based in Toronto.

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Steve Murray
Steve Murray
1 year ago

Are there any subscribers to Unherd of Pakistani nationality or origin who’d like to comment?

The article provides an interesting window into the cultural shifts underway in a predominantly Muslim society. I’d never heard of Aurat March, so i welcome this insight. I worked alongside many well-educated, highly intelligent and pleasant female colleagues of Pakistani origin in the NHS. I’m surprised to hear about Aurat March pandering to western Critical Theory, since my overall impression was that those i worked with were refreshingly free from bullshit.

Last edited 1 year ago by Steve Murray
Jane Anderson
Jane Anderson
1 year ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

I understand there has recently been a large donation from the U.S meant to further the LGBTQ+ agenda in Pakistan. It comes in the guise of ‘gender equality’ but is really meant to promote gender ideology

“Today, on International Women’s Day, USAID Administrator Samantha Power, along with Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Acting Director Shalanda Young, previewed that the President’s 2023 Budget will request approximately $2.6 billion for foreign assistance programs that promote gender equity and equality worldwide, USAID will strive to improve the lives of women and girls starting the day they are born, with particular attention to those who face multiple forms of discrimination, such as adolescent girls and young women, Indigenous women, women and girls in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex (LGBTQI+) community, women with disabilities, and racial, ethnic, and religious minorities”

https://www.usaid.gov/news-information/press-releases/mar-08-2022-us-government-announces-largest-ever-budget-request-26-billion-advance-gender-equity-and-equality-around-world

Last edited 1 year ago by Jane Anderson
Jane Anderson
Jane Anderson
1 year ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

I understand there has recently been a large donation from the U.S meant to further the LGBTQ+ agenda in Pakistan. It comes in the guise of ‘gender equality’ but is really meant to promote gender ideology

“Today, on International Women’s Day, USAID Administrator Samantha Power, along with Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Acting Director Shalanda Young, previewed that the President’s 2023 Budget will request approximately $2.6 billion for foreign assistance programs that promote gender equity and equality worldwide, USAID will strive to improve the lives of women and girls starting the day they are born, with particular attention to those who face multiple forms of discrimination, such as adolescent girls and young women, Indigenous women, women and girls in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex (LGBTQI+) community, women with disabilities, and racial, ethnic, and religious minorities”

https://www.usaid.gov/news-information/press-releases/mar-08-2022-us-government-announces-largest-ever-budget-request-26-billion-advance-gender-equity-and-equality-around-world

Last edited 1 year ago by Jane Anderson
Steve Murray
Steve Murray
1 year ago

Are there any subscribers to Unherd of Pakistani nationality or origin who’d like to comment?

The article provides an interesting window into the cultural shifts underway in a predominantly Muslim society. I’d never heard of Aurat March, so i welcome this insight. I worked alongside many well-educated, highly intelligent and pleasant female colleagues of Pakistani origin in the NHS. I’m surprised to hear about Aurat March pandering to western Critical Theory, since my overall impression was that those i worked with were refreshingly free from bullshit.

Last edited 1 year ago by Steve Murray
Max Price
Max Price
1 year ago

This is not to mention the untold damage this nonsense is doing to LGB rights in conservative developing societies.

Last edited 1 year ago by Max Price
Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
1 year ago
Reply to  Max Price

It’s certainly made me more conservative.

Richard Craven
Richard Craven
1 year ago
Reply to  Julian Farrows

#MeToo

Richard Craven
Richard Craven
1 year ago
Reply to  Julian Farrows

#MeToo

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
1 year ago
Reply to  Max Price

It’s certainly made me more conservative.

Max Price
Max Price
1 year ago

This is not to mention the untold damage this nonsense is doing to LGB rights in conservative developing societies.

Last edited 1 year ago by Max Price
polidori redux
polidori redux
1 year ago

Looking round at the Pakistani community in the UK I would say that Pakistani Feminism is an oxymoron.

Huw Parker
Huw Parker
1 year ago
Reply to  polidori redux

That strikes me as a compelling reason for supporting it.

M Harries
M Harries
1 year ago
Reply to  polidori redux

“Islamic feminism”

Given that ‘Islamic’ means that which takes the Quran (with its passages of clear misogyny ‘woman’s testimony worth half that of a man’) as a moral guidebook for behaviour; and ‘feminism’ is that which promotes liberty and agency for females, ‘Islamic feminism’ / ‘Muslim feminist’ are indeed terms reflecting oxymoron.

One simply cannot revere the Quran as inerrant AND be a campaigner for women’s equality.

Huw Parker
Huw Parker
1 year ago
Reply to  polidori redux

That strikes me as a compelling reason for supporting it.

M Harries
M Harries
1 year ago
Reply to  polidori redux

“Islamic feminism”

Given that ‘Islamic’ means that which takes the Quran (with its passages of clear misogyny ‘woman’s testimony worth half that of a man’) as a moral guidebook for behaviour; and ‘feminism’ is that which promotes liberty and agency for females, ‘Islamic feminism’ / ‘Muslim feminist’ are indeed terms reflecting oxymoron.

One simply cannot revere the Quran as inerrant AND be a campaigner for women’s equality.

polidori redux
polidori redux
1 year ago

Looking round at the Pakistani community in the UK I would say that Pakistani Feminism is an oxymoron.

Daniel P
Daniel P
1 year ago

Progressive elites are more interested in being seen as edgy and pushing boundaries and virtue signaling to each other than in actually solving problems for people, women in tough places in particular.

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
1 year ago
Reply to  Daniel P

It’s about accumulating power by perpetuating problems rather than solving them.

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
1 year ago
Reply to  Daniel P

It’s about accumulating power by perpetuating problems rather than solving them.

Daniel P
Daniel P
1 year ago

Progressive elites are more interested in being seen as edgy and pushing boundaries and virtue signaling to each other than in actually solving problems for people, women in tough places in particular.

Dominic A
Dominic A
1 year ago

Just one more example of the corrosive effects of unrecognised narcissism – when a tiny minority, or individual, highjacks a far greater endeavour, all in service of the great ‘I am’.

Dominic A
Dominic A
1 year ago

Just one more example of the corrosive effects of unrecognised narcissism – when a tiny minority, or individual, highjacks a far greater endeavour, all in service of the great ‘I am’.

Valerie Taplin
Valerie Taplin
1 year ago

So sad that such a tiny minority has such undesirable and disproportionate influence.

Huw Parker
Huw Parker
1 year ago
Reply to  Valerie Taplin

Gender identity ideology and democracy – at least, the kind of democracy that includes the principle of ‘one person, one vote’ – are at opposite ends of a political spectrum.

Huw Parker
Huw Parker
1 year ago
Reply to  Valerie Taplin

Gender identity ideology and democracy – at least, the kind of democracy that includes the principle of ‘one person, one vote’ – are at opposite ends of a political spectrum.

Valerie Taplin
Valerie Taplin
1 year ago

So sad that such a tiny minority has such undesirable and disproportionate influence.

Davy Humerme
Davy Humerme
1 year ago

Thanks Hina. I value that publications like Unherd can inform me about issues like this by giving a platform to journalists who swim against the tide. I have long thought that since the Bhutto’s era Pakistan has been dripping in upper middle class noblesse oblige, which often conceals entrenched power structures. Woke is its new form and the insane anti-woman gender ideology and hostility to religion and community moral values ( some very questionable), is part of it. Your article gives a fresh and critical perspective.

Davy Humerme
Davy Humerme
1 year ago

Thanks Hina. I value that publications like Unherd can inform me about issues like this by giving a platform to journalists who swim against the tide. I have long thought that since the Bhutto’s era Pakistan has been dripping in upper middle class noblesse oblige, which often conceals entrenched power structures. Woke is its new form and the insane anti-woman gender ideology and hostility to religion and community moral values ( some very questionable), is part of it. Your article gives a fresh and critical perspective.

Tony Kilmister
Tony Kilmister
1 year ago

Christ, this bizarre mode of thinking is even being embraced by the upper orders outside of the West.

There appears to be a wilful determination on the part of, loosely termed, the ruling classes of a growing number of nations to separate themselves not just economically but culturally from the wider populace. And how do they do this? By pretending to believe that geezers using the deliberately grotesque excesses of drag to pronounce themselves women really are women.

Why are our ruling classes doing this?

Tony Kilmister
Tony Kilmister
1 year ago

Christ, this bizarre mode of thinking is even being embraced by the upper orders outside of the West.

There appears to be a wilful determination on the part of, loosely termed, the ruling classes of a growing number of nations to separate themselves not just economically but culturally from the wider populace. And how do they do this? By pretending to believe that geezers using the deliberately grotesque excesses of drag to pronounce themselves women really are women.

Why are our ruling classes doing this?

Arkadian X
Arkadian X
1 year ago

How do they know that 0.24 of the population in Pakistan is transgender? I clicked in the link, but couldn’t find an explanation.

Huw Parker
Huw Parker
1 year ago
Reply to  Arkadian X

It’s not just Pakistan; the same applies absolutely everywhere else. What does it actually mean to say that somebody is ‘transgender’, when the only metric allowed is self-identification? It is no more meaningful than citing what proportion of the population claims to be ‘a good person’, or reincarnated, or Jedi. But worst of all, for such navel-gazing to attempt to usurp the fight for the emancipation of actual, biological women – a scientific reality that gender identity ideology flatly rejects – is utterly shameful.

Jane Walsh
Jane Walsh
1 year ago
Reply to  Huw Parker

Well said!
Exactly.

Jane Walsh
Jane Walsh
1 year ago
Reply to  Huw Parker

Well said!
Exactly.

Huw Parker
Huw Parker
1 year ago
Reply to  Arkadian X

It’s not just Pakistan; the same applies absolutely everywhere else. What does it actually mean to say that somebody is ‘transgender’, when the only metric allowed is self-identification? It is no more meaningful than citing what proportion of the population claims to be ‘a good person’, or reincarnated, or Jedi. But worst of all, for such navel-gazing to attempt to usurp the fight for the emancipation of actual, biological women – a scientific reality that gender identity ideology flatly rejects – is utterly shameful.

Arkadian X
Arkadian X
1 year ago

How do they know that 0.24 of the population in Pakistan is transgender? I clicked in the link, but couldn’t find an explanation.

Chris W
Chris W
1 year ago

Claims of being funded from the west are easily put aside – Pakistan has been begging for western funding recently because of the flooding. Perhaps you can’t have your cake and eat it.

By the same argument, if the elite in Pakistan does want billions of dollars of investment from the west, they surely should copy the attitudes of the west to get it. The attitudes of the west are clearly NYT-like attitudes. Makes a lot of sense to me.

So, if we want countries like Pakistan to clean up their act, don’t we have to sort out our priorities first?

Emmanuel MARTIN
Emmanuel MARTIN
1 year ago
Reply to  Chris W

May I observe that your comment reeks of colonialism, and the idea that starving people should only be fed on condition that they abide to your progressive values is quite morally repugnant ?
People like you or the Aurat march organizers are in fine guilty of giving talibans the moral high ground, at the very least in the eyes of the afghan population

Last edited 1 year ago by Emmanuel MARTIN
Chris W
Chris W
1 year ago

It is called ‘irony’. Either you are American or very young.

Tanya Kratz
Tanya Kratz
1 year ago
Reply to  Chris W

Your comment that Emmanuel took issue with did not come across as ironic to me either. But I am, in fact, American and apparently given your comment above, we are all the same in our inability to catch irony. So, not sure where that leaves us.

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
1 year ago
Reply to  Tanya Kratz

It was patently ironic.

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
1 year ago
Reply to  Tanya Kratz

It was patently ironic.

Tanya Kratz
Tanya Kratz
1 year ago
Reply to  Chris W

Your comment that Emmanuel took issue with did not come across as ironic to me either. But I am, in fact, American and apparently given your comment above, we are all the same in our inability to catch irony. So, not sure where that leaves us.

Richard Craven
Richard Craven
1 year ago

Chris W is describing woke shitt, not advocating it.

Chris W
Chris W
1 year ago

It is called ‘irony’. Either you are American or very young.

Richard Craven
Richard Craven
1 year ago

Chris W is describing woke shitt, not advocating it.

Emmanuel MARTIN
Emmanuel MARTIN
1 year ago
Reply to  Chris W

May I observe that your comment reeks of colonialism, and the idea that starving people should only be fed on condition that they abide to your progressive values is quite morally repugnant ?
People like you or the Aurat march organizers are in fine guilty of giving talibans the moral high ground, at the very least in the eyes of the afghan population

Last edited 1 year ago by Emmanuel MARTIN
Chris W
Chris W
1 year ago

Claims of being funded from the west are easily put aside – Pakistan has been begging for western funding recently because of the flooding. Perhaps you can’t have your cake and eat it.

By the same argument, if the elite in Pakistan does want billions of dollars of investment from the west, they surely should copy the attitudes of the west to get it. The attitudes of the west are clearly NYT-like attitudes. Makes a lot of sense to me.

So, if we want countries like Pakistan to clean up their act, don’t we have to sort out our priorities first?

Aidan Barrett
Aidan Barrett
1 year ago

I can’t wait to read Musa Al-Gharbi’s new book: https://musaalgharbi.com/2021/05/05/book-announcement-we-have-never-been-woke/

Aidan Barrett
Aidan Barrett
1 year ago

I can’t wait to read Musa Al-Gharbi’s new book: https://musaalgharbi.com/2021/05/05/book-announcement-we-have-never-been-woke/