Women's Rights

Imran Khan & Women's Rights in Pakistan by Tara Kaushal

July 2018: “I can’t believe there’s Indian liberals on the Internet celebrating the victory of Imran Khan in the Pakistan elections,” read a friend’s Facebook post. As a member of the Congress, he proceeded to talk about his politics, the politics of the BJP, etc. Hiya Harinandini and my reasons for dampening the celebrations are more feministic.

Dear well-intentioned liberals: if you think the suave, Jemima-Goldsmith-marrying playboy cricketer must surely be People Like Us, and he will surely bring some of his personal values to Pakistani politics, here’s a newsflash. He’s not the man you thought he was in the ’90. And the politics of his party reflect his current ultra-conservative avatar. 'He’ll improve women’s rights in Pakistan.' Er, no he won’t.

In Politics, the Personal is Professional

If the recently released book by his ex-wife, British-Pakistani journalist Reham Khan is to be believed, Imran Khan has lived a life full of “sex, drugs and alcohol”, and has several illegitimate children. (He also believes in black magic, but that’s besides the point we’re making.)

This is in stark contrast with the ‘sadiq and amin’ (honest and righteous) image he has now donned in the Pakistani media, which can mean one of two things. One, that he is a closet liberal, conducting his life and sexual liaisons in a free love, Western way. Or that he is really a good ol’ conservative man, on whom patriarchy bestows the rights to rights and rebellion, as well as to hypocrisy—to have a white wife, to sow his wild oats, to have three wives, to perpetrate domestic abuse—that he has exercised. With his recent jibe at Western feminism, we struggle to give him the benefit of the doubt and are inclined to believe the latter.

“Feminism Degrades Motherhood”

In an explosive interview to Hum News (Pakistan) in June, Khan denounced feminism and painted a problematic picture of his idea of motherhood in one swell swoop.

“A mother has (the) biggest influence on a person... a real mother, that is. I completely disagree with this Western concept, this feminist movement... it has degraded the role of a mother... when I was growing up, my mother had the most impact on me.”

Considering its not Imran Khan’s first utterly complacent and grossly ignorant take on anything factual or ideological, anger seems a little worn out to pursue. While he triumphed as the mouthpiece of the conservative lot with this comment, he is no different than others who have a patriarchal misunderstanding of what feminism stands for, that it is anti-motherhood.

Let’s first explore the outrageous things Western feminism says about motherhood, things that could have pissed off a conservative. Most important would be the feminist assertion that a woman’s identity doesn’t just lie in rearing a body other than her own. She’s also a person in her own right. Feminism has challenged notions of traditional motherhood because it has fought for the choice of motherhood. Perhaps it is the recognition of paid maternity leave. Or, maybe, it is the longstanding battle for legal relaxations and financial compensation for new and single mothers. Maybe it’s because feminists fight for the recognition of the woman’s unpaid labour at home as much as a man’s labour in a public space.

Are these the reasons that have prompted Khan to state that some feminist movements have degraded motherhood? Perhaps. It does seem utterly ridiculous that women be given rights to their own lives. The pitting of feminists and mothers is an inherently patriarchal act and misses multiple nuances of feminism and its development.

Further, he asserted that teaching the children in their mother tongue is the mother’s job, “especially if she is a good mother”—making it very clear what he considers ‘right mothering’ while simultaneously absolving men of the responsibility toward their children. A feminist thought of motherhood is the understanding that the role of the mother—as it has been traditionally described—is a societal conditioning. What is the job of a ‘good mother’? And what about ‘good’ fathers? Oh wait, they do not exist in Khan’s limited worldview. A ‘good’ mother, then, is whatever a man such as Khan wants her to be, which includes the martyrdom of not demanding anything from the father. Because, god forbid, a mother think of herself as an individual first and then responsible for her offspring. Agency and identity are Western feminist concepts, after all. They poison the beatific, self-sacrificing Eastern mother’s instincts to put herself last.

Journalist and author of the blog, The Married Feminist, Kiran Manral’s take on the issue is two-pronged, “To begin with, I think we’ve put motherhood on a pedestal for too long. Point is, motherhood is sold to us as a package, which demands to be glorified, like any underpaid job. I believe that in this pursuit, the realities of motherhood shouldn’t be undermined by all the excessively rosy, sloppy morality that we smudge all over it. Having said that, the feminist movement is about equality among genders and embraces fluidity of agency and thought. In this scenario, declaring the institutions of motherhood and Western feminism as unpalatable is rather unfair on the part of Khan. Motherhood is not seen as a liability by the movement but as an empowering choice, as much as the choice of women to employment, marriage, property, etc. It recognises women as the sole agents of their own reproduction and is inconsistent with the patriarchal notion which deems the woman as simply a baby-making machine.”

Wannabe PM of An Islamic State

That Khan has promised to make Pakistan an Islamic state—that has, in the past meant heightened restrictions on women and a poor women’s rights track record—is also cause for concern. In a CNN article, author and columnist Rafia Zakaria asserts: “If Khan keeps his pro-military stance and wants to appease the militants within the country, his Pakistan will not be a progressive country committed to gender equality. Religious hardliners in Pakistan have, in the past, opposed legislation that criminalises domestic violence, saying that would ‘Westernise’ society. They are unlikely to change this stance.”

The enforcement of “authentically Islamic and doggedly anti-Western law…. will destroy the legal and political progress Pakistani women have made in recent years. When women’s progress is seen as a Western concept, the result is unending suffering and retrogression for all Pakistani women who want to move toward gender equality.”

Is there hope? Perhaps, if Khan chooses to sideline religious hardliners and panders instead to those seeking a more progressive Pakistan with women’s rights at par with international standards. We must wait and watch. Until then, though, as liberals, as feminists, Imran Khan’s victory is not cause for celebration. Please, think before you tweet.

This article appeared on Pass the Mic, the blog of Why Indian Men Rape in July 2018.

Standing Up for Sunny Leone by Tara Kaushal

May 2015: Why Sunny Leone is a cultural icon to reckon with.

I arrive at her site to be greeted by “WARNING! ADULTS ONLY! This Site Contains Sexually Oriented Material”, followed by a detailed disclaimer spanning legality, culture and morality. Below, it says, “If minors have access to your computer, please restrain their access to sexually explicit material by using…”, with links to parental control products. I then proceed to get really turned on. Boy, is Sunny Leone hot!

Although I’ve never watched any of her movies or TV appearances (saving for these *ahem* clips), she has always fascinated me as a sociocultural phenomenon: an Indian-origin American porn star doing increasingly mainstream roles in the Indian film industry. She exists at the nucleus and intersection of several paradoxes—between her Sikh upbringing and career in the adult film industry in the US; feminism, choice and acceptance; her past and her present; legality; post- and multiculturalism; the idea of marriage; the internet and ‘mainstream’; Bollywood’s and audiences’ standards of morality; etc. (All this is for a much longer piece, perhaps.)

These politics that coexist in Leone’s life are brought to the fore by the PIL filed by a Mumbai Auntie on behalf of a fringe Hindu organisation on the 15th of May. She is accused of creating “grossly indecent” material and publishing it on the internet. This is going to be interesting because, hey, the adult film industry IS legal in the States, where all of her porn was created and published, but she faces up to five years in jail if she is convicted under Indian laws. She is also charged under the Indecent Representation of Women (Prohibition) Act. This case pertains to her porn-star past, not to her current mainstream career.

It is safe to say that what comprises “grossly indecent” content is subjective: Fair & Lovely ads, with their deep-seated cultural ramifications are “grossly indecent” to me. What comprises the “Indecent Representation of Women” is also subjective—many Indian movies reinforce the good/bad girl binary, bring female sexuality into bedrooms via item numbers, and badly fail the Bedchel Test. But we live and let live with our (largely unenforced) U/UA/A certifications, in the belief children should be protected and that adults are to be treated as such.

Ditto with porn.

Porn is illegal in India, but the complainant, Anjali Palan has her head buried deep in the sand if Leone’s content is the only—or worst—of the pornographic content she’s found on the internet. Studies have shown that a majority of digital immigrant Indian men first go online for porn, and Sunny Leone is India’s most searched person according to Google’s 2014 list of top searches. Palan is reported to have said that adult content poisons the minds of people and children, and I wonder whether she is proposing that India ban porn on the internet? Here, might I suggest that parental vigilance and controls on computers are a more effective solution than targeting the actor’s solitary site, and there be stronger enforcement of audience-appropriateness based on film certification.

There is no doubt that the organisation Palan belongs to is star-bashing to moral police and culturally persecute Leone, as well as to gain publicity.

According the Daily Mail, its spokesperson Dr Uday Dhuri admits: “Sunny Leone should be ousted from the country. We have registered several complaints but unfortunately no action is taken against her.” Palan too seems to be a bit confused. “This actor is coming here and displaying vulgarity. Bollywood films could earlier be watched with families. Today we cannot see them with our families,” she told reporters, yet her complaint has nothing to do with films you could (or should!) watch with family.

Leone is a strong feminist force, a woman forging her own path and not bowing to stereotypes, and I wish her all the best in battle. At the time of submitting this article, her latest post on Facebook is a quote by R Hunter accompanying a picture of her and husband Daniel: “Sometimes we live no particular way but our own”. Take that!

An edited version of this article appeared on iDiva in May 2015.