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.