There is an old Punjabi proverb ‘aata gun’ni aen tay hildi kyun aen?’ which loosely translates as: why must you move when you knead the dough?
It conjures up a very specific image: a woman sitting on the kitchen floor, with a huge silver parat (circular tray) in front of her – inside the tray, a precise mixture of flour and water. Fists rolled into balls, she kneads the dough mechanically, throwing her body into the movement. Even though the woman is apparently fulfilling her ‘duty’ in a private space, she is also being monitored and surveilled. And then, someone – oblivious to or apathetic to her efforts – very obviously waiting for her to manifest her destiny in the form of a well-cooked roti, turns around and irritably asks her: aata gun’ni aen tay hildi kyun aen?
The bold placards at the Aurat March have redefined what it means for women to pursue emancipation and freedom. The language no longer sustains the divide between public and private domains.
As a proverb, the question is ironic – used in response to an illogical demand: how can one prepare rotis without kneading flour or moving? It highlights irrationality in responding to a wide range of absurd demands or critiques, and is particularly evocative given that the preparation of rotis is so common in Southasian households. But as a cultural text the proverb is also an insight into collective thought and a commentary on entitlement and the gendering of spaces.
When women march for their freedoms once a year at the Aurat March – a series of protests in different Pakistani cities to observe International Women’s Day – the backlash ranges from: Why not have a modest resistance instead? Why must the slogans be so bold and belligerent? Why must there be so much hatred for men – don’t you have to live with them? Such responses pretend not to oppose the premise that women be given equal rights, equal opportunities and basic human dignity but shift attention away from the purpose of the protest to the way in which women protest – knead the dough but skip the motion.
The bold placards at the Aurat March have redefined what it means for women to pursue emancipation and freedom. The language no longer sustains the divide between public and private domains. Women, especially those torn between the desire for an egalitarian society while performing the duty of care as mothers and wives, can find themselves anxious and uncertain about their place in the resistance. Motherhood, after all, has been critiqued as an institution which preserves segregation in gender roles.
For mothers, who most often bear the brunt of parenting responsibilities, viral slogans may appear to speak to a foreign reality. Often operating within heterosexual marriages and gendered family structures, these mothers might find it particularly difficult to challenge patriarchy. If they are raising sons, their concerns may sway between raising sons that believe in gender equality (the onus for feminist parenting it appears also falls on women) to fearing what kind of ‘radical’ partners their sons might find.
Feminism in transition
Conventionally, women’s political activity has only been deemed ‘palatable’ when tied to a larger cause – often identified by men and in the service of the nation. Feminist scholar Rubina Saigol in Feminism and the Women’s Movement in Pakistan: Actors, Debates and Strategies claims that women’s participation in public life, their right to assembly, to lead processions, to receive education, own property and vote were realised in the context of the freedom struggle in colonial India – a ‘larger cause’. Where the benefits of feminism to others are not obvious, however, such as in the domestic sphere, it remains ‘bad’ and ‘disruptive’.
The March departed from the traditional feminist focus on the public space by asking men to warm up their food themselves.
Among the examples that Saigol cites is that of Fatima Sughra. In 1946 Sughra, still a teenager, climbed on top of the Punjab Civil Secretariat Building and replaced the Union Jack with her dupatta, fashioned as the Muslim League flag. Considered a symbol of defiance for her role in the freedom struggle, Sughra was awarded the Pride of Performance Award and the Life Achievement Award by the Pakistan government. Sughra, reflecting on the changing times in an interview with The Guardian in 2007 cynically remarked, “The women won’t take to the streets for a cause they believe in and, if they did, the men would never support them.”
Women did take to the street for a cause they believed in, however, during the Aurat March in 2018. But this time, their primary ‘cause’ was their own emancipation and dignity. The March departed from the traditional feminist focus on the public space by asking men to warm up their food themselves. ‘Apna khana khud garam karlo’ (warm up your food yourself) and variations like ‘Apnay kapray khud seeyo’ (stitch your clothes yourselves) were some of the many snappy, concise and relatable slogans that fleshed out the connection between the personal and the political, and zeroed in on oppression in the domestic sphere.
Other feminists also recognise a shift in feminist focus. Shmyla Khan, a lawyer who works at a Lahore-based non-profit on digital governance and democratic processes, says, “During the Zia era, when feminists were protesting, they were taking on the state directly…this time, the confrontation is with social factors closer to home.” In 2019, a placard at the Aurat March depicting a woman sitting with her knees apart, which read ‘Lo baith gayi sahi say’ (here you go, I am sitting properly now), incurred much public wrath. The slogan, a comment on body policing, hyper-sexualisation of the female body and victim blaming – issues close to home – received much backlash.
It was as if the same men who derided women who stayed at home as ‘living a life of luxury’ were also threatened by the prospect of women building skills and self-sufficiency.
Opening up discourse that looks at the family as the site of patriarchal violence – was deliberate. Khan was among those who helped organise the Aurat March. She explains the process through which the manifesto and placards were made this year: “When we were making the manifesto or having these conversations, a lot of people who were driven to organising recognised the family as the site of violence or the major patriarchal force in their lives. Their primary concern is to dismantle the family structure – taking on patriarchs and patriarchal agents.”
Too close to home
The backlash, however, has been intense: the theatrics of bruised masculinity stooped to the level of self-parody. Pictures of working-class men – mechanics and tailors for instance – holding up placards carrying slogans like “Apna tyre khud change karo” (change your car tyre on your own) appeared on social media to dismiss the feminist resistance as a ‘concern of the elite.’ Such responses were paradoxical, given that women at the Aurat March were protesting constrictive gender roles that prevented them from working. It was as if the same men who derided women who stayed at home as ‘living a life of luxury’ were also threatened by the prospect of women building skills and self-sufficiency.
Abusive social media posts were used to remind women that their primary responsibility was the preparation of roti (best served right off the hob), which relegated its makers to the kitchen to find company with the knives and forks. The dining table was where men spoke of serious matters like politics and business. Perhaps, the Aurat March’s slogans had hit too close to home: After all, the image of the woman hurriedly replenishing the stockpile of fresh roti at the dining table and stopping only when told is a poignant one in the imagination.
Anti-feminist PK woman: Those feminists are so vulgar, no grace, hate the posters
PK man: Those bitches, what sluts, they're vulgar, they're not Muslims
Anti-feminist PK woman: Yes I agree with —
Pakistani man: CHUP! ROTI PAKAO
Anti-feminist PK woman:
— Bina Shah (@BinaShah) March 10, 2019
The refusal of women to adhere to gender norms shook things up because the culpability now tangibly extended to men. The slogans were not about abstract concepts – they laid bare the daily injustices that take place in Pakistani households, and in doing so, questioned male privilege. The honesty of the critique and the irreverent tone were met with vitriol because it was the first time in public memory that conversations perhaps limited to the zenana (women’s quarters), discursive sites where women could transgress the limits prescribed by society, were being taken to the streets.
2019’s Aurat March continued with the same tradition. A placard carried the message “saari chhuriyan kitchen may hoti hain” (all knives are kept in the kitchen) not only as a fact but as a grim and witty reminder. This time too, the backlash arrived like clockwork, just as violently, with men explaining what feminism is and threatening an anti-feminist march. Men were not the only ones who criticized the Aurat March. Kishwar Naheed, a yesteryear feminist icon who penned the famous feminist anthem Hum Gunahgar Aurtain (We, Sinful Women) in a surprising move, contrary to what her entire body of work has come to represent over the years, slammed the Aurat March and its slogans in 2019, saying feminists should be mindful of Pakistani culture and not go astray like “jihadis.”
It was the first time in public memory that conversations perhaps limited to the zenana (women’s quarters), discursive sites where women could transgress the limits prescribed by society, were being taken to the streets.
Undoubtedly, some of the placards can be perceived as ‘threatening’: one, a bold admission of power imbalances, said “shukar karo barabari chahtay hain, badla nahin” (Thank your lucky stars that we want equality and not revenge). However, the feminists who organised the Aurat March, as well as others, have defended the decision to make the personal political. “There is the feeling that when a placard criticises the role of the ‘husband’ or the ‘son,’ it is a direct attack on wives or mothers,” says Khan. She explains that the point of zeroing in on these institutions with cutting slogans is to highlight existing power imbalances and, in doing do, to side with the women.
— Shehzad Ghias Shaikh (@Shehzad89) March 16, 2019
The Aurat March has also been criticised for focusing on the domestic sphere at the expense of the public sphere. Khan claims that even though such placards draw attention to the confrontation within the domestic sphere, it does not imply that state’ excesses are beyond critique. “In fact, we have to keep reminding younger members that the state also needs to be taken on,” she adds.
Saigol, a member of Women’s Action Forum (WAF) which did considerable work to safeguard the rights of women during the draconian Zia years, describes how feminist activism in these two spheres are complimentary:
WAF did know and operate with this understanding [that the personal is the political], but we did not make the personal political. We were pursuing women’s place in the public sphere because of the aggressive reconstruction of that sphere by the state. We were looking at laws and policies. But our work was eventually reconstructing the personal as many of the laws and policies affected women at the personal level.
She dispels the notion that there was anything ‘offensive’ about the Aurat March posters, arguing instead that they were sharp, direct, and very effective. “They aren’t things that are alien to us. We [WAF] have been talking about these issues and conducting trainings and workshops that addressed the same themes.” In her view, ‘warm up your own food’ is a logical demand: It is the conciseness and directness that shocks people.
Motherhood amid the march
The shifting focus of Pakistani feminism to the domestic sphere has meant that motherhood is being newly scrutinized. Just about a year ago, in an interview to a local news channel, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan came out in sharp critique of the feminist movement – assigning it a Western origin and arguing that it had “degraded” motherhood. In an ironic turn of events, he reminisced next about his attachment to his late mother and the degree of influence she wielded over him. Like most men who are critical of the feminist movement but love their mothers, he stopped short of recognising the importance of the rights of his mother – a woman caged in by and negotiating with patriarchal structures – and failed to trace these rights to the work of committed feminists, who pushed for legal and societal reform.
Many feminists rushed to clear his confusion, asserting that the purpose of feminism was emancipation. For example, feminist political worker and academic, Aimen Bucha, tweeted:
Feminists have never defraded motherhood, they have celebrated it. They have spoken on the rights of a mother, her need for daycares, maternity leaves, her reproductive healthe rights and the double burden she faces due to unpaid carework. https://t.co/zl3oiYduuW
— Aimen Bucha (@AimenBucha) June 17, 2018
When the Prime Minister dismisses the feminist movement and, in the same breath, celebrates his mother, he fails to recognise the extra burden that mothers silently shoulder when it comes to child-rearing and the duty of care. Often torn between the roles of a spouse and a mother within heterosexual marriages, women find themselves struggling to juggle expectations and maintain their personhood. As poet and essayist Adrienne Rich points out in her compelling polemic, Of Woman Born, the labour is performed quietly, without the recognition of its benefits, without access to rights as workers – mothers don’t unionise nor can they go on strike. By privileging mothers’ selflessness over self-realisation, ‘motherhood’ has been turned into a site for the renewal of male power.
Rich’s distinction between motherhood and mothering is significant. She claims that the experience of ‘mothering’ is rich, complex, emotional, and one reaffirming the continuity of life. However, within the traditional, patriarchal institution of motherhood, she argues, ‘mothering’ is deprived of its potential for empowerment or social change. Raising sons to unlearn toxic masculinity is exceptionally difficult in a culture that teaches them entitlement. Young urban Pakistani mothers, particularly those with sons, who identify as feminists or ‘believers in gender equality’ often find themselves in the line of fire for challenging traditional norms.
By privileging mothers’ selflessness over self-realisation, ‘motherhood’ has been turned into a site for the renewal of male power.
“My son likes playing with the broom and cleaning. He also likes playing with his cousins’ dolls and dollhouses. There was a lot of judgment; as a boy, he shouldn’t be playing with these toys. Kids aren’t born into gender roles, it is society that teaches them,” says Saman, a 31-year old mother who identifies as a feminist and went to the Aurat March last year. “I think, in my case, as far as managing the household goes, because my husband does his own chores, that helps set a good example for my son. It teaches him about distributing housekeeping duties,” she adds, noting that she wants to raise a compassionate human being in a patriarchal society.
Other mothers struggle to relate to the present-day discourse. “I am teaching him to respect women but it goes both ways. I don’t expect his future wife to make the perfect rotis but to be able to understand that men have problems [in their lives] too and we stigmatise them when they cry or show vulnerabilities,” says 29-year old Bisma, mother to a four-year old boy. Bisma identifies as a feminist – in her words, “a believer in equality.” But, she also argues that the ‘all men are trash’ mentality is “immature and violent”. Bisma’s comments highlight the near impossible situation Pakistani women find themselves in, in the wake of conflicting interpretations of feminism.
The Aurat March represents a distinct moment in the feminist movement in Pakistan. This is not because gender roles in the domestic sphere had never been protested before, but because a diverse range of women, now depoliticised in the public space, came together for the purpose of political organisation. In a context where the self-sacrificial mother is the object of aspiration and worship, starting an honest discourse about agency, emancipation and sexual rights provides the possibility of social change and a moment to think about how a truly egalitarian society might look.
An avid reader, she confesses she may just have read everything about feminist parenting: “Being a feminist, I think it’s much harder because you see that the whole system is patriarchal. You get tired at some point.”
Thirty-four year-old Saira, a researcher, says “motherhood isn’t easy – not just for the toll it takes on your body but also in terms of what it demands of you. I experienced a lot of anxiety when my son was born. I still am very concerned about the fact that I have to bring him up in the right way.” An avid reader, she confesses she may just have read everything about feminist parenting: “Being a feminist, I think it’s much harder because you see that the whole system is patriarchal. You get tired at some point.”
But, what role does Saira’s husband play in their three year-old’s ‘feminist’ upbringing? “My husband is very progressive but I found that the thought hadn’t even crossed his mind. It turned out that we were both thinking about completely different things. It led to some conflicts between us initially. But now there is a better understanding. Things come up every now and then though,” she says and pauses briefly. “But, he is better than other men. He listens,” she adds, “he volunteers to make rotis sometimes. I think children learn through example. In fact, he also insisted we go to the Aurat March together but we couldn’t go because my son was sick.”
Saira thinks that the placards at the March were amusing and meaningful. Even though she could not go to the March, she re-shared photos that were circulating online at the time. “How is any of this [the placards at the March] news? Have we not seen the exploitation of our own mothers due to these gender roles?” she asks.
Some feminists have argued effectively that the regressive responses to the Aurat March, without meaning to – and quite ironically – have created a need to continue the discussion, perhaps even hold a march every week. One interesting response, thematically an ironic ‘aata gun’ni aen tay hildi kyun aen’ kind of take, argues that this march should have celebrated women as mothers and wives who work hard but are still not given their due.
Unintentionally, the critique serves a purpose: it adds weight to the argument that bonding women to the self-sacrificing model of the ‘good’ mother equates to benevolent oppression by the family structure. Without meaning to and quite ironically, it asks us to strengthen the links between the personal and the political – the home and public life – to contest the idea of what family is. It asks us to make sure that, across divisions, every Sunday, “maa behen ek ho rahi hai” (mothers and sisters are colluding) in the cheeky words of a placard from last year.
(Note: This article has been revised on 2 November 2021 to correct a typographic error in a Punjabi phrase.)