Don’t tell women to shut up

reham-khan-producer-of-phastu-movie

Note: This post appeared on Dawn.com on May 11, 2015.

In a country where the odds are stacked against most women, Reham Khan’s scolding them for not taking responsibility for their plight is disingenuous.

It happens more than one would expect, but it is always confounding when women of power and privilege choose to patronize other women in a bubble of arrogance over their personal successes. Reham Khan, media personality and new wife of politician Imran Khan is the latest offender in this list.

As she gushed about her marriage in a fawning India Today interview by Mehr Tarar, she suddenly threw this zinger toward women: Stop whining.

This advice comes from an independent, competent, and successful career woman who has overcome hardships in her own life (she has raised three children as a single mother and alleged domestic abuse in her first marriage). It would have been laudable if given her new-found influence, Mrs. Khan had chosen to stick up for millions of women in her home country who are fellow victims of domestic abuse as well as of myriad other forms of oppression or discrimination at home as well as work. And yet, all she chose to say when asked about the place of women in the Pakistani society was: “I really think women need to stop complaining. I’m very unsympathetic to whiners. Stop making excuses for yourself.”

While her words seem to chide women for accusing men for their failures and ask them to take responsibility for themselves, they also seem to come from a very limited view (or understanding?) of the very real challenges women who aren’t as well-born or fortunate as she face throughout their lives. They fail to take into account all that could possibly go wrong in the life of a woman brought up in an average Pakistani household without her actually causing it.

After all, an average Pakistani household is highly likely to discriminate against female members in the choice of their education, healthcare, nutrition, marriage, and career; all factors that could cause them to fail in life in spite of their best efforts. At least 90 percent of Pakistani women earn half of what their male counterparts do despite working the same hours. The number of incidents of violence against women in Pakistan increased by at least seven percent in 2011-2012. Statistics abound to show the inherent disadvantages girls face while growing up and throughout adulthood that pretty much ruin their chances of becoming, say, a successful anchorperson or a self-sufficient single mother. More often than not, they are doomed from the get-go, just by the virtue of being born female.

So should the response to such failures, which do in fact have causes outside of women’s control, be to shut up and stop whining? What if complaining is the only fight some women have left, and what if it is the first step toward giving future generations of women a way out? What if staying silent only empowers the upholders of the status-quo?

You don’t need the feminist label to be empathetic toward the very real, very serious problems of gender disparity in the society you live in now, Mrs. Khan. It seems by saying what you did, you are trying hard to steer away from that label. But in your efforts, you end up sounding more like the infamous royal Marie Antoinette than the role model you wish to become. Not only did you ask your less fortunate peers to go eat cake, you lost out on a powerful opportunity to stand out among a host of privileged, politically prominent women in Pakistan who have equally failed to help their fellow women rise above the limitations imposed upon them by an oppressive culture.

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7 thoughts on “Don’t tell women to shut up

  1. An oversimplified statement by all means and entirely misplaced. But perhaps instead of criticism, the message to take away is that we need to do more? Not to shut up but to actually talk about issues instead of complaining.

    I know many women who are in the position to change their situation but they just complain instead. Its easy to make it someone else’s fault. We are creatures of habit. Change is not everyone’s agenda.

    So, maybe, instead of mere back and forth propaganda, we ought to actually talk about the oppressions you mentioned. It is our reality that most often women of power and privilege have more resources to deconstruct issues, and therefore, that’s what they should be doing. That’s what we should be doing instead of complaining. Because frankly, Reham’s statement as well as this article remain nothing more than complaints too.

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    1. Thank you for your comment. Doing more rather than complaining is excellent advice, but what are the usual reasons behind not “doing more?” Are they really just always limited to laziness or a tendency to crib mindlessly? The aim here is not defending mindless cribbing, since that’s not exactly what’s happening when most Pakistani women complain of being ignored or discriminated against. Ms. Khan did not qualify her blanket rebuke of “whiners,” and neither do many people across the world who accuse women of whining all the time. What is whining and what do they say when they are whining? Is a woman complaining against sexual harassment on public buses in Karachi and using that as a reason for quitting or not finding a job, for instance, whining? Is a woman blaming “loag kia kahen gaye” for not asking for a divorce despite blatant domestic abuse in her marriage, whining? Is a woman complaining about not getting paid as much as a male colleague who does the same job (or less) whining? These are all real issues that exist and give plenty of cause for complaining, and not every woman has the capacity, courage or resources to fix them. And so she complains.

      The truth is that there is a very anti-woman narrative in Pakistan which carries a very real bias against anyone who tries to raise women’s issues on the public platform. It is automatically termed as “complaining” and women are given all sorts of well-meaning advice like: take responsibility for yourself; do more; what are YOU doing for women? It is easy to rebuke feminism or the struggle for women’s equality and hide behind a statement like, if you really wanted to, you could overcome this.

      But the problem is, not every woman can. And until they all can, one woman must not portray a rosy, but nonexistent picture of women’s equality using her own unrepresentative example. Finally, most discussions — and productive ones that put less talked about issues on the public radar — start with complaining. Complaining IS talking about the issues. Without it, cultural mindsets don’t get challenged. Women’s rights cannot be imposed upon a society like ours in a top-down approach because our women themselves won’t all support them; they have been raised in a deeply patriarchal society and have been indoctrinated with values that put them inside locked doors and tell them that a patient, sabr wali aurat who bears her burden silently is the best of all. Some of the greatest critics of Mukhtaran Mai and Malala have been Pakistani women themselves. It is incredibly hard to rebel against everything you have been taught and not every woman has the singular courage of Mukhtaran Mai or Parveen Rehman or some others. Pakistani women are not raised to become heroines. And so, while some Pakistani women overcome hardship and “do more;” others complain about it but lack the courage or opportunity to do anything.

      In a nutshell, the problem isn’t women not standing up for themselves; the problem is the inequality that is entrenched in their upbringing and all around them. That’s what we need to talk about instead of putting the onus on women and asking them to take heroic actions to remedy their situations. Frequent debates are essential to make women’s treatment a part of the public discourse. Simply shutting our eyes and pretending that there is no problem at all won’t change anything.

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  2. I loved your piece this morning in DAWN. Speaking as an American who has some familiarity with Pakistan and Pakistanis, telling a woman to shut up is rude, nearly barbarian in nature. It also never works!
    Robert Yuna

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  3. I think you’re giving her way too much credit then she deserves. Getting a degree from North Lindsay College (yes, I had to look it up too!) isn’t exactly the greatest academic achievement ever and professionally – to put things in perspective – she is hardly in the ballpark of Mubashir Lucman, Kashif Siddiqi, Meher Bokhari, Jasmine Manzoor etc. Don’t see anyone asking them to be role models for humanity.

    So yeah if her ‘newfound position of influence’ is directly related to her marrying a politician in Pakistan, yeah I think you’re really overrating the position. No one is looking to her for advice (I hope!)

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