December 9, 2019

Feminist Memories in the Digital Age: Honoring the Feminism of Yesteryear and Today

Pakistan’s online spaces have become critical modes of feminist self-expression, as the internet offers a more democratized, accessible and publicly visible place for ongoing feminist debates. Such debates outline the critical significance of writing the marginalized into Pakistan’s historical record, and serve as a key example of the historicization of Pakistan’s feminist legacy. 

Looking at digital media as a form of feminist archive becomes important — to me, personally, and on a whole — as one attempts to deconstruct how feminist memories inform online protests today. How do we, as feminists, through our online presence, reflect the history that shapes us? More specifically, how do online spaces reflect historical feminist storytelling, if at all? Is there a feminist past that informs ‘younger’ feminists like myself who are presently using online spaces to articulate their politics? Do our words and labor have any value as important correctives, or deterrents, to historical feminist practices (and also refrains)? To me, then, linking feminist archives, across time and movements, becomes increasingly important, to ensure that feminist work lives on and does not lose its representational value. 

How do we, as feminists, through our online presence, reflect the history that shapes us? More specifically, how do online spaces reflect historical feminist storytelling, if at all?

Digital spaces serve as an ongoing archive of community voices, and demonstrate the relevance of feminist demands in Pakistani society. Zainab Shumail, a postgraduate student of Gender Studies at Central European University whose research project focuses on the intergenerational dynamics of urban feminist movements in Pakistan, notes the importance of online expressions of feminism as they document the struggles of the recent past. Zainab says that a record to these forms of expression, and access to them, is important so that feminists are not always on the defensive when their work is seen as being contradictory to Pakistani culture. She adds, “While online spaces are extremely important, the potential for a well-integrated struggle that incorporates its past into its contemporary demands is limited if we remain in online spaces only. What needs to happen is for online expressions of feminist activism to be complemented by more offline, personal interactions, which may give rise to synergies that are then taken up on social media, thus amplifying activists’ voices and demands.”

Feminist Resistance of Yesteryear

Pakistan has a rich history of urban feminist activism that has achieved much since its inception around four decades ago. According to Dr. Rubina Saigol in her recent essay on feminist activisms of yesteryear and today, “The feminist movement and the women’s rights struggle that arose in the 1980s, spearheaded by Women’s Action Forum (WAF) in the urban areas and Sindhiani Tehreek in rural Sindh, were significant for their overtly political stance.” Dr. Rubina recalls that these movements emerged as a response to General Zia-ul-Haq’s Islamisation regime that sanctioned the use of religion to suppress and silence women. As a consequence, street protests and demonstrations were organized by feminists across Pakistan, at the risk of them being beaten, jailed and lathi-charged (Saigol, 2019). “WAF had to respond quickly and frequently because of the rapid pace at which the regime was promulgating discriminatory laws and taking anti-women measures.” She notes that this did not leave room for feminists to interrogate the private sphere and challenge the institution of family — the mainstay of patriarchal oppression — other than in private conversations.

What needs to happen is for online expressions of feminist activism to be complemented by more offline, personal interactions, which may give rise to synergies that are then taken up on social media, thus amplifying activists’ voices and demands

Zainab Shumail

Shmyla Khan, Program Manager at Digital Rights Foundation and one of the many organizers of the Aurat March protest held in Lahore, mentions that this is one of the reasons as to why there has been a big gap between organizing by younger feminists and their older counterparts. “This is partly reflected in the types of issues that are taken up by younger feminists — body politics, respectability, access to public spaces — that were not taken up by the older generation. The methods and role of online spaces have also made the gap more yawning in recent years.”

This is a point Dr. Rubina touches upon in her article as well, “Some of the reasons for the reticence were internal. WAF was composed of a diverse set of organisations and individuals with differing perspectives on religion, culture and tradition.” Therefore, it refrained from publicly taking “too radical a stand” on issues related to bodily politics and sexuality. “Ironically, while WAF members avoided public discussions on the body and sexuality, the state and religious clerics had no such qualms; their focus was squarely on the woman’s body — the need to conceal it, cover it, protect it and preserve it for its rightful ‘owner’. The state was consistently referring to sexuality (for example, in laws on fornication and zina), the veil and the four walls of the house — all designed to control the rebellious and potentially dangerous female body capable of irredeemable transgression.”

Archives of Pakistan’s Feminist Resistance 

I believe that the roots of feminist archival work in Pakistan can be traced back to WAF’s historic moment of resistance and the ensuing documentation of the nationwide protests that took place during Zia’s time. Such information and documentation efforts, as well as the feminist genealogies stemming from the efforts of WAF members, are more frequently attributed to this particular historical moment. WAF has contributed significantly to the historicization and archival work around feminist resistance in Pakistan. Feminist scholarship in Pakistan has primarily sought to articulate the movement’s engagements and tensions with the state, from the perspective of women, through the obtainment and inclusion of women’s work and stories in the historical narrative shaping Pakistan.

While older WAF members may share a sense of community, I think a sense of community rooted in shared experience and trust across generations is key, which is a gap in the platform for newer feminists interested in finding their space and voice through the WAF platform

Natasha Ansari

After WAF’s protests, there was a litany of feminist literary and cultural knowledge that shaped much of the cultural and historical feminist memory of contemporary Pakistan. For instance, feminist writing on sexual abuse and gender-based violence in Pakistan has been preoccupied with feminist engagements with the law, and pushback against the masculinist Pakistani state. Pakistani feminists have been deeply involved in recovering the memory of the past that was previously recalled and memorialized by men. Feminist readings of autobiography and memoir, and practices of oral history, have sought to analyze gender discrimination in acts of personal and cultural memory. The painful past lives of women in Pakistan that were previously ‘veiled’ were now revealed.

The Pakistani feminist archive has a life of its own, and has made a significant contribution to the ways in which the country’s history has been envisioned. It is important to look at the breadth of the changing shape of feminist archival research. Feminist literature has been available in Pakistan in the form of NGO publications, books, literature and much more since the 1980s. Organizations and multidisciplinary resource centres such as ASR (Pakistan’s first feminist press), Simorgh, Shirkat Gah and Aurat Foundation have been at the helm of producing both academic and non-academic feminist literature, in English as well as Pakistan’s national and regional languages. WAF members have made considerable efforts to bridge the gap between feminist theory and praxis

For the longest time, in my experience, if you wanted to practice feminist politics, you had to create your own space. There were very few opportunities to organise with the older generation of feminists.

Tooba Syed

However, Natasha Ansari, a researcher and one of the founding members of Girls at Dhabas, feels that WAF now needs to delve into the new tools being employed by younger feminists, such as social media, urgently. “As someone who has attended WAF meetings, I have often found them to be procedural. While older WAF members may share a sense of community, I think a sense of community rooted in shared experience and trust across generations is key, which is a gap in the platform for newer feminists interested in finding their space and voice through the WAF platform. The collaborative element has to feel natural and organic so it may lead to a more meaningful ownership of feminist issues.”

Tooba Syed, a Gender Studies lecturer, spokesperson for Women’s Democratic Front, and political organizer at Awami Worker’s Party, remarks, “For the longest time, in my experience, if you wanted to practice feminist politics, you had to create your own space. There were very few opportunities to organise with the older generation of feminists, especially because most eventually turned to to feminist scholarship.” This makes the point regarding the evolution of feminist archives even more interesting, as perhaps then archival work is deeply embedded in any kind of visible feminist resistance, particularly in the ways in which feminist knowledge is produced in Pakistan today.

Feminist Resistance in Online Spaces

The internet has become a breeding ground for new feminist forms of expression: a vignette into the myriad mindsets of the ‘Pakistani feminist’, who is not a monolith but indicative of a multiplicity of voices. The impact of digital technologies on feminist knowledge production brings to question feminist acts of memory in the present day. The numerous accounts of traumas and nostalgia that one comes across online, especially in light of the #MeToo movement, lead to the possibility of galvanizing group history and identity to underscore the vitality and necessity of feminist consciousness-raising.

Taking to the streets, tweeting, speaking in talk shows, writing columns, sharing feminist visuals — feminists are clearly doing a lot to form a meaningful feminist discourse in Pakistan. 

There have been noticeable changes in generational memory that owe largely to the prevalence of online spaces. The internet spaces of Pakistan are indicative of a collective means of understanding feminist activist memories that have regained significant public attention in the present. So how do we move beyond snapshots of particular generations and retain the momentum for grassroots organizing? How do we follow the memories of feminists of yesteryear to sustain the work of the present? Moreover, how, if at all, do past memories of feminist organizing inform online protests, particularly now that conversations around feminism and equality have proliferated so quickly in our cultural conscience? Taking to the streets, tweeting, speaking in talk shows, writing columns, sharing feminist visuals — feminists are clearly doing a lot to form a meaningful feminist discourse in Pakistan. 

Illustration by Aniqa Haider

Having said that, access to social media also brings to question who has the privilege to partake in the documentation process on these spaces, and who is rendered more visible over others. For instance, while online spaces may be reflective of sexualities across the spectrum, the queer movement in Pakistan has historically been rendered invisible since before the country’s independence, especially because of the South Asian colonial record that subsumed queer voices. How can further archival work be done to indicate alternative ways of organizing and expressing one’s queerness or class marginalization, to speak of resistances that have existed for years outside of online spaces? How can we locate marginalized histories in terms of absent voices actively collaborating or producing knowledge to shape existing feminist scholarship? Is there a history of absent, unstated intimacies before digital technologies changed the ways in which people connected with others, and shaped their sense of spatial belonging as well as experiences of love and solidarity? What are the dynamics of these archival silences, and how do they essentialize the subject/s unwritten in Pakistani history?

How can further archival work be done to indicate alternative ways of organizing and expressing one’s queerness or class marginalization, to speak of resistances that have existed for years outside of online spaces?

It must be noted that while online forms of feminist resistance are perhaps enacted from and around archives, the archive is never a neutral medium. Its contribution to the historical record also entails exclusion and silence. Individuals on the margins document their realities at the risk of social opprobrium, increased surveillance and even criminalization. Therefore, linking feminist work to other historical archives is key for us to ensure that community work not only continues but is reimagined so as to be more inclusive of the voices that were historically excluded.

Aurat March and New Possibilities 

On May 8th, 2019, Pakistani women, non-binary people and male allies participated in protests across Pakistan to participate in the yearly Aurat March. There was a lot of backlash afterwards, specifically over the kinds of placards at display. Slogans such as, “Keep your dick pics to yourself” seemed offensive to the moral and cultural sensibilities of many Pakistani citizens because they challenged the public-private binary, particularly around issues of sexuality. Feminists were criticized on social media by not only the men who felt personally threatened by the demands made at the protests, but also women who questioned the controversial nature of the slogans, and did not see such demands to be accurately representing local forms of feminism. The organisers and participants of the Aurat March were also trolled online; some were even sent rape or death threats.

Women, for instance, are refusing to be seen as the guardians of the country’s honor and questioning respectability politics by rejecting the idea of a monolithic Pakistani womanhood

Nevertheless, much like the feminist protests during Zia’s time, the Aurat March marks a critical juncture in Pakistan’s feminist history, as issues of sexual autonomy and agency are now being openly discussed and highlighted in the mainstream. The momentum gained, and the consequent backlash and death threats received by the participants of the march, are indicative of feminists projecting themselves onto their past, and not only reliving those memories of resistance with pride and gusto, but also assuming the burdens and struggles that come with taking on feminist battles at the grassroots level. Women, for instance, are refusing to be seen as the guardians of the country’s honor and questioning respectability politics by rejecting the idea of a monolithic Pakistani womanhood that has been carefully constructed by the state since the country’s inception. Therefore, the Aurat March is an outright rejection of Pakistan’s colonial past and how it shapes gender roles today.

The backlash against feminism is nothing new; therefore, the past becomes an important tool for galvanizing women and non-binary people to ground their activism

Shmyla says that she sees a convergence with the explosion of feminism onto the mainstream due to events like the Aurat March. “In Lahore, there is a lot more acceptance of younger voices and integration of issues raised by younger feminists within traditional circles.” Shmyla notes that these conversations are crucial as what is missing from emerging feminist politics is serious engagement with the state, both in terms of advocacy and resistance. “What made feminist politics of the last generation radical was its opposition to the state and while there are valid critiques to be had for the partial NGO-isation, there is no denying that feminist politics has resisted the state-religious order in the past.”

Both the offline and online visibility of these placards serve as a form of feminist memory, and mark a visible moment in feminist history after the symbolic dupatta burning protests that took place in Zia’s time. The backlash against feminism is nothing new; therefore, the past becomes an important tool for galvanizing women and non-binary people to ground their activism and learn from what has or has not been done before. 

What made feminist politics of the last generation radical was its opposition to the state and while there are valid critiques to be had for the partial NGO-isation, there is no denying that feminist politics has resisted the state-religious order in the past.

Shmyla Khan

Tooba adds, “With the recent developments in the feminist movement and politics in the country, I think what it has done for us is open up a space where generations of feminists can come together and learn from each other. There is still a long way to go. Bridges will have to be made to work together for the emancipation of women and people of all genders.” Tooba laments the lack of a second generation of leadership after the women’s movement of the 1980s: “One of the reasons why there is such a gap between feminists themselves.” She also believes it is important for feminists to work together with the left cause, as what threatens women the most is the threat of right-wing fascism. 

“In a country like Pakistan, a strong political movement encompassing and addressing all forms of oppression including class, gender, caste, religion and ethnicity is the only way to go forward. With the older feminists focusing on state and younger feminists shifting the narrative towards the home, I think we have together theorised patriarchy in Pakistan through our varying and evolving positions over time.” Hence, according to Tooba, feminist alliances between different organisations is the only way to bridge the gap: “There is a lot that the older generations have to transfer to us in terms of organising and strategy.”

Zainab senses a willingness to bridge the gap on both sides during the conversations she took part in for her research, and actually sees this being manifested through initiatives such as the #IAmAMarcher campaign. “The initiative was a result of the collaboration between older and younger feminist activists in response to the Aurat March backlash, and attempted to use online expressions of support through that hashtag as a basis for advocacy in national level, public and political spaces.”

Imaginations of a Feminist Future

It would be useful to repeat that it is equally important to look into questions of access and the archive. Digital media has undoubtedly paved the way for new leadership, and perhaps even a more democratized feminist movement. However, there is the dilemma of performative activism, and the more pressing question of whether online activism really contributes to feminist militancy in a meaningful manner. How do we keep looking for poignant moments of recollection and connection in archives that transcend a digital memory of feminism, and move beyond conventional scripts to inform the memory of future generations?

Let us not forget that the feminists of today stand on the shoulders and the labor of previous generations

I feel that moments such as the #MeToo movement are a good example of how feminists are creating an online culture of support and healing through creative interventions. However, due to a difference in historical conditions, and the fact that that feminists of yesteryear and today do not share the same media culture, the narratives that the movement broadly covers are questioned repeatedly for impeding the causes the movement champions. As Zainab mentions, “From my conversations with older feminists, it seems that they are not entirely dismissive of social media, which is the popular perception amongst the younger activist circles; they do see its potential and would like it to be used constructively, but they are particularly apprehensive about ‘callout culture’, public infighting amongst activists, and trolling of feminists which in their opinion may diffuse what the bigger picture or goal to be achieved may be.”

Rewriting history has been a major tenet of feminist politics as it propels us to delineate how the past can inform the present. Creating tidy, uncomplicated blocks in terms of a ‘past’ and ‘present’ does not adequately portray history as a continuum, as both the past and present seep into each other, and also complicate each other. Together, they not only help us combine wisdoms but also ensure that feminist scholarship transcends generational issues to pave new possibilities for a feminist future. This allows us to puncture essentialist and unquestioned assumptions about our collective history, and reject its male, heteronormative bias. Let us not forget that the feminists of today stand on the shoulders and the labor of previous generations. We must carry on raising our voices and adding to Pakistan’s feminist archives: a site of infinite promise.

Written by

Zoya Rehman is a feminist researcher and organizer based in Islamabad, Pakistan. She has been working on gender and legal issues from a multidisciplinary approach through her practice and research. She was previously working at Digital Rights Foundation, and has clerked at the Supreme Court of Pakistan. She is also a part of numerous urban feminist collectives in Pakistan. Zoya is a recipient of the Chevening Scholarship Award, and is currently pursuing an MA in Gender Studies and Law at SOAS, University of London.

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