Gender disparity has dogged Pakistan since it gained independence in 1947. It has been ranked the second worst in the World Economic Forum’s 2017 gender equality list for the third successive year.
But the swift growth of digital media in the country has prompted many progressive female voices to challenge the entrenched patriarchal system.
However, the digital world is also dominated by men and there is a visible gender inequality there. Over the past year, Pakistan contributed 35 million new accounts to Facebook with more than three-quarters of those users being male.
The Pakistani women fighting this male domination on social media comprise digital journalists, social media activists, bloggers, vloggers, filmmakers and entrepreneurs.
Earlier this year, the film Motorcycle Girl was released and enjoyed considerable success at the box office. The film is a biopic of motorcyclist Zenith Irfan. She rose to fame in 2015 after becoming the first female biker to travel solo across Pakistan – from Lahore to the Khunjerab Pass bordering China.
Social media to the rescue
Speaking to Asia Times, Irfan said she owed the spread of her story to her Facebook page and blog ‘Zenith Irfan: 1 Girl 2 Wheels’.
“I [was] writing to smash a patriarchal curtain. Social media gave me that freedom and space to communicate my thoughts as a woman in Pakistan. Today, people know me as the Motorcycle Girl of Pakistan and it’s because of a simple choice I made three years ago – that is to speak and let your voice be heard,” she said.
Irfan says the growth of other platforms like Instagram has also allowed women to share their stories online. She believes that being relatable on the web is the easiest way to put forward your story.
“Do not let anyone tell you that you can’t just because you are a woman. In fact, tell them you can, because you are powerful, courageous and have the ability to create another life,” she says.
Irfan’s story is among the growing sparks of hope among women in a country whose Human Rights Commission recently published a damning report on the state of women’s rights. Following the report, the house of its editor was raided.
In August this year, sisters Najda and Nudrrat Khawaja launched Pear Perfect, an online apparel and clothing store dedicated to plus-sized women. The idea was conceived when they were shopping for their sister-in-law and were told by a salesperson at a leading fashion outlet that they didn’t keep ‘unhealthy’ sizes.
“We wanted to create space for people who don’t conform to a particular body structure. There are a few outlets that offer plus-sized clothes, but their measurements aren’t much different to the usual large size. We wanted to come up with realistic measurements for plus size people,” Nudrrat Khawaja said.
Describing her venture as a feminist initiative that countered certain patriarchal notions about women and female beauty, Khawaja said Pear Perfect was more than just a business. A defining point of this venture was to counter fashion that exploits the vulnerability of women about their body image by creating standard ideals of beauty.
“There are many women coming forward and telling us that they’ve always wanted good quality, ready-to-wear clothes in their sizes. That’s the vacuum we wanted to fill. Besides the sales, the community building is very strong. [Hence] we haven’t had to go for advertising – the message is organically spreading and women are sharing their personal stories.”
Khawaja said that while the Facebook page has allowed women to connect and share ideas, there was also a backlash. “There are a few negative comments where people are targeting the model and accusing us of promoting obesity. We’re not promoting obesity, we’re promoting body positivity.”
Feminist initiatives facing a backlash is normal in a country where voices often challenge age-old norms. There was also disagreement among women about what truly constitutes a ‘feminist’ idea. Zenith Irfan, for instance, maintained she is ‘not a feminist.’
“If feminism means to hate others, protest violently, be irrational and loud, [then] I am not one,” she says. She also feels there are females ‘misinterpreting feminism.’
Feminist without the label
To address misconceptions about the term ‘feminism,’ in addition to educating those who attack feminist voices, journalist Sabahat Zakariya decided to launch her YouTube channel ‘Feminustani’ – the name merging feminism with the Urdu word for teacher, ustani.
Inspired by ‘Feminist Frequency‘, Zakariya says her channel tries to fulfill the lack of progressive voices catering to Pakistani women’s issues. “The English speaking and English reading audience can tap progressive voices from around the world. But there aren’t many people speaking [while] keeping the local context in mind, especially in Urdu,” she says.
While Zakariya aims to keep her content more localized and encourages more women to embrace feminist ideals, she maintains that labels shouldn’t be enforced. “Virginia Woolf said she’s not feminist, even though she’s prominently featured in gender studies courses. Hence, as long as [Zenith Irfan] is doing what she’s doing I consider her a feminist, and more importantly someone who’s challenging certain [patriarchal] notions. I don’t feel there’s any need to push the labels.”
Zakariya adds that unlike traditional media, there is more space to voice opinions on digital platforms since ‘there are no gatekeepers.’
“Whenever a channel is approached with such an idea, we are told nobody is going to watch it. There is a need to highlight those voices who don’t see themselves [represented] in TV dramas or morning shows, which is only possible on social media.”
Many female journalists point out that a lot of women’s issues are highlighted anonymously in the traditional print media. Zakariya feels that with a name and a face there is a completely different impact. “Hence the visual aspect of digital is very important, and would hopefully help create inspiration for others,” she says.