Why I am a Feminist – Bina Shah

As a child in Pakistan, I grew up observing the lives of the women in my father’s family. Members of a type of religious nobility who claim lineage from the Prophet Muhammed, they followed the traditions of the Prophet’s wives and segregated themselves from all men outside their own blood relatives – a system known in Pakistan as pardah or “curtain”. They wore burqas or chadors when travelling outside their houses, in cars with curtained or tinted windows. On the rare occasions they walked in the streets of the village the men were expected to turn their faces to the walls as they passed. They did not go to school and many of them were functionally illiterate. There was no question of school or jobs for them. Their sole function was to marry and produce children for their husbands, chosen for them from the many cousins in the family.

My father, academically brilliant and ahead of his time, didn’t agree with these traditions and he didn’t expect his own family to live the same way as his aunts had; my mother, a college graduate with a degree in psychology and a love of all things fashionable and modern, detested the harsh customs and made sure they had no place in our lives. In Karachi, the cosmopolitan port city where we lived, I went to an American school where I excelled in every subject; I read hundreds of books and played sports with children of all nationalities and both genders. My mother instilled in me the idea that not only would I receive the best education possible, but that I would learn to be independent so that I could support myself if I had to. My father went along with this, proud of his intelligent daughter but always fearful that his more conservative family members would disapprove of my upbringing.

But no matter how visionary or open-minded my parents were, they still had to make compromises for the restrictive environment in which we lived, and I was the victim of those compromises. When I went to , the seat of my father’s family in a rural part of Sindh two and a half hours’ drive from Karachi, I played and romped like the other children, running freely back and forth between the two sections of our family house, but as I grew older, I was not allowed to leave the walls of the “family” compound for the men’s section. My father no longer took me to his farm with him, as the “ladies” of the family were not permitted to be seen by the ordinary labourers who tilled the fields and kept the livestock.

As I approached adolescence, my clothing was restricted: I couldn’t wear anything but baggy shalwar kameezes, as my skirts and shorts were forbidden from me. Back in Karachi, I continued to excel in school but my social life was curtailed: I was not allowed to go to mixed parties or sleepovers; beach trips with friends were a no-no, and permission to go on school trips to other cities in South Asia were a hard-fought battle that I didn’t always win. Whenever I asked why I wasn’t allowed to do the things that I wanted, I was told “Because you are a girl.” And no amount of crying, pleading or begging could change that.

Thanks to my mother’s support and my father’s courage to break with tradition, I went to the United States to attend Wellesley College, a private liberal arts college in Massachusetts for women. I was the first women in my father’s family to go to university, let alone leave the country for an education. Officially I earned a degree in psychology like my mother, but I received an education of a different kind: I learned about women’s rights, the fight for justice and equality, and male privilege. When I came back to Pakistan, I had words for what had happened to me and what was happening to millions of Pakistani women every day: patriarchy, chauvinism, and misogyny. My eyes were opened and what was seen could never be unseen: I was aware and vigilant about a society that thought of women as inferior in every way to men. More than that: I was angry about the injustice, and determined to raise my voice against it as loudly as possible.

So I began to speak out, by writing about women’s issues. I wrote about the need for laws against domestic violence, the need to strengthen girls’ education, the need for economic independence for women, the need to reject hijab, burqa, chador and niqab as religious requirements. I wrote about the particular horrors enacted against girls and women in Pakistan: forced marriages, dowry, bride-burning, acid attacks. Today I’m an avowed feminist, thanks to my childhood experiences, my mother’s encouragement, and my academic education in the United States and my real-world education in Pakistan, where I’ve observed how religion, culture and society oppresses Pakistan women and I witness every day how women are fighting back against their oppressors. Feminism in Pakistan is a dirty word, a sign that you’re an atheist, a Western agent, a threat to the system. I’m neither an atheist nor a Western agent, but I’m proud to be a threat to this unfair and intolerant system and I’ll keep raising my voice against this system until it changes or I die, whichever comes first.


  1. Nigar Suleman says

    Love it!! Very engaging. Yes, we’ve all paid our dues and continue to do so. As long as we reject the notion that women are proprietary we’re in good shape.

  2. ekbal says

    How many feminists does it take to change a lightbulb?

    Don’t be stupid, feminists can’t change anything!

  3. Patrik says

    You almost make it sound like men are not also victims of religious requirements. They are equally forced to marry, dress codes, acid attacks, honorary murders etc. So, why feminism, replacing one religion with another? Aren’t men’s rights important? And not an atheist?

    • GP65 says

      Well clearly when you launched a tirade over what you wil not get over – you did not keep your ‘spiritual views’ very private did you? Or was it a failed attempt at appeasement?’ Cause I noticed a very diffeent ton e in an OpEd a week later.

    • Mobarak Haider says

      Our tragedy of ignorant pride as a people is dragging us to disaster. That tragedy is glaringly visible in remarks by Flower Child, Ekbal, Ponku the Magnificent, even Patrik. Any normal minded person will feel the appeal of Bina Shah’s very well worded, truthful and sensitive essay. The unfathomable arrogance of our Muslim male has made him a sick narcissist, even a paranoid. He uses religion as a double edged sword; he defends his male chauvinism with Sharia law and condemns his adversary with a Fatwa. You are called an atheist if you disagree or use human reason. I know these boys will be quick to loose temper over this remark of mine. But all of us who care for our people must keep warning them. They are proceeding to a head-on collision with the world. A paranoid narcissist is not afraid of the horrors of his sickness, but the countless millions of our innocent people have to be saved from the religious madness of these sleep walkers.

      • Flower Child says

        Mobarak, I don’t understand your post. In particular, how is seeking clarification on Bina’s religious views a “glaring” example of “ignorant pride?”

        Also, you state, “Our tragedy of ignorant pride as a people is dragging us to disaster.” Who do you mean by “our… people?”

      • Ponku the Magnificent (also known as General Pun-Ky-Shek) says

        Mubarak, Do not be so constipated, because
        1) You have no evidence to support your assumption that I am a Muslim male;
        2)You have no idea what I was talking about and who I could be;
        3) You have no idea what is B&L chat;
        4) You have no idea that Bina may have enough brain to decipher my cryptic message and figure our who I could be or what I saw saying!

        So, please stop being so constipated.

        So long, and thank you for all the fish.

  4. Nishant says

    The genesis is the patriarchal system.
    It at times forbids equal rights.
    But worst is the mental and at times the physical abuse.
    It scars.
    Manifestation is evident in the dietary discrimination,and the constant bow of the head (mental).
    Progress without inclusion of the building blocks will lead to a societal collapse, sooner or later.
    The Asians esp in the Sub continent if i may say so need to take a page out of each one’s book. You never know what might just work.
    Any nation cannot shine if equality remains shrouded.
    To hear voices is assuring that somewhere it matters…..

  5. G says

    I loved this. I specially love that you’ve written about how you couldn’t even socialize with friends or go abroad, because this is something which when girls make a fuss over, they’re told that they’re getting agitated over a small matter, “so what if I said you can’t go to a party, its not the end of the world” etc. Aside from the fact that lack of socialization with your peers can pretty much drive you insane, the fact remains that girls have their freedom of movement snatched from them under the name of traditions and cultures, and we’re just supposed to accept it. To say that it is wrong is us being too “Westernized” or “un-Islamic”.

  6. Mobarak Haider says

    Mr. Flower Child,
    thank you for asking. My explanation to your first question: I said so because religious views were not under discussion. To the second question: our people are those more than a billion Muslims who need human rights and all the fruits of modern science. Medieval concepts and prejudices are dragging them into a war with the world, which will bring them nothing. But forget them if you find my words meaningless for you.

    Mr. General Ki shek,
    I must say Jazakallah, mashaallah. Fine argument! I am sorry if my remark was constipated or stinking. It was not meant to be so personal and so obscene. I shall still say it is good for humans to grow. I also know that inflammable materials readily catch fire. But I still trust human intellect.
    Shall I praise you for your response as relaxed, reasonable and polite? Judge for yourself. My regards and blessings anyway.

    • Flower Child says

      My apologies Mobarak, I didn’t know you were in charge of the discussion. That being said, I still don’t understand your original post or your follow-up.

      In reference to “our… people,” according to you it is tragic that Muslims are ignorant and proud. How is that tragedy (i.e. the ignoarance and pride of Muslims) “glaringly visible” by my seeking clarification of Bina’s religious views?

  7. Jockaira says

    Bina Shah said:

    I’ll keep raising my voice against this system until it changes or I die, whichever comes first.

    I don’t suppose anyone has to tell you to be very careful…we would hate to lose such a splendidly intelligent example of womanhood too early in life.

    May you live long enough to see all your dreams come true!

  8. Mobarak Haider says

    You still don’t understand what I tried to say? In that case I must say ” my bad English”.
    My apologies. Let us go to more useful work.

    • Flower Child says

      Actually, I don’t think you understand what you were trying to say. If that is the result of bad English, then be humbled by your ignorance. That way you won’t come across as being so pretentious.

  9. Mobarak Haider says

    Dear Flower Child,
    I am humbled indeed. I write this to acknowledge that I have read your remark. Please feel free to write as many more dismissals as you like to alleviate your pain and desperation. I may not send more receipts. Nevertheless I feel a little more convinced that my first remark was not total ignorance. I call it a tragedy because the obviously brilliant people like you have chosen a commitment which makes them peevish and brittle, too sure of themselves to take any criticism, thus ever-ready to become ill-mannered and abusive. A common man like me can take insults because he does not grant himself holiness and knows he can be wrong. But if you choose to identify yourself with some sort of holiness, it gives you a pedestal and renders you easily insultable. While I write this I can imagine your rising temper but I hope your intelligent self can cool you. If you have time and can read Urdu, please read my book “Tahzeebi Nargasiyyat”. If you cannot read Urdu, read something on the subject of Pathological Narcissism. And feel free to hurl as many insults as you like.

  10. ali akbar says

    i read your essay, you have nicely expressed your feelings about the women facing problems in pakistan but you sholdn’t express your views about religion in such a harsh way. i hope your writings will bring a positive change soon.

  11. Rafait says

    Nice but seems copy cut, may be the Idea of writing this essay…… appolgies for any inconvinience………

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