When asked to write on toxic masculinity, my first reaction was to laugh. I was raised in a proto-feminist family, which included one grandmother who became a card-carrying member of the British Communist Party at the age of 16, and later served as an assistant to VK Krishna Menon, the famed Indian politician and diplomat.
Both my mother and her older sister started working full time in the mid-1960s and eventually rose to the top of their chosen professions. Feminism, therefore, was a concept the males in our family learned from the day we were born—being grandsons, sons and husbands of strong-willed, independent women. Despite this, I have, I must admit, been accused of being sexist at times. Recently, the main accuser has been my 11-year-old daughter.
The reason I agreed to write about this was because of a placard at one of the several recent Aurat Marches held in major cities. The sign which caused such a stir, of course, is the now famous ‘Khana khud garam kar lo’ (heat your food yourself), alluding to a woman refusing to serve food to her husband. Judging by the reaction on social media, Pakistani men were, by turns, tickled, infuriated, flabbergasted and just plain incensed by the suggestion that a man was expected to do some things around the house for himself.
Before we go any further, perhaps it might help if we define our terms of engagement. While feminism can be defined in many different ways, one good definition is ‘a range of political movements and ideologies that share a common goal: to… establish political, social, economic and personal equality of the sexes’.
According to the Encyclopedia of Marxism, we should differentiate between socialist feminism in which women’s emancipation is a component of the emancipation of society as a whole and liberal feminism which seeks to end various forms of discrimination and radical feminism, which seeks to celebrate femininity and calls for a radical reordering of society to eliminate all forms of male supremacy.
Conversely, here is one definition of toxic masculinity: …toxic manifestations of traditional masculinity, for example, physical violence, that are associated with harm to society and to men themselves. Traditional stereotypes of men as socially dominant can be considered “toxic” due to their promotion of violence, including sexual assault and domestic violence.
A cursory glance at events like the Aurat Marches indicates that these activities are mainly led by middle class (or upper middle class) women and their goals appear to align with liberal feminism: an end to harassment in public places, jobs, legislation enshrining this and other similar goals in the constitution, laws against domestic violence, laws regarding divorce, child custody and support. None of this is meant to radically reorder society in economic or political terms although ending the patriarchal culture seems to be another goal. All social phenomena though, have social roots. Why is patriarchy entrenched in Pakistani culture? And most importantly, who benefits from the status quo?
Feminism is not a novel concept in Pakistan. In fact, the feminist activists of the 1960s and 1970s were much further advanced politically than the current crop of activists who have come of age in a time of complete political apathy. One of the leaders of the feminist movement of the 1970s and 1980s was the late great Asma Jahangir who was cognizant of the fact that feminist activism is essentially just posturing without being linked to the larger struggle of attaining social justice (for both men and women). This is one of the reasons she spent most of her life representing women from the poorest segments of society. She was a staunch feminist and fought for women’s causes all her life. Her struggle however, was linked organically to the larger struggle for the rights of workers and peasants, both male and female.
It would also be remiss not to point out the obvious: women activists were at the forefront of the struggle against the Zia dictatorship in the 1980s and their efforts culminated, eventually, in the inauguration of Pakistan’s first woman prime minister. Those who laud the struggle for women’s rights (in isolation from the larger social struggle to transform society) should ask themselves if the elevation of Benazir Bhutto to the prime minister’s house accomplished the emancipation of women in Pakistan in general? The answer is a resounding ‘no’.
Let us return to our earlier question. What are the social roots of the subjugation of women? In other words, who benefits? To find the answer, we need to examine the function women perform in a society where they have limited (or no) rights. Women’s domestic unpaid labour essentially serves to sustain and maintain the basic family unit. Cooking, cleaning and childcare are activities that rejuvenate the ‘workers’ in the family (her husband and other males) so they can eat, sleep and rest after work in order to recuperate and return to work the next day. At the same time, she is busy producing and nurturing the future workers of society. In both cases, her labour provides employers with crucial work which they do not have to pay for.
If women did not provide domestic labour, employers would have to do so, in the form of communal kitchens, hostels and laundries so their workers could sustain and rejuvenate themselves after work. This would require a financial outlay that would have to be taken out of their profits. In fact, after the October revolution of 1917 in tsarist Russia, in addition to passing a number of decrees in favour of women (easier divorce laws, decriminalizing abortion and making it easily available, equal pay for men and women), the new Soviet government instituted these measures to facilitate women: high-quality public kitchens and laundries, nurseries staffed with trained workers to care for young children, free schools and many other measures aimed specifically at women. This was only possible though, after the abolition of not just the monarchy but also by overturning a government which functioned in the name of large landowners, industrialists and their lackeys i.e. a socialist government.
To ask for women’s rights while standing apart from worker’s rights and peasants’ rights is to very quickly run up against the existing institutions of the state which function, not to support patriarchy as an abstract concept, but to strengthen very real profit interests which are entirely ‘gender-blind’. Even if women could miraculously be freed from domestic servitude by a decree, how would the addition of millions of additional women workers into a marketplace where unemployment is already rampant, help? It would, immediately, depress wages still further and pit workers against each other in a race to the bottom as employers grew even fatter off their profits.
So what is the way forward? There already exists a nascent progressive movement in Pakistan attempting to raise awareness about issues surrounding labour rights, peasant rights and the rights of minorities. Women are, on the whole, under-represented in this movement and issues related specifically to women should be included in their agenda. While the mainstream media is generally unsympathetic to causes of the Left, there exists enough room to at least begin the process of highlighting these issues. Aurat Marches are good starts but most women, especially those in Pakistan’s villages, are not concerned about reclaiming public spaces, an idea that can only resonate in larger cities. They are struggling with life-threatening issues: access to preventive care during pregnancy and care for their infants (a recent report documented that Pakistan has the world’s highest infant mortality rate), inadequate sanitation and limited access to clean, wholesome food and no access to adequate birth control resulting in repeated pregnancies that cause significant health problems; the list goes on and on. Many of these lead back to essential social issues: lack of access to education and employment, lack of resources to provide healthcare etc.
If women’s liberation is made a component of a struggle to transform all of society along more just and equitable lines, only then can it succeed in its mission.
But don’t take my word for it. A man far wiser than I put it much better over a hundred years ago: “Comrades, working women! The men comrades toil along with us. Their fate and ours are one. But they have long since found the only road to a better life—the road of organized labour’s struggle with capital, the road of struggle against all oppression, evil, and violence. Women workers, there is no other road for us. The interests of the working men and women are equal, are one. Only in a united struggle together with the men workers…shall we obtain our rights and win a better life.” (Vladimir Ilyich Lenin in 1907).
The writer is a psychiatrist practicing in Lahore. He taught and practiced Psychiatry in the United States for 16 years. He tweets @Ali_Madeeh