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Do men really hate women?

Are men misogynists? The answer is not a simple ‘Yes’ or ‘No.’ Betty Friedan was perhaps the first feminist to call it “the problem that has no name.” But nail it she did in the end after deconstructing the lives of several housewives from around America who were unhappy despite being married with children and living in material comfort during the mid-20th century. Her research ballooned into a blockbuster called Feminine Mystique published in 1963.

Pregnant with her second child, Betty Friedan got fired from her job. Angry at how women always got the rough end of the stick, her book stirred the second wave of feminism that ripped wide open taboo subjects like sexuality, marriage, violence, domestic abuse, marital rape, discriminatory laws, sexual harassment at workplace and women’s reproductive rights. Billed as the most ‘sweeping social revolution’ in American history, Friedan’s feminist manifesto fired the first shot at American husbands and bosses whose mistaken belief of male superiority limited and sabotaged women’s full potential.

Male supremacy was no longer a given.

Over 20 years later, when the UN World Conference on Women in Nairobi rolled out in 1985, women activism, from a blip on the radar screen, had become a full-blown phenomenon.

Women’s lib entered Pakistan formally with the writings of major feminists like Betty Friedan, Germaine Greer and Gloria Steinem. Greer’s first book The Female Eunuch raked up enough controversy to become an international bestseller in 1970. Greer called on women to define their “own values, order their own priorities and determine their own fates”. This definition didn’t quite fit the emasculated women in Pakistan. We, instead, found more meaning in the Ms Magazine co-founded and edited by the icon of feminism, Gloria Steinem, who had risen to become the media spokeswoman for the women’s liberation movement. With her feminist writings, Steinem pierced the glass ceiling at Esquire and The New York Times Magazine which traditionally plied to the old boys’ network.

Equally groundbreaking was the radical change in offices of the Dawn Group of Newspapers in Pakistan. Employing a hefty female staff of 40 strong, rights issues moved centre stage under women editors, writers and reporters. Quickly, other media houses followed spawning narratives on gender concerns across the country despite black press laws enforced by the mullah-dominated military government.

In the murky landscape of public lashings for women accused of committing zina (adultery) if they failed to produce four eyewitnesses who watched them being raped, 17 staunchly strident women focused on confronting the military diktat on sequestering women stepped up to the plate and the Women’s Action Forum (WAF) was born. Those glorious years juxtaposed with turbulent times and aching frustrations capture the defiant mood while celebrating womanhood with feminist music, workshops, writings and art.

President Zia’s last nail in the coffin was the ambush of the UN Women’s Conference in July 1985. On its eve, he sneaked in the Hudood Ordinance stripping women of equal rights before the law and sending them back to medieval times. In the wake of this discriminatory law, the job to defend Pakistan at the conference by the Pakistani official delegation was like a deformed joke. It was led by Begum Zari Sarfraz, chairperson of Commission on the Status of Women, the body that had earlier produced a damning report on the pathetic status of our women. Naturally, it ended up in Zia’s freezer. When repeatedly grilled by the international media to comment on women’s subjugation back home, our women delegates, handpicked by Zia, were stone-faced and silent.

A different environment pervaded the parallel but rambunctious event organised by the NGO Forum. Pakistani activists unreservedly vented anger, resentment and a sense of betrayal by their government. The loudest voice was of the feminist poet Kishwar Naheed. She had translated Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique in Urdu.

Sisters in sympathy with our official delegation were the skittish APWA ladies present at the NGO Forum. They barely uttered a word against Zia. However, floating around the international forum was a newspaper interview of Begum Raana Liaquat Ali, by the renowned Sunday Times, London, correspondent Mary Anne in which the APWA founder was quoted as fuming against the Hudood Ordinance, “Soon President Zia will have us walking on the other side of the pavement.”

Midst the milling crowd of feminists at the conference was film star Smita Patel. Her one sentence has resonated all of the 28 years: “I am a multi-faceted woman,” she said to me in an interview. Refusing to be pigeonholed as a leading heroine of Bollywood, Smita acted in parallel cinema that confronted sensitive issues of a woman’s sexuality and domestic violence.

Nairobi hosted noted feminists like Bella Abzug, the American lawyer, nicknamed ‘Battling Bella;’ Margaret Trudeau, outspoken wife of Canadian prime minister and Sally Mugabe, wife of Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe, who kindled the conference with her pungent quips. The highpoint, for me, was meeting Betty Friedan.

We talked, we chatted, we laughed and we exchanged views on how women had come a long way since she rallied for gender equality. Do men hate women, I asked her? “No. Read my book The Second Stage and you will get the answer you seek.”

Eleven days later, weary but excited, we returned, lugging back a wordy tome called Forward-looking Strategies for the Advancement of Women unanimously adopted by the 193 member countries. Thumbing through pages and pages of sleep-inducing UN jargon is a feat few of us have attempted revisiting, leave alone question the fact that though 187 member state signatories, including Pakistan, have ratified the UN Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), women today are not equal.

America leads the ‘Misogynists Club of Seven’ that won’t sign the CEDAW. The other six ‘women haters’ are: Tonga, Palau, Iran, Somalia, South Sudan and Sudan.

No surprise then, Betty Friedan, a divorced mother of three, was once famously asked if she’d marry again. “That’s the one unfinished part,” she answered, “to have a relationship with a man that will work.” Doesn’t this say it all? The concept of ‘equality between the sexes’ is obsolete like its big sister: the word ‘feminist
By Anjum Niaz.

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