Archive for April, 2018

The co-opting of social justice issues by capitalist actors is nothing new; from body positivity in Dove ads, to female empowerment ads by large multi-national corporations, from Jennifer Lawrence to Wonder Woman, we’re painfully familiar with how our emotions and our lives are exploited for capitalist profit. But when I saw Sanam Saeed talking about how she doesn’t agree with bra-burning or unshaved underarms, I wondered if this was a case of yet another celebrity co-opting feminism to market her film, or just the story of an extremely privileged woman, utterly divorced of women’s realities in her own country and who once claimed that feminism was overrated, and yet was strangely aware of the need for better representation of women in the media and had begun to identify herself as a feminist. As fallacious as her claims about feminism and equality were, I still felt that she and Aamina Sheikh meant it when they said their characters in Cake were feminist, which was why I decided to watch the movie and see for myself.

I didn’t love the movie, but I didn’t hate it either. I liked some parts, I hated some parts, I was incredulous at some parts at the sheer privilege dripping off the screen. I don’t believe in romance but I’m a sucker for it anyway, so Romeo quietly sitting and reading with Zareen immediately won me over. But possibly by sheer accident, there were some things the movie gets right.

The script was stunted and awkward in parts; a friend pointed out that it sounded like it was written in English and then translated to Urdu, and the English sub-titles actually read better than the spoken dialogue. It also seemed like whoever wrote the script had a vague idea of what a relationship between two sisters is like. Despite the awkwardness though, the chemistry between Zareen and Zara isn’t that bad. You can easily see Zara in real-life younger sisters, the child constantly trying to be affectionate but pettishly irritated by the older sister’s dismissive attitude, or trying to pretend like they aren’t spoiled because the elder siblings resent them for it. You can see the older daughter left behind at home in Zareen, burdened with so much care-work and emotional labour, proud of herself for maintaining the responsibility her siblings cannot, but hating them for not sharing her burden. What I particularly loved is how the brother is absent even when he is there, or how Zareen and Zara gang up on him; the sibling rivalry and camaraderie was pretty well-done despite the hiccups in dialogue.

The mother’s role however, is hardly feminist; she’s reduced to a wife deeply in love with her husband. Oh, and she loves wigs and music, but the wig might just be a fetish for her husband, and not something she herself enjoys. The woman spends half of the movie in a coma, and the other half demonstrating affection for her husband. Somebody call the writers and tell them 2018 called, since they’re clearly stuck in the past. It’s surprising that you have two strong, fierce, angry women who’ll brook no nonsense from anyone, and yet see no reflection of this in their mother. Women like Zareen and Zara don’t just spring up out of thin air, but you never see that same ferocity or independence in their mother. This is particularly disappointing as the one scene where she isn’t utterly devoted to her husband, is a scene where she tells him that a mysterious decision he made in the past was wrong. This made me wonder how many other times she’s quietly disagreed with her husband, and how much their relationship dynamics would change in such an interaction.

I highly doubt the writers, or anyone on the film crew, knows the concept of female rage in feminism. That’s a terribly condescending statement, but female rage is a concept which isn’t very mainstream unless you’re part of online feminist discourses where the subject might come up. But why would it be mainstream? After all, it serves to overturn the status quo, and mainstream feminism, liberal feminism, choice feminism, all spout slogans of empowerment and produce feel-good ads without actually challenging structural oppression like the capitalist patriarchy.

To break it down, the concept of female rage is this; women are taught to be soft and gentle, sweet and compassionate, but never angry. It’s a negative emotion for us, so we’re told us to keep our voices low, our words gentle and non-provocative. On the other hand, boys aren’t discouraged from being loud and rowdy, and men are expected to be angry. If my driver yells at someone who’s crashed into our car, he’s being a man, but if I yell at the person myself, I’m told to “please be quiet and go back to your car,” and then ignored in favour of shouting at my driver. That isn’t hypothetical, it’s an actual situation, one I’ve been through countless times.

You see the critique of female anger in stereotypes of the angry feminist, who is caricatured as being angry and confrontational for no apparent reason. We’re afraid to own that anger because we’re trying to be good feminists who are calm, and reasonable, and gentle, like a woman must be. I remember hearing men criticise Asma Jahangir, and their major contention with her was that she was “rude” because she shouted a lot; in comparison, my mother greatly admired her for never being afraid to speak up.

But then again, my mother, like many women, is familiar with the frustration of suppressing your anger at a shitty lot in life, and turning it into calm understanding and life lessons about a world where the odds are rarely in our favour.

So it was a refreshing surprise to see the glimmerings of female rage in Zareen; “oh look, here comes the fancy financial professional,” she sneers at her sister, the sister who got to follow her dreams while Zareen is supervising a household. Zara doesn’t understand why Zareen is constantly snapping at her but how could she? She got to have everything, while Zareen was left to sacrifice her dreams and shoulder responsibility. When Zara tries to help her sister change a tire, Zareen isn’t just refusing her help because she can do it herself, she’s refusing help because she’s angry at her sister for being absent for years, for being absent for many other flat tires which she had to fix on her own. My favorite part is when her father calls her bitter, and she reacts with anger and disbelief, or when she vents to her siblings, telling them that they both got to follow their dreams while she was left to be squashed by family responsibilities. Zareen is absolutely furious, and she keeps it hidden underneath years of “good breeding” so it makes sense that she reaches her tipping point when her siblings come traipsing home to be utterly useless, as always.

The film was touted for looking at ageing parents, but I had little sympathy for the father. The sweet doddering old fool routine didn’t fool this feminist; this is a cunning man who manipulated many people, including a poor Christian boy (more on that in a bit) as well as own daughter; in fact, he is the reason there is a wall between Zara and Zarene in the first place. I’ve seen it in my family, in other families, even in the field research that my organisation conducts; sisters are frequently each other’s greatest allies especially in their homes. But this man pressures his daughter to keep secrets from her little sister, to lie to her about her boyfriend, and who would know better than Zareen how hurt Zara was that her boyfriend didn’t wait for her to come home? So it is absolutely audacious for him to play the part of a sad, wronged, abandoned father who is perplexed by his daughter’s anger and says, “This daughter of mine, who carries so much bitterness inside her” and Zareen’s disbelief is completely warranted; as she reminds her father a few minutes later, she did everything he asked of her.

Before I dive into the Romeo storyline, I’ll pause for a moment to talk about feminism. I was derisive about choice and liberal feminism earlier, and here’s why; liberal feminism focuses on “creating equal opportunities” for women, without reckoning with the patriarchal institutions and structures in which those opportunities are being created. For example, a liberal feminist would say, 50% of medical school seats should be for girls, but the same liberal feminist would sorrow over med school graduates getting married and not practicing medicine, without doing anything to change to mindsets or the practical hurdles which prevent women from practicing medicine. Choice feminism will bullshit about a woman’s right to choice, and deem those choices beyond questioning which inherently goes against feminism’s basic tenets; to question our choices and decisions through a critical feminist lens. Liberal feminism and choice feminism are thus not intersectional; giving a 50% quota in med school is fantastic, but when the Christian community is deprived of equal opportunities in education, when social attitudes towards the minority community are discriminatory, how can they possibly have equal access to opportunity? That’s where the intersectional approach comes in; to look at women’s issues as connected with various oppressive institutions. This means that many issues which may seem disconnected from women are in fact, women’s issues- climate change is a women’s issue, migration is a women’s issue, class politics is a women’s issue because the way women’s lives are impacted by inequality and injustice goes far beyond “lacking empowerment.”  If feminism is the pursuit of equality, it is equality for all, not just women, not just heterosexual women, not just women born with a vagina, but all people.

And that is why the treatment of Romeo, and Zara’s accident, is flawed and anti-feminist. Minority rights are a feminist issue, and the politics of power between a poor Christian boy, and a wealthy landed Muslim family are treated with a clear privileged gaze; Romeo’s father served the family for years, therefore, Romeo, out of gratitude for his father’s employment, and having spent his life around the family, feels that they are his family too.

Family doesn’t throw you under the bus, or in Romeo’s case, lets you take the fall for someone else and rot in jail for four years. Not functional families, at least.

A rich girl runs over a poor boy on her family’s lands and kills him. Her family ships her off to London (how damned convenient) and tries to pay hush money to the child’s family in the form of Diyat. The family refuses and demands justice (as well they should!) so Romeo takes the blame for Zara, the poor little rich girl who simply must not know that she’s murdered a child, and he goes to jail. When Zara asks him why, he tells her that her family is like family to him. Her father tells her that Romeo himself volunteered to go to jail.

How convenient for an elite land-owning Muslim man to have a Christian servant whose son feels indebted to him, and will thus internalise that debt into a sense of escalated servitude to the family. Not once are the power dynamics challenged in this film; not once does anyone tell the doddering old fool, “Baba how could you let Romeo go to jail? He’s a minority, he’s poor, of course he feels like he owes us a debt because we provided his father with gainful employment! He’s not making a choice for us, he feels obligated to serve us in any way possible!”

Romeo’s lack of privilege is also treated poorly; Zareen teases him for having holey socks, and when he brushes it off with a joke about living life fully by feeling the breeze on his toes, we see Zareen cutting holes in her socks as well. It’s not cute or romantic, it’s repulsive; Zareen is a princess living inside a bubble of wealth and privilege, why else would she actually comment on someone having holes in their socks? Especially when she knows that someone lacks her wealth and prestige? The only time when she’s called out on her class privilege is when Romeo tells her she’s ashamed of their relationship, but we never see her own up to her own class bias.

Speaking of socio-economic class privilege, I can’t be the only one bored of seeing a rich family wail on about how their lives have been impacted by a spoiled princess murdering a poor child. We do see Zara going to the family to make amends towards the end; it’s a bit of a saving grace for a movie which otherwise focused on the wealthy and powerful family, whereas the people most affected were completely absently from the narrative. But even that saving grace fails to salvage the film from being utterly elitist; I’m disinterested in rich girls throwing eggs at judgmental aunties, and far more interested in seeing how those with privilege impact the working class.

Cake isn’t a feminist film. It has elements of feminism in it, sure, but I refuse to call it feminist for its flawed power dynamics and mistreatment of minority characters. And let me be absolutely clear, it isn’t feminist to smoke cigarettes or go out at night. Choice feminism would say it’s feminist because you’re exercising your right to choose to smoke, but choice feminism is utterly idiotic and useless. If you’re so empowered, smoke in front of your parents, wear sleeveless in front of your parents, hold hands with a boy in front of your parents, otherwise, don’t call it feminism or empowerment. And aren’t there better ways to be empowered? More fruitful ways even?

Back in 2015 when I was attending the Sangat course, Kamla Bhasin talked to us about internalised misogyny. I had an enlightening discussion afterwards with her, when I told her that I wore certain outfits because it made me feel powerful to wear something which I knew I wasn’t allowed to do. Kamla Di pointed out that I could wear a plunging neckline if I wanted to, I had the right to do so, but if I were to call it a feminist choice because I can be sexy, that’s flawed because I’m pandering to the same sexist objectification of women’s bodies which as a feminist, I stand against. Why don’t you learn to drive and go places on your own? Isn’t that feminist and empowering too? She asked me.

Climate change and ending pollution is a women’s issue as well, so I see nothing empowering about smoking, in secret or otherwise, when there are studies showing that smoking contributes more to air pollution than cars do. Smoke that damned cigarette but don’t call it feminism or empowerment. Call it choice but don’t call it a feminist choice, because that’s not what it is.

As far as Aamina Sheikh and Sanam Saeed’s misconceptions about feminism are concerned, I already tweeted Sanam Saeed about it. I hope she listens, because I have no interest in bullying or mocking anyone, it’s completely counter-productive. I would rather help people learn and understand. After all, the biggest complaint women my age have against senior feminists is that they don’t listen to us, trivialise our experiences and knowledge, behave like a sorority, and aren’t willing to actually teach us. We can’t repeat that same behaviour with others, not if we want to work towards sustainable change.

I know it is frustrating to see women co-opting a movement for justice and equality, and trivialising it to stereotypes which have no basis in actual facts, but I would much rather try to talk to them and include them in feminist discussions, than to vilify them. Because what if they aren’t actually using the feminism card to market their film and actually do want to do more to change women’s lives? Should we really lose two allies, even if they’re incredibly privileged and hideously, grossly misinformed to the point that we’re resisting the urge to tear out our hair in frustration over that utterly ridiculous HSY interview? Whether our numbers are few or many, it would be a failure on our part to alienate someone who wants to be part of the movement.