The ‘other’ side of women’s empowerment

    Aurat March in Pakistan was a rage. As women came out in big numbers and blasted the country’s patriarchal system with a loud and no bars held attitude, they were in turn lambasted predictably by men and sadly, by some women. The critics felt that women in Pakistan have become too liberal and are crossing the limits.

    Moving on with their fierce criticism, some suggested that women are using their newly found empowerment in a negative way and implied that this attitude proves the existence of an ‘other’ side of women’s empowerment.

    It’s not new in Pakistan to point fingers at women, whether on their dress code or their marital status, their social activities, or simply, for no reason at all. It is also almost a tradition to downplay all feminist movements: they didn’t even spare #Metoo! But to suggest that empowered women spread negativity, seems a curious idea.

    Intrigued, I tried to dig out the suppositions from which this belief stems and attempted to understand what may be this ‘other’ side to women’s empowerment.

    A detailed research paper titled Historical Background of Women Empowerment traces back the use of the term ‘Women Empowerment’ to the 1980s in the feminist and development literature related to women and poverty issues.

    The paper argues that “half of humanity – women, has been suffering from disability, discrimination, injustice, and inequality all over the world for many centuries……The notion of ‘biological difference’ is often used to justify discriminatory beliefs about women and men’s relative intelligence, emotional behaviour or suitability to certain jobs”.

    The refusal to accept such discriminatory beliefs supports the basic idea of gender equality, which says that a woman should not be denied a work opportunity just because she is a woman. If she possesses the required qualification, merit and experience, she should be given the opportunity.

    The struggle for equality by women is based on the belief that cerebral excellence is not a domain of man. With the right education, conducive environment, and encouraging policies, women have been known to excel in various fields and if not commonly, exceptionally even in fields requiring physical strength.

    Springing from this is the concept of gender parity. If a woman justifies a role as well as a man, why should she be paid less? If there is a choice in moving up the corporate ladder between a man and a woman, who both qualify equally, why should a man be given preference just because the other contestant was a woman?

    “Women Empowerment involves giving women back their ability to make decisions without being affected by patriarchal norms and prejudices, for example, the undervaluing of a woman to the point that she is less likely to get a promotion than her male colleagues,” says Zeina Toriq-Azad, a member of Pax Femina, an online coalition of feminist writers and activists.

    So when the movement aims to strengthen the status of women, is it possible that there is another side to it?

    “The term ‘other side’ implies negativity, but there is no negative to empowering women,” says Tehmina Khan, a Pakistani-Canadian author. “While, it might be true, that some women when empowered, use their power to hurt other women, it is also true that certain men do the same. So then should we strip power from everyone? Should we render all human beings helpless, in order to prevent some individuals from abusing power?” Khan questions.

    While surely, as Tehmina Khan puts forth, abuse of power by some can not justify limiting its use to certain individuals, there are others who, in extremity, believe that women use the concept of empowerment to actually overpower other men and women. Surprisingly, such beliefs have been propagated by women as well.

    In the 70s, The Manipulated Man, a book published in the United States became a best seller around the world. The author of this book, where it has been argued that “Men have been trained and conditioned by women, not unlike the way Pavlov conditioned his dogs, into becoming their slaves,” was not an ‘oppressed’ man but a woman, Esther Vilar. So biased and one-sided were her arguments generalising the entire female population of the world (which ironically, also included herself!) that she was termed “not only sexist, but fascist” by prominent feminists of the age.

    Such myths, where women are accused of manipulating and overpowering others through self-empowerment have been appropriately addressed in women’s literature. “So we can say that women moving to positions of power does not mean that they are going to abuse power; to ill-treat and exploit men. Women empowerment in reality is to empower themselves and not to overpower men,” explains the research paper quoted earlier.

    Some situations, however, are harder to explain.

    Perhaps, the strongest allegation against women is that they use their physical charms and appeals to achieve success. If a woman goes up the corporate ladder, in almost every case, few people would suggest the proverbial ‘casting couch’ as the facilitation. Although this can surely not be generalised, especially in the appalling way Vilar suggested nearly half a century ago, unfortunately the instances do take place. And these instances, maligning the movement of women’s empowerment pave way for strong criticism.

    What makes women use this path?

    “Precisely because the patriarchy doesn’t allow it any other way,” laments Sabahat Zakariya, a vlogger on feminist issues.

    “It is the system to blame. It is also because power is concentrated in male hands so women have to get to it by hook or by crook,” Zakariya gives a perspective.

    Still, many warn of a possibility where power could be misused by women when they fail to create a balance in their lives. “Have the women acquired substantial maturity to handle odds that they may have to face at their workplace?” ponders Safia Saeed, Member of Directive Staff of Lahore’s once famed Esena Foundation High School, now closed down.

    “Women empowered before attaining a certain level of maturity may get misled, because being overambitious and unmindful of their moral family values they may unknowingly compromise their dignity as a woman. There is every chance that with their personal empowerment, their priorities may change and that may lead to domestic conflicts,” Saeed explains.

    So are mishandling or abuse of power, unfair means to attain that power, and a possibility of jeopardising domestic life by some, enough evidences to prove an existence of the ‘other’ side? On the downside, we have women who take advantage of their feminine traits to rise up the corporate ladder. We have female professionals who in their ambition to succeed put behind their personal lives and a lot of questions about their responsibilities at home. We have women, who become corrupted with power and become an obstacle even for other women to move forward.

    But then, we have men who take advantage of their masculine traits to suppress and even exploit women on the sideline of careers. We have men, who undertake unfair means like bribes, terrorism, and nepotism to move up in corporate circles. We have men, who feel that their role in domestic life ends after providing for the means of their family. Has the world ever questioned the professionalism of man? Has society accused all men as preying female colleagues for sexual gratification? Has there ever been a debate apart from feminist groups that men overpower women in professional fields? Has there been a notion of an ‘other’ side to man’s success in workforce?

    The truth is, man does not like to be questioned, while a woman, since time immemorial, has been forced to give explanations. And where many women today agree to answer as well as question myths and realities, sadly, other women succumb to a warped societal system, believing that it will remain patriarchal and thus snatching power by any means is fair.

    For nearly a century, women have been demanding equal rights in terms of opportunities and remuneration, backing with intelligence, emotional capability and decision making skills, among others, which are no less than men. To stoop low by limiting power, accepting patriarchal values by pleasing men, and salvaging position by creating hurdles for others negates the very concept of empowerment for women. However, there is no ‘other’ side to it – whatever is claimed to be as that, is outside the domain of this movement.

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