Khadija Siddiqi, law student, was stabbed 23 times last year by her classmate while picking up her younger sister from school. Despite a seemingly clear-cut case of attempted murder and solid evidence backing it up, Siddiqi still faced a difficult time in court on account of the attacker being the son of a lawyer, and also faced austere character assassination. Her parents were often threatened with defamation into dropping the lawsuit and there were insinuations that she must have somehow brought this upon herself.
Siddiqi was invited to relate her experience by FemSoc, the Feminist Society at LUMS.
Siddiqi is undoubtedly a survivor. She not only recovered from injuries that could have easily been fatal, but also pursued a case against her attacker when many others in her place might have chosen to back out. The title of this event came straight from a phrase said by Siddiqi in an interview that appeared in Dawn: “My message to the women of our nation is: Break the shackles and make your voice heard! Zanjeer torr! Machao shor! Because only this can help us smash the patriarchy!” Given her own quotes, which have always utilized feminist terminology, it could be said that the audience was blameless in expecting a similarly feminist stance.
Ms Siddiqi started off by describing her attack vividly. She engaged us with the way she was able to convey the horror of the incident and the despair she felt during the trauma, going on to comment about the lack of empathy of society in general while expressing how grateful she felt for being able to survive.
In response to the talk’s moderator, Nida Kirmani’s question about how gender inequality interplays with her personal struggle, Siddiqi responded with an evident distaste for feminism when she tried to suggest that the attack on her didn’t really have anything to do with gender – a claim that received a collective gasp from the audience present – even though earlier she stated repeatedly that the hurdles and insulting questions she faced in court had everything to do with her being a woman.
Siddiqi went on to clarify that she perceived feminism to be about women trying to dominate men rather than about equality, a misunderstanding that members of the audience were quick to rectify. Yet again we ask ourselves: why is feminism so taboo that upholding its ideals is praised but the label itself is shunned?
Even though it’s highly recommended that one does, you don’t really have to delve into the complexities of feminism to acknowledge the systematic inequality of genders; all you need to do is look around. The dire need for feminism is apparent in the percentage of female illiteracy, in early marriages and high birth rates, in gendered toys, in the perpetual self-doubt that you’re not as smart as your male peers, in the hostility that pits girls against each other and in the sense of exclusion faced by the trans community of our society. It’s everywhere, it’s inescapable, and it’s nauseating.
“I used to mock activism before but these NGOs were the ones who reached out to me.” Siddiqi admitted frankly. To the audience, it was apparent that despite calling herself an advocate of women rights and being fully involved in activism herself now, Siddiqi was still oblivious to the varying experiences of women and the dire need for constitutional changes. She demands accountability yet fails to acknowledge the systematic changes needed in order to achieve it. She raises herself to a position in which she can influence younger girls yet fails to acknowledge that the attack on her and subsequent character assassination is a feminist issue. She advocates a radical notion of feminist struggle yet remains unaware of the struggles of women at a macro-level. No one gets to make claims of representing women if their personal views contradict the clichéd rhetoric they speak publicly about.
Ms. Siddiqi came to speak at this event fully aware of the fact that it was being promoted as a talk on feminist struggles, yet she neglected to mention her disassociation with, and obvious distaste for, feminist ideas prior to accepting the invitation.
This leads us to another predicament: the rhetoric of motivational speakers. Just because Person A had the financial and social means to participate in a struggle against the system doesn’t mean everyone else does as well. We can all stand up and applaud for what Person A has accomplished, however, if the person in question attempts to generalize a struggle that comes from a place of privilege while refusing to acknowledge the failure of the institutions at play, that becomes extremely problematic. Motivational speakers also tend to generalize their experiences and a prime example of this is apparent in Khadija’s emphasis on ‘trusting parents’ and attempting to persuade us to prioritize them over our friends when in reality, that might not always be the case. Too many parents in this country are the biggest sources of terror in their daughters’ lives, exemplified by the multiple honor killings in Lahore this year alone. She continually failed to take into account the experiences of other women, going so far as to insist that her experience was applicable to everyone.
When we speak of privilege, it is important to recognize its relativity. Here, the reference being made to Siddiqi’s privilege is in accordance to the position she has elevated herself to by claiming to represent the women of Pakistan. Her privilege is apparent in the unswerving support of her parents which she emphasized several times during the talk, in her financial ability to pursue this case and in the way she was able to market her cause to the public in a manner that few can effectively accomplish. However, what Ms. Siddiqi doesn’t seem to realize is that her rhetorical slogan “Zanjeer Torr, Shor Machao” excludes women who don’t have the financial and social capital to undertake this struggle since she provides no coherent solution to their problems other than a weightless: “You just need to get out there and do it.” It is not the existence of her privilege that needs to be held against Siddiqi; it is the lack of acknowledgment of the advantages available to her which creates room for possible abuse of her privileged position.
Having said all this, it is only natural for us to question the adherence of activists who advocate for ideas that they themselves contradict and assume the role of representing marginalized groups, something they might not be qualified to do. Reiterating the same phrases and the same meaningless rhetoric with little understanding of the strong underlying implications can be extremely detrimental for the progress of evolving ground realities. Khadija Siddiqi’s struggle can most certainly be celebrated as an isolated case of a woman’s courage conquering the day but attempts at connecting it to the larger scope of social issues will be counter-productive without the presence of strong sensitivity to the wider themes at play in the real world.
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