An American Feminist Visits Islamabad

imageI never thought I would screen my film Feminist: Stories from Women’s Liberation in Islamabad, Pakistan. Before visiting Pakistan I thought of Pakistani women as all the same – veiled and oppressed. Screening my film in Islamabad changed my opinion.

My documentary covers significant events in the U.S. feminist movement from the years 1963 through 1970. Upon finishing the film my ideas about feminism had shifted. Whereas I initially viewed feminism as a part of partisan politics, I grew to see it more broadly – in relation to the equality between men and women socially, economically, and politically.

During the final edit of the film I showed clips of it to universities. People from the International Islamic University in Islamabad (or IIUI) heard about these presentations and asked me if I would show clips to them on Skype. Without really thinking too much about where Pakistan was on the globe I accepted the invitation. They liked it so much they invited me to Pakistan to screen the finished film. 

Now I decided to actually locate Pakistan on the map. Wow. It’s right next to Afghanistan. Osama bin Laden was found just north of Islamabad. A recent Gallup poll showed that 96% of Pakistani people disapproved of U.S. leadership. I felt like I was visiting a country that could be dangerous for me. I was nervous, but knew that I wanted to meet these women in person. I landed in the middle of the night at the Benazir Bhutto Airport, named for their first female Prime Minister.

I woke up early to the prayers broadcast from the mosque. Kushboo Ali, a research fellow at the Iqbal International Institute for Research and Dialogue arrived to take me to the university. There was a heavy police presence.

The approach to the female campus at IIUI, as it’s gender separated, was filled with women in colorful clothes and also women who formally greeted me at the door. Some wore headscarves and some didn’t.

I was shocked to see the women in the audience. They were dressed conservatively – their arms and legs were almost completely covered up. However, the colors of their garments were bright – orange, blue, yellow, and green. We screened the film.

During the screening I felt a little nervous at certain parts, such as with the mentions of “sex” in the section that deals with Consciousness Raising (which was a collective of small groups of women in the women’s liberation movement who met privately to talk about their commonalities and differences). But, it went very well. After the screening they asked me what the American women’s movement is like today. I told them that some people think it’s dormant. This got many nods in the audience.

They asked me about the sexist images of women in Western media. I let them know that there are many people working to fix this problem. We laughed about the cable news panels and how they always place the female panelists on the ends of the table so we can see their long legs in their short skirts.

Later at a roundtable discussion, a teacher named Rubia Akram spoke about the 60 seats in the Pakistan National Assembly and the 17 seats in the Senate that are reserved for women. “These women, even their presence in the parliament, is actually a motivation for so many women in Pakistan,” she said. Kushboo added, “The presence definitely makes a difference.”

The discussion was a verbal and intellectual flow between marriage, parents, property rights, imams, and feminism. I saw their commitment to religion and feminism as being connected. This reinforced my new feelings that feminism is a school of thought that doesn’t live in partisan politics.

I now see that Pakistan is additionally made up of different sociopolitical regions. For example, in Islamabad a woman may be discussing feminism, but in Balochistan (the largest province in Pakistan), a woman may not be able to read and might rarely leave her home.

These women I met in Islamabad would probably be considered conservative in many ways from our point of view. I might disagree with them on things that I have thought are integral to feminism. But, I would not deny them their identification with feminism because they believed differently than I did. A person’s feminism cannot be separated from their cultural background.

Bringing this closer to my home in the United States, I see that we also have people of different cultural backgrounds in how they view feminism. If let’s say a religious and possibly conservative woman is disparaged for calling herself a feminist then feminism stops being a movement and becomes a club. Feminism requires open-mindedness.

These women found the U.S. women’s liberation movement “inspiring.” I had my consciousness raised in Islamabad. I see that feminism provides common ground for women of different backgrounds and cultures to discuss and listen. It isn’t a narrow path – it’s a wide road that can accommodate all women.

Jennifer Lee is a filmmaker. She speaks publicly about girls and leadership. Her film Feminist: Stories from Women’s Liberation is about the feminists of the women’s liberation movement from 1963-1970. It is screening nationally. She is based in Los Angeles.

Image courtesy of the author

  • KD Cooper

    Excellent article and fantastic insights. As someone who feels that the feminist movement has been hijacked time and again by various self-serving “clubs”, I find it refreshing to read that someone else feels that a ‘covered’ Pakistani woman can also be considered a Feminist. Well done.

  • Heather Booth

    What a wonderful project and wonderful film.
    The history is so important and you pass it on.
    Not just to learn about history–but to help modern women make it!!

  • Sheila Luecht

    “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

    ― Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad/Roughing It

    This piece made me think of this quote. I want women all over the world to vision their role in their world as equal to men, that they have a voice, an opportunity, a significant and irreplaceable contribution to make to their countries and the role of women worldwide.

    Stepping out of her comfort zone as Jennifer Lee did to share her film made a difference. It opens the window from a crack to a significant expanse, it lets in the air of change.

    • Sheila, I’m so lucky to know a great feminist like Jennifer, even if only online. It’s The Broad Side’s good fortune that other outlets weren’t as interested as they should have been in publishing this. That is their bad luck, as I truly believe there are many women who will be interested in this and, hopefully, be inspired by it!

  • Munazza yaqoob

    Dear Jennifer, thanks for accepting our invitation and visiting us. This really gave us an opportunity to make our real voices heard in the west where orientalist and Neo-orientalist discourses have constructed our stereotypes. Your article and comments speak of our success story. Our feminism is grounded in our culture and this very road of feminism we have chosen will make a difference because as I see the signs are positive. And surely your film is inspiring!

  • Martha Teitelbaum

    Great eye-opening article. It really cuts into the usual stereotypes.

  • ThiaL

    Great article! I would have loved to have been a fly in your suitcase on this trip.
    Very inspiring, and I agree feminism needs to be a wider road. I can’t wait to see this film.

  • Rubia Akram

    Thanks a lot dear Ms Lee for giving fair treatment to the subject. First of all I would like to congratulate you on the screening of this movie in different regions. We are proud that unlike our projection we are the first Asian country where this move has been screened. through this platform, I would like to send this message that during your visit we also discussed some how irresponsible attitude of media in creating and perpetuating primitive stereotype image of Asian and especially Muslim women and in turn,increasing misunderstanding among people of different nations. There is a need to do conscious raising of media industry as well.

  • That Jennifer did the film is inspiring on its own, but the dialogue that is opening up right this minute is profound. Three cheers for us all, may we make the world a better place for women and (in doing so) for every living thing in it.

  • This was absolutely fascinating! I’ve never thought about feminism in Pakistan. Thank you for an eye-opening read – and one that was surprisingly positive.

  • Anne Born

    Wonderfully refreshing take on what must have been an amazing trip.

  • Khushboo Ali

    Jennifer, it was indeed great honor for us to host you here in Pakistan. Your film was definitely an inspiration for many of us to do something of same kind. Feminism is everywhere same is the case with Pakistan. Thank you Jennifer for wonderful article!

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