I 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