A House Divided


The Inside Politics of Desi liberals

A few days ago, Pakistan’s online liberal community detonated into a mushroom cloud potentially visible from the international space station, with a spark originating from the bloc’s unlikeliest corner. One could not have missed the fireworks without a distinct apathy for social media discussions, or the misfortune of being trapped in a tiny garden shed without internet access, like in the movie ‘Room’.

The conservative furor against BNU students protesting period-shaming by covering a wall with clean sanitary pads, was disappointing enough. The coup de grace came from Shaan Taseer – a dependable and respected liberal ally in the fight against religious radicalism:

“Unbeknownst to these inbreds less than a per cent of Pakistani women use pads or speak English. This only highlights the class apartheid of a country that these bourgeois are on the top-end of.”

As far as some liberals are concerned, the only thing offensive about the statement is that it ends in a preposition. Feminist liberals, including me, were instantly reminded of the horrid paucity of allies and well-wishers even among the ‘dependable’ liberal bloc. What’s even the point of trash-talking right-wing misogyny, we thought. “Apne sikay hi khottay niklay!”

This, of course, was not the only objectionable remark by Shaan. The liberal community was immediately split into two parties. Shaan’s side quickly reaffirmed its support to the embattled activist; chiding the feminists for their oversensitivity and humorless, and even accusing them of conspiring against the liberal agenda. These accusations were often accompanied gendered curse words, including “witches”, “bitches” and “banshees” – resting comfortably on the assumption that only shrewd, spiteful, and cartoonishly villainous women would take offense at Mr. Taseer’s comments and Facebook statuses.

The entire conflagration was fueled by the irony of such vitriol coming from within our own ranks, rather than from the corners of the social media inhabited by the likes of Hamza Ali Abbassi and Junaid Jamshed.

I hesitate to dwell too much into this incident, because this is neither the first of its kind, nor is it anticipated to be the last. Much has already been said about the evolving debate in the social media, and I believe Madiha’s expertly-written blog leaves little to be added from the feminist/leftist angle.

This particular affair is the subject of my article, but it offers a good example of a broader problem we’ve long lamented.

‘Liberal’, the way the word is commonly used, is synonymous with ‘progressive’. It’s a foggy term used primarily in conjunction with secularism, cultural flexibility, and modern interpretation of religious ideals.

‘Liberals’ are not a homogenous group. We are an ideologically variegated species; often liberal in many ways, radically liberal in some, yet oddly traditional in others. We come in all shades; united over some basic, vaguely defined principles (“something something minority rights”), but deeply divided on other matters.

If the very essence of liberalism (read ‘progressivism’, in this case) is dissent against conventional wisdom, and the quality of evading groupthink, then it is inherently difficult for liberals to link up into one giant Voltron-esque machine, and become a political juggernaut the size of a religious right coalition. Liberalism rejects conformity by its very nature. Unlike leftism – whose unifying principles are far more clearly defined – a “liberal alliance” is more often than not, going to end up eating itself.

This is where intersectionality is vital. The Intersectional Theory suggests that various systems of discrimination and oppression are tied in with one another, and one cannot adequately combat one system without being on guard against the others.

Religious intolerance threatens the minority, and the patriarchy threatens the welfare of women. Surely, the religious minority also includes women? The non-intersectional liberal implicitly or explicitly demands a woman to put her ‘womanhood’ in a box, and focus on what’s “really” important – that is, the struggle against religious intolerance.

Who determines what’s “really” important? The very idea implies arrogance and entitlement; an assumption that the things I have seen and experienced, are the only things that may be factored into the process of making an objective list of priorities, applicable to all races, genders, creeds, castes, and classes. What’s not important to me, may be dismissed as being ‘petty’ and ‘insignificant’; and those incensed by these issues may be laughed off as ‘oversensitive’, or simply unintelligent.

Regrettably, we’re subservient to our own experiences, and we mistake our efforts on one liberal front, as evidence of our overall righteousness. For most casual liberals, an objective is only worth fighting for if it is serendipitously aligned with one’s own interests. Mullahism threatens the liberal lifestyles of rich men, as well the welfare of religious minorities. Lo, we have an alliance! C’est naturel! Meanwhile, period-shaming is not a real problem, because it is not a problem to us. Classist slurs are a petty issue, because class struggle does not concern us; unless, of course, elite men want to use leftist terminology to score points against allegedly elite women, and delegitimize their experiences in specific.

Perhaps in time we may all find the courage to listen, to complement our stamina to sermonize. Maybe we’ll find the will to acknowledge that there are more problems in the world, than those we have personally seen and experienced.