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Cause celebre

Should we look to celebrities to define grassroots movements like feminism?

Cause celebre
Amina Sheikh and Sanam Saeed with HSY

“I don’t hate men. I am not out to get men,” said Sanam Saeed in a recent interview with BBC regarding her film Cake. She claimed she was a feminist as she believed in the equal rights of men and women, while she and Aamina Sheikh discussed the strong female characters in her latest film.

She then proceeded to add a rather slipshod disclaimer to this claim.

According to Saeed, “it’s when things become a fad and this whole man-hating, bra-burning, underarm hair-growing phenomenon takes over” was when she felt uncomfortable regarding her association with feminism.

Interestingly enough, she chose to clump together different, and rather disparate, symbols of feminist resistance — while disclaiming what she thought was a certain kind of feminism — without giving any context as to why she hated these perceived fads, and how these examples even manifested themselves in the context of the Pakistani feminist movement to begin with.

This disclaimer is indicative of the stance Sanam Saeed took up last year, while dissociating herself with feminism altogether. She called the word ‘feminist’ overrated at the Lux Style Awards. A month later, in an interview with Hassan Sheheryar Yasin, she expressed ambivalence about being a feminist yet again, while emphatically denouncing that men and women were equal. “Aiween ke we are equal; we are not equal.”

The contradiction in all of Sanam Saeed’s answers regarding feminism shows that perhaps discussing the feminist credentials of celebrities is a moot topic. Seeking feminist leadership among celebrities discounts the very history and premise of our local feminist movement, and the countless ‘invisible’ organisers and activists involved at the grassroots level to this day. Their lack of solidarity with even the mere idea of feminism is proof enough that they should not be the people we turn to while gauging the strength of an entire social movement. Their opinions should not be valued over the labour, organising and research sustaining the existing feminist movement till date.

Strangely enough, women like Sanam Saeed and Aamina Sheikh are privileged, and yet not enthused by the idea of wanting to educate themselves about feminism. One would think that such celebrities would be more well-informed about an entire movement, given that they are educated and should at least have some kind of an idea as to what/who they owe their rights to, but unfortunately Sanam Saeed’s dismissal of the entire local movement was evident in the kind of examples she gave while trying to distance herself from (presumably ‘radical’) feminism.

Hence, the privilege of such celebrities cannot be ignored while assessing their claim to feminism.

Moreover, lauding the ‘feminism’ of famous women and pinning our hopes onto them, is completely against the oeuvre of the intersectional aspect of this movement that shuns the very capitalist system that these celebrities thrive within. This is why their claims are ultimately just platitudes, meant to further their personal brand, especially in front of Western media outlets.

Unfortunately, our engagement with capitalist systems such as the media industry allows us to think of feminism merely in terms of the success of a select number of individuals, to make it seem cooler and more palatable to us.

While giving too much importance to the opinions of celebrities, we fail to take into account their dissociation from the lives of those who are much more affected by patriarchy than they are. Ultimately their attempts to involve feminism in their personal branding, merely for self-projection, show they are co-opting an entire movement and commodifying it for mass consumption, while avoiding all the complications of being involved in one.

Engagement with feminism is ultimately a huge personal and political undertaking, not just a lifestyle choice. It is not a means of self-identification for the accumulation of social capital or fame.

Momina Mustehsan is another celebrity whose ‘feminism’ has been questioned repeatedly in the past. Interestingly enough, someone who chose not to answer a question regarding feminism just a year ago (based on a remark Mustehsan made at the aforementioned Lux Style Awards) is now willing to give a rather didactic lecture on feminism for NowThis (another Western media outlet) on Women’s Day. She avoids the term feminism almost completely throughout the video, while stating that “the model of women empowerment can’t be one size fits all.”

Apart from giving various examples of the inequality between men and women, as well as that of women ‘empowerment’, she states: “In South Asia, there is a lack of understanding of the term ‘empowerment’ because majority of the people think that the definition of women empowerment is to wear fewer clothes, renounce your culture and traditions, and that it is synonymous with immorality. We first need to define the term for the region. Do we hate our women? I don’t think so.”

Mustehsan’s efforts to define what feminism should mean in the Pakistani context are disingenuous at best. She fails to take into account the years of scholarship and grassroots work guided by Pakistani feminist activists. Had she done even a little bit of research, she would have known that their definition of feminism (or even ‘empowerment’ for that matter) would completely contradict hers.

Freedom of choice for women is a very important tenet of any feminist movement, regardless of what is deemed as ‘culturally appropriate’.

The efforts of female celebrities to champion issues pertaining to social justice are (perhaps) somewhat commendable, but they should not distract us from questioning their politics, particularly their role as the flag-bearers of feminism in Pakistan. Moreover, celebrities often make the mistake of routinely imposing their perceptions of a movement onto others, while they assume that what is best for them would inevitably also make sense for other women.

I personally hope to see the day when celebrity feminism comes to a standstill, as its praises of female ‘empowerment’ are incredibly meaningless and hollow. Celebrities tend to eschew political ‘labels’ first, but then adopt them as a marketing strategy whenever the timing is right. It should not matter whether they distance themselves from a position or not because they have no stake in the movement that has given us the rights we have today.

Celebrity feminism is glamorous, sparkly and easily absorbable. It distracts us from knowing more about a collective movement that has been consistently pushing for structural changes to dismantle patriarchy. Feminism is not glamorous, nor is it an ‘aesthetic’ or personal quirk to proudly claim: it is a political commitment, a collective goal, and a lifelong journey.

Therefore, it is time we stop making celebrities become the unwitting champions of a nuanced political cause, as speaking to the already powerful and privileged will not dismantle the structures that feminism is opposed to. It will only distract us from the invisible and visible challenges that face feminists today.

Zoya Rehman

a lawyer, researcher and feminist activist.

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