I am not a big fan of reductionist readings. But sometimes they help anchor our perspective. If we are to boil our lives down to something, it is this: a grand, intricate mathematics. This is to say that if a giant probability tree were drawn, that everything that we have experienced can be reduced to chance. I am in a place because I am not not in that place. Someone is on a plane to somewhere because they are. They may have spent months deliberating the decision, but in case something happens to the plane, that is all that they were: on a plane to somewhere.
Chance is the touch of the eternal. Sometimes it is the sword that drops; sometimes it is the strand of hair by which it hangs. Yet, wherever I go, a particular conversation pursues me like a hound. Safe to assume, and the simple mathematics of the situation will back this up, I am not alone in this.
To talk about this conversation fully, I want to choose a metaphor with concern for relatability. As a Pakistani, I am saying that this conversation evokes the same kind of suspicion in me that uninterrupted, unfluctuating supply of electricity does.
This is a conversation where I, like so many other women, unwittingly find myself talking to a man who thinks that “women’s rights are important but…”
Sentences where two conflicting ideas are held together with the superglue of ‘but’ are dangerous. We have learnt that anything that comes before the ‘but’ is a buffer against what follows.
An uncle at a walima, a ‘man of the world’ who gets his primary information from political talk shows, will try to hold conversation after he finds that you have plans for your career. “Bachiyyon ko support kerna chahiyey, lekin…” (Our girls should be supported but…)
You begin to tune out. Amidst the white noise, you hear him say something about how our “tehzeeb” (culture) is humanity at the apex of its evolution. You seriously wonder if he’s going to sell you a can of banaspati ghee next. You scan the place for backup dancers. You wait for him to break out into a routine.
Then there is the man who joins a larger conversation you’re having. He’s asking intelligent questions; he’s making smart observations. This man self-identifies as a ‘thinking man,’ even though he tries to play it down in the same breath. You question his modesty — if it is manufactured. You wonder at all if he should be that modest — is he really convinced that he is that great? You will remember to look at modesty carefully next time. But he hasn’t said anything strange… yet.
“Women’s rights is a legitimate issue, but…”
You notice that his hair’s graying. In a few years, a young girl with ambitions for a full life will meet him at a walima and wonder if he’s going to sell her banaspati ghee, too.
The third man is the man who gets to you. It is the activist who stands next to you as you rise up against the state’s heavy handedness. In the sweltering heat, amidst threats of police violence, you strategise and chant slogans in unison for an ideal — a Pakistan where everyone can breathe. His treachery feels like a personal affront. Your heart drops to your ankles. Flee, it says.
“I support your rights, but do you know how men are discriminated against? When a man is subjected to assault… You know the stress associated with making sure you earn enough to put food on the table?”
You wish he sold you banaspati ghee right now so you could self-immolate. This time you respond, and you look him straight in the eye: “You want the world all to yourself. You won’t share it with us. You complain it’s too heavy. You don’t step back and give women space to flourish. You want to keep us barefoot. And then you want us to fold our arms in prayer and thank you? You are shocked that we should be so full of fight and fire at this most ‘convenient’ structural arrangement that we are born into? One, that you are identifying as the source of your anguish, too? There’s a name for it.”
So when men, #notallmen but inevitably a vast majority, tell us they support women’s rights but feminism is stretching it a bit, we know where we stand with them. The thought that they might be asked to warm up their own food can be a trigger. Men, #notallmen but a significant majority, have been spiralling ever since the Aurat March in Pakistan. Some of them will at some point upload Facebook pictures with their mothers thanking them for helping them become the men they are. But need they be this modest?