When a group of hardline religious men attacked the peaceful women’s demonstration of Aurat March in Islamabad in 2020, it was not the first time a feminist demonstration was physically attacked, and it likely would not be the last. These hardline followers of a religious party in Pakistan felt that the feminism and the feminist movement of Aurat March in Pakistan was attacking their religious beliefs and traditional values. Right-wing and religious/conservative groups around the world have often criticized feminist movements for various reasons with accusations such as their treatment of men, their exclusion of lower-class women and women of color, and the movement’s ignorance of the women from the third world (unless there are some other political goals associated). There are also those who think that the movement of feminism was relevant in its initial phases but is not important in contemporary times. Feminists still feel that the movement is as relevant today as it was a hundred years ago, and that women still have a long way to go. Just like any controversial issue, the controversial issues in contemporary feminist movements also have opposing viewpoints. Most people all over the world accept women deserve basic human rights. The interpretation of how to go about giving those rights to women (and sometimes over what rights to give women) becomes controversial. Since its inception, the movement of feminism has been mired in controversies; while some of the criticisms are genuine and need to be addressed, the movement itself remains relevant to millions of women.
When Aurat March started in Pakistan in 2017, the movement immediately became a huge controversy on social media and started intense online debates over some of the controversial posters held by the attendees of the march. In the coming few years the event became even more popular and controversial as TV celebrities, politicians and journalists started debating on issues of women’s rights as well. This intense debate over controversial issues of feminist movements has happened in many western countries in the past (and is still going on) and is gaining pace in many other countries like Pakistan. As women are demanding more rights for their gender, some elements (like the religious hardliners from Islamabad mentioned above) staunchly believe that the movement is harmful to them and the wider society.
Many religious segments feel that feminism is irreconcilable with religion. This is especially visible within Islamic countries from the fierce opposition of feminist movements by religious scholars and politicians. They point to slogans like ‘my body, my choice’, and calls for abortion rights and equal participation in the workforce to be antithesis to how religion envisions life for women. Most religious leaders believe in a clear distinction of roles among the two genders. They often point out the differences in the physical bodies of men and women (such as average height/weight and the resulting differences in strength) as the major reasons for these distinctions. Although different segments within different religions interpret women’s rights and the role of women within their religious frameworks, all of them want feminist movements to adjust their demands and activism to lie well within the particular interpretation of their religion.
Feminists have varying responses to the allegations of feminism being irreconcilable with religion. Muslim feminists, for example, often say that Islam has been interpreted mostly by male middle-eastern scholars from hundreds of years ago. Ayesha S. Chaudhary argues in the book Islamic Political Thought that these scholars lived in a patriarchal and sometimes misogynistic time and culture, and thus their interpretation of Islam is also heavily influenced by their biases. These feminists think that if interpreted the right way, the concept of feminism and equal rights for women is perfectly in-line with religion. Meanwhile there are also other feminists, Like Oriana Fallaci from Italy, believe religion is a male construct, and that feminists must reject and oppose it if they hope to have true equality and freedoms for women.
‘True equality and freedoms for women’ is also sometimes considered harmful for the traditional family system. Critics of feminism say that since the movements (or waves) of feminism started gained mainstream popularity in the West (mostly since the 1960s), the institution of marriage and family has severely deteriorated. They point to the fact that the divorce rates in the West have risen to an all-time high (almost half of all marriages end in a divorce within the first ten years of the marriage as per official records by most of these countries like in the US). These critics claim that these high divorce rates are a direct result of feminist movements making women less compromising, and hence made marriages more prone to end early. They point to the case of the US where more than two-thirds of all divorce cases are initiated by the woman. Because the rise of divorce rates coincides with the rise of feminism in the West, a causal relationship between the two is established by the critics.
Feminists look at this dynamic in different ways. Some feminists, like Nida Kirmani, have argued that increasing divorce rates with women’s exposure to feminism meant that women are no longer willing to be abused in marriages, or are willing to stay in toxic marriages just for the sake of marriage and children and are now prioritizing themselves well. Other more radical feminists argue that the institutions of marriage and family are patriarchal in their very nature and keep women at a disadvantage, hence they need to be dismantled. Feminists have varying opinions on marriage and the traditional family system, but all agree that the system favors and empowers men over women and that it needs to be changed to be more equal and acceptable to women.
There are, however, other criticisms to feminism that come from feminists themselves. One of these is that feminism is largely a movement focused on white upper (middle) class women. Feminist Rafia Zakaria in her book Against White Feminism has argued that feminist movements in the West especially the first two waves) were solely focused on white women and their issues. Similar criticism has been leveled at Aurat March as well for being a movement for urban upper class women only.
Many feminists — like Rafia Zakaria — do accept that feminism has largely tended to the needs of a particular group of women, but grassroot level movements have sprung up all over the world that talk about the issues of women from their specific race, ethnicity and social status. Aurat March is one such example of a feminist movement grounded in the Pakistani context. Their manifesto is clear that only Pakistani women are funding and organizing the entire event to make it purely an event for Pakistani women. They reached out to women in far flung areas (like the Thar region in Sindh) and brought some of them to their annual event to give these women a voice in front of the world. And as Kimberly Crenshaw once said, “feminism still has a long way to go” in truly becoming a movement for all women of the world.
In becoming a movement for all women of the world, critics argue, that feminism has become a movement against all men of the world. Male critics of feminism have claimed that movements of feminism to be synonymous to misandry. They point to social media trends by women such #MenAreTrash. Critics like Ben Shapiro have also said that feminists falsely claim that all female problems are a result of men’s decisions/actions (or of the patriarchy). Scholars like Jordan Peterson have sometimes outright denied the existence of patriarchy. These critics have also claimed that feminism is starting a “gender war” between men and women by creating hatred in the eyes of women for all men.
Feminists again have responded to these claims in various ways. While there have been some radical feminists arguing for women to live away from men, most feminists do not blame all men for the sufferings of women in this world. What they argue, on the other hand, is that the system itself is patriarchal and is geared towards masculine men (and this system hurts men as well, as argued by feminists like Sabahat Zakaria, through the much higher suicide numbers of men compared to women). Feminists claim that they are fighting for a more equitable system where rights and freedoms of women are safeguarded alongside the rights and freedoms of men (and not at the expense of men). The hatred, argued by some feminist psychologists, comes from women’s natural psychological defense mechanism, that because a woman was hurt by a man, she would (and other women around her) feel vary of men in general as a person who is once attacked by an aggressive dog will feel about all dogs in the next several months even if he knows in his conscious mind that most dogs are of no danger to him. Similar is the case with men.
There are others that allege that feminism is just a movement being funded and used by capitalists and neocolonialists for their own interests instead of women empowerment. They point to evidence such as the Wikileaks report of CIA using feminism to make Afghan women more susceptible to their invasion. They argue that capitalists want women in the work force so that they get a bigger work force whom they can exploit with lesser salaries and a potentially larger consumer audience. These critics argue that feminism is just a tool being manipulated by powerful men to use women’s issues to their advantage and has nothing to do with them.
Feminists like Sabahat Zakaria do agree that feminism has indeed been used and manipulated by such powers. But, they argue, that these selfish powers have used every right cause — religion, human rights and cultural traditions etc. — for their own gains and profits. These feminists argue that feminism is a movement rooted in women’s issues, and started by women scholars and activists such as Mary Woolstonecraft and Elizabeth Cady Stanton etc. Feminist literature has almost wholely been created by women writers such as Simone de Beauvoir. They argue that men and the patriarchy will use every tool at their disposal — including feminism and women’s rights — to control and manipulate women. Women’s movements, however, do not lose any legitimacy because of such efforts to sabotage them.
Other scholars, such as Nasrullah Mambrol, have argued about a concept called ‘post-feminism’. This concept posits that many or all of feminism’s goals have now been achieved, and that the movement has become irrelevant (or even harmful) in contemporary times. These critics point to Jordan Peterson’s point that modern laws, especially in the West, have ensured there is equality of opportunity for all people regardless of their race and gender. Jordan Peterson has claimed that further equality, like an equality of outcome, is a “dangerous proposition”. This argument has also made contemporary feminist movements controversial.
However, feminists argue that the contemporary world, even the West, is a far cry from a feminist utopia. They point to the gender wage gap, to the low number of women millionaires and billionaires, to the low number women in high judicial and administrative positions, and most of all to the horrifying conditions in which women are still forced to live in much of the world. Women in Afghanistan have no access to the most basic human right to education. Women in some African countries have little to no access to food and hygienic water, let alone to a basic necessity such as maternity care. These feminists argue that feminist movements are still as relevant to contemporary times as they were to the times of a century ago.
The future of feminism is still a widely debated topic, just as its past and present are. Because feminism is not a centralized movement without any single leadership representing all women and feminists of the world, there is no one clear direction to the movement as well. Some argue that this is a blessing because the movement should never be dominated by one set of women (like it was by white middle class women in the 60s). Instead different feminist movements around the world will keep raising the specific issues of the women in their own particular region. These feminist movements will keep striving to get better laws and social freedoms accepted for women in trying to achieve a better future for their gender.
In summation, contemporary feminist movements have been made controversial, and heavily criticized by various quarters such the the religious/conservative right, such as men’s rights activists, and post feminist scholars (and sometimes even by other feminists as well). These movements have been criticized for being too white-centric, there have been attempts to hijack them from corporations and governments, and there has been powerful literature and intellectual debate around feminism no longer being relevant. However, feminists still feel that the world is far from an ideal feminist utopia, and claim that feminism still has a role to play in making the world a better place for women.