When Did “Feminism” Become an Unspeakable Word?  

by Seyhr Qayum


When did “feminism” become an unspeakable word? Why, in the 21st century, as a young, headstrong artist who was bold enough to choose a risky profession, to move to different countries without family and/or friends, and is undeterred by the fear of chalking out her own career path, do I find myself hesitating before telling people that my work is “feminist-centric?” Similarly, why, upon hearing that my work is feminist-centric, do people suddenly begin to look a bit uncomfortable? It’s not necessarily a disapproving look – it’s just a look of wishing they either hadn’t asked what I paint about, or that I’d replied “landscapes” – inoffensive, apolitical, flowery landscapes.

I was once exhibiting my work internationally, and made the unpardonable mistake of telling a young, American-Chinese visitor at the show that my art celebrates the rise of female empowerment in Pakistan. She told me she thought I was doing a great job. This was the feedback I’d gotten from individuals of countless nationalities throughout the evening. Needless to say, I’d been feeling pretty good about myself and about my subversive-in-a-positive-way art.

None of the women in my work were sad, inhibited or miserable – rather they were strong, confident and happy. I truly believe that our perception of women as downtrodden beings, and our generally high propensity to represent them as such, perpetuates the problem – it’s a vicious cycle and the more we lie to ourselves and insist that our women are weak, or the more we objectify them in our art and cultural endeavors, the more our women will believe that their role in life has been predetermined and that they’ve been relegated to a lifetime of teary whining. What’s important is to acknowledge that our women are in actuality, far from weak. The average Pakistani woman navigates a myriad of obstacles and annoyances on a daily basis – far more than the average Pakistani man – with little to no prior instruction or practice.

As a naïve, optimistic, privileged millennial, I want to celebrate this fact up until the point that we enter the realm of reverse-sexism by celebrating something that should be considered a norm, thereby inadvertently discriminating against women by default. But let’s face it; we’ve got at least another 30 years to go before that happens.

By now you’re probably wondering why I earlier stated that declaring my allegiance to gender equality and respect for all, out loud, was an “unpardonable mistake.” This is why: The one middle-aged Pakistani male in the vicinity happened to overhear me, and decided that it was his God-appointed duty to “educate” me.

How dare a young woman make flowery speeches about female empowerment instead of making chai for some lazy, undeserving man that some random, miscellaneous relative thought would be a great “match” for her?! Sacrilege! (If it sounds as though I’m a bit bitter about this encounter, make no mistake – it’s because I am). He walked up to me, interrupted my conversation and asked me who I thought was empowered and why. I told him I thought Pakistani women are strong, and that female empowerment in the country is on the rise. He scoffed, told me I was wrong, and then asked where I’d studied. I told him I’d gone to university in the States. He scoffed again and said “Yeah and I’m guessing your dad paid for that” – the implication obviously being that my liberal, unrealistic ideas of gender equality that I must have picked up in America like a bad habit, not dissimilar to acquiring an unappealing accent or smoking, were not just unnecessary, but also a result of financial privilege. He thought my political concerns were a manifestation of what he was convinced was Spoilt-Rich-Kid syndrome. It obviously didn’t occur to him that my parents are well educated, happen to be feminists, and raised me to believe that my sex wasn’t a disadvantage or socio-economic hindrance. He obviously didn’t know that I was a scholarship student whose education was fully funded, and who worked throughout her college years to supplement whatever her parents could afford to transfer to her. He obviously didn’t realize any of this, because entitled, middle-aged Pakistani men, who ironically enough think other people are entitled, rarely do.

I clarified his misconceptions about who paid for me to study in the US, and after a total of 30 seconds of embarrassment, he proceeded to tell me that no woman in Pakistan could possibly be happy if her husband was allowed to marry another 3 times.

He told me that Islam was at odds with what I said and thought. When I responded by saying that a large degree of the supposed mutual-exclusivity between Islam and feminism stems from an absence of female interpretation of scripture, he scoffed and rolled his eyes. His wife happened to show up right at that moment and nudged him to stop talking.

The saddest part of this whole encounter for me was not that somebody decided to pick a fight with me at my own art opening.

It was the fact that all those miles away, a Pakistani man still somehow found me, and embarked on a “mansplaining” journey, all the while expecting me to defer to his authority. It bothered me that the only person who had a problem with what I was doing, who didn’t congratulate me on creating good work and promoting a positive image of our country, that let’s face it, has desperately needed a serious image make-over and new hairstyle for at least the past decade, was Pakistani. What continues to bother me is that this was not an isolated incident.

I’ve been told countless times in the past month, by men, that art should either not be feminist or that they don’t believe in feminism. It’s okay for a man to paint a political image, but that’s pretty much the extent to which the principle can be stretched and applied. What’s interesting though is that these men are generally supportive of their female art contemporaries, polite and educated. It’s not that they believe feminist art is wrong, or that women don’t deserve equal rights – it’s just that they don’t want to think about it, let alone talk about it.

The terms “feminism” and “female empowerment” have been stigmatized to the degree that the average Pakistani associates them with depravity, promiscuity and a general, all-round “haramness.” Here, being a feminist strangely enough does not mean you believe in equal rights for the two sexes, rather it means you believe women should abandon their families and run amok. How our collective consciousness arrived at this entirely unintuitive, not at all natural or logical conclusion, I’m not sure I’m qualified to say.

What I do know however is that the associations need to be recalibrated. Creating art that promotes or celebrates female empowerment is basically making one statement: women deserve equal rights and respect, and please don’t be obnoxious to them. It’s not a dirty or inappropriate thought. It’s not asking for too much. Accept that appreciating a feminist work of art does not diminish a man’s manhood. Painting a feminist painting does not mean that the artist is whining and otherwise not working to fight gender discrimination in daily life; it is in fact possible to do both.

While the artist community is for the most part, progressive and supportive of its women, one sometimes encounters unexpected bursts of institutional sexism amongst them too.

When I say that I paint about women, I don’t want to hear “Oh, another feminist artist! Why are so many women-artists feminists? You guys don’t really have it that bad!” in response (even though I find that last sentence hysterically funny each time I hear it – it makes me feel as though I’m starring in a bad, low budget dystopian comedy). I don’t want to know, deep down inside that if I worked under a gender-neutral, or male name, it’d be easier for me to line up shows and sell my work. I don’t want to know that galleries are more inclined to display political art about poverty, our skewed social structure, or even homosexuality, done by men, but apprehensive about political art that shows a strong woman instead of a crying one, done by a woman. And when I mention these thoughts to a male artist, I really don’t want to be told that it’s all in my head. If that had been the case, there wouldn’t be such a large group of incredibly talented but dissatisfied female artists out there.


There is a natural course of thought-evolution that societies follow – there’s been tremendous progress (after a bout of regression induced by a volatile and polarized political climate) in the past 20 years regarding how women are perceived and treated. It would be immature to disregard the upward trend of positive developments and wider acceptance of female empowerment in Pakistan, and to believe that the status quo on the matter will remain the same forever.

We will eventually get where we need to be, but an inability to have a conversation or learn more about something that makes you uncomfortable – based on societal stereotyping and stigmatizing rather than concrete reasons – greatly obfuscates advancement. I hate to admit it, but now when a man tells me that he doesn’t believe in feminism or feminist art, immediately after hearing what my work is largely about, my knee-jerk reaction is to say “Mhmm” or “Really? Okay.” It’s an urge I have to fight because having other people’s pre-existing biases beat the desire to have an important conversation, out of me, does nothing but add to the problem. It nullifies the positive image that my paintings create. It demolishes the critical thinking related to the status of women that I want my art to inspire. Basically, it’s tantamount to me shooting myself in the foot.

They say that the first step is acceptance. We need to accept that we’ve incorrectly defined a healthy, positive word, to mean something that we’re too scared to talk about. Talking about gender equality does not make a person a “femi-nazi,” and it does not by default mean that they’re going to lecture the person they’re talking to. All we really need to do is be receptive to having a conversation on a matter that affects a substantial (to say the least) proportion of the population. We need to be able to appreciate and promote art that celebrates female strength. We need to not fight with feminist artists at their own art openings. We need to realize that not all “old is gold” – some old in fact needs to be tossed out – especially our “old” definition of “feminism.” I may be a feminist artist, but I promise I don’t bite.

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