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My Feminist Friend

REFLECTIONS ON THE SHARED STRUGGLE OF TWO WOMEN IN PAKISTAN AND AMERICA, AND THE FRIENDSHIP IT FORGED
DISCUSSED

Christine Blasey Ford, #MeToo, The Pakistani Patriarchy, Arranged Marriage, The Moral Parameters of Polygamy, The Promise of Escape, Benazir Bhutto, Sexual Harassment Law, Domestic Violence Shelters, Banishment, Global Feminism, The Lies One Needs to Tell in Order to Live

by Rafia Zakaria
Illustration by Tony Millionaire

My Feminist Friend

Rafia Zakaria
203 Snaps

The room was hot, and we shifted uncomfortably on the couch. The air conditioner in the poorly maintained apartment building had a habit of shutting down unexpectedly. To turn it back on, one of us would have had to press a switch in another room. But neither she nor I would get up—our eyes were glued to the woman speaking on the television. It was September 27, 2018, and the woman was Dr. Christine Blasey Ford. She spoke carefully, slowly—her voice tremulous—of being pinned down, suffocated, and groped at the age of fifteen by Supreme Court justice nominee Brett Kavanaugh. 

Over the last year we had been energized by the #MeToo movement’s successes in removing abusive men from positions of power. This was a different sort of test, we told each other, our voices hushed even though there was no one else in the apartment. The arrangement of the hearing—the story of one woman, the aggressive interrogations of men who sought to discredit that story—was a public reenactment of our struggle to assert the right to freedom from sexual violence. Consumed with anxiety, we listened to Blasey Ford as she recounted the details: the boy standing by the door watching, drunk on beer, Kavanaugh’s heavy body atop hers, the one-piece swimsuit she wore under her clothes, the lucky escape she made through the front door. 

To us, Blasey Ford’s words were stirring. When she stood, hand raised, the pose seemed sacrificial: one woman baring her wounds in the stead of many. When she spoke, her answers were carefully composed, even if her voice shook. We cried with her when she spoke of running down the stairs that day, and again when she confessed that she remodeled her home to have two front doors. (Escape is a universal strategy for women, we agreed.) As long as Blasey Ford sat before the Republican senators, we sat before her, desperate for some sign that powerful men could not be so glibly absolved of the assaults, the rapes, the opportunistic groping and grabbing. We hoped that it would now, finally, have consequences.

*

Amna and I had been friends for more than thirteen years. We met because two women had been raped thousands of miles away from us, in Pakistan. This was in 2005, a time when Pakistan, where both of us were born and raised, was enduring yet another spate of military dictatorship. Two women had been raped and they were, unexpectedly, speaking out. Most people in Pakistan were unwilling to listen, but one of them had turned, somehow, to Amnesty International. 

At the time, we were unlikely advocates, mired in the confusions and constraints of our own lives. Amna was in her forties and had a husband, a young child, and a busy practice as a geriatrician at the University of Wisconsin. I was also ensconced in the Midwest, going for a second doctorate at Indiana University, Bloomington. I was a lawyer, a single mother, and an escapee from an arranged marriage, still full of the disdain and daring that had helped me walk out of the abusive relationship. 

I first heard Amna’s voice on NPR. I had picked up my daughter from day care and we were listening to the radio on our way to the grocery store. Amna was talking about a woman named Shazia Khalid, a doctor for Pakistan Petroleum Limited’s medical center in Sui, Balochistan. One early morning in January 2006, Khalid was asleep in her house when she was awakened by a man pulling her hair. She was blindfolded and raped. The man, the police would later discover, was an army officer, but having been blindfolded, Shazia could not identify him. Anyway, nobody was interested in catching her rapist. Shazia was put under house arrest for two months, a tactic meant to keep her quiet. When the house arrest was lifted, she escaped to London. 

Amna also talked about a second, even more troubling case. In the summer of 2002, Mukhtar Mai, a thirty-year-old woman from southern Punjab, was gang-raped at the orders of a village council. Mukhtar’s teenage brother had an affair with a girl from another tribe. That tribe had found this an affront to their honor, a tribal council was called, and the “punishment” decreed was the gang rape of Mukhtar. After the attack, she was paraded, bruised and naked, in the city streets. Most people in the region expected that she would kill herself: a neat and complete erasure they saw as an appropriate end to the situation. Instead, she started to talk, telling her story to CNN and the BBC. 

The measured tone of Amna’s voice on the radio, speaking from her Wisconsin college town, betrayed no hint of the rage behind it. “This is unacceptable,” she said. If Pakistani women in Pakistan would not speak out in support of Shazia and Mukhtar, then she, a Pakistani woman in Wisconsin, would. Others could join her, she added, sharing the email for an advocacy organization she had formed. 

As soon as I got back to the graduate apartment I shared with my daughter, I wrote Amna an email, and by the time our dinner of chicken nuggets and mixed vegetables was over, Amna had written back. When bath time concluded, Amna and I were on the phone. “This cannot go on,” she told me. The organization she had started was small, but she would be delighted if I joined. “A lawyer and a writer like you,” she said, “could really make a difference.” She was taking on the Pakistani military, the Pakistani patriarchy; hidden crimes against women needed to be brought into the open and their perpetrators taken to court. We talked for hours that first night, and when we hung up, I felt as if I had known her forever. 

*

After Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony, Amna and I turned off the TV. We didn’t care to watch Brett Kavanaugh. We had listened to too many men tell their side of the story and then watched that version be anointed as truth. The male story was always the same: nothing had happened; the woman was a liar; the accusation was an outrageous ploy to get something-or-other. In this we were correct: Christine Blasey Ford, Kavanaugh and his allies held, was being used as a liberal gambit to deny conservatives a court seat. She was looking for publicity, for revenge, for anything and everything other than justice.

Those counter-allegations were achingly familiar. As the details of Mukhtar Mai’s rape were becoming known, Pakistan’s military dictator, General Pervez Musharraf, commented on the case: “This has become a money-making concern. A lot of people say if you want to go abroad and get a visa for Canada or citizenship and be a millionaire, get yourself raped.” He was harshly criticized for these words, but he didn’t renounce them. Now I felt I was hearing something similar, not from the mouth of a military dictator, but from the mouths of nearly every Republican senator who sat in the room where Blasey Ford had been questioned. 

When Mukhtar Mai came to the United States, she was cheered by feminist benefactors. Her hosts, mostly white women, invited her to remain in the United States. Life for women was better here, they told her. It was safer, and rape victims were not as stigmatized. She would be able to start a new life, to escape the shame and trauma of what had happened to her.

At that time, I would have agreed with them. I believed in this promise of escape myself. When I left my marriage, I chose not to return to Pakistan, where I had the comfort of familiarity and a reluctant but present support system of friends and relatives. Instead, I remained in the United States to pursue an inchoate sense of freedom. Here, I told all who would listen, I, a divorced single mother, was not emblazoned with a badge of shame. The fact that I had abandoned an abusive marriage against the wishes of my family did not in any visible or tangible way define me. And if I had escaped the taint of divorce in this country of liberated women, I thought, Mukhtar or Shazia could similarly escape the stamp of being a woman who had been raped. The best way—the only way—to escape Pakistan’s patriarchy and its attendant cruelties was to leave, just as I had done.

Amna disagreed with me on this point. I continued to believe in the necessity of escape, but she held on to the idea of return. The real fight, she insisted in the months after we had met Mukhtar Mai, was in Pakistan. (Mukhtar also returned to Pakistan.) Our sort of expatriate activism, which relied on distance and disassociation, on saying things publicly that could not be said by those in Pakistan, and on shaming the military government, had limits. Transnational advocacy, with its various tentacles, could name and shame, but it could not get Pakistanis to see the rapists rather than the raped as criminals. That work could be done only on the ground.

In 2007, after nearly two decades spent working and living in the United States, Amna moved to Pakistan with her daughter. She divorced her husband and sold all her belongings, intending never to return. She deemed the American chapter of her life closed. She had been a doctor; now she would be a politician, an activist, and a healer. Her return coincided with that of a far more famous woman: Benazir Bhutto, the exiled scion of the Bhutto political dynasty. Bhutto had struck a deal with General Musharraf to endorse the legitimacy of his coup for the opportunity to contest in the next election.

Amna and Benazir Bhutto reentered Pakistan on the same day: October 27, 2007. But Bhutto’s convoy was bombed by terrorists—nobody, it seemed, wished to grant a woman, even the “nation’s daughter,” an easy victory. Bhutto escaped injury, and she refused to be cowed. So did Amna, who was steeped in the zeal and promise of the moment. But by December, Bhutto was dead, killed in an attack by a suicide bomber at an election rally.

Before her assassination, Bhutto had discussed with Amna an appointment at the helm of a special initiative for Pakistani women. With Bhutto’s husband installed in her place, this role was unlikely to materialize. In the end, she accepted one of the Pakistan Peoples Party seats that were reserved for women in the Provincial Assembly of the Punjab. The position would give her direct access to the women in Pakistan’s most populous province. She held on to a belief in the possibility of a grassroots women’s movement.

*

I took my feminism to writing. Not long after Amna moved to Pakistan and Benazir Bhutto was killed, I began writing a column, first for a small Pakistani newspaper, then for a large English one. Buoyed by the possibilities offered by feminist writing, I began working on a book. The central story was about my aunt, whose husband had married a second time, sentencing her to a life of neglect and shame.

But that was not the only story. I also wanted to claim Pakistan’s history for its women. I recounted the bombings, partitions, and migrations that made up the warp and weft of the nation through the lives of women. I enumerated the feminist movements that had come before and achieved little. They had been the provenance of elite Pakistani women who saw empowerment as a cause suited for tea party chatter. The women who read this book, I told myself, could learn from it and take feminist causes into a wider, more political realm. 

The book was received with more acclaim and renown than I’d expected, and I felt I had won. That summer, when Amna visited me in the United States, I was riding high on my success and had the glib overconfidence of a know-it-all. I saw myself as a crusader against polygamy, a feminist who had earned her mettle. 

Amna came to my house on a sunny afternoon. She was on her way across the country to visit family in the Midwest. It was a joy to hug her and laugh with her. Our meeting was infused with all the instantly renewed affection of a long-cherished friendship, a friendship that grows even in its pauses. She had faced many staggering challenges in the time that had passed since we’d last seen each other. The most harrowing had been being surrounded and attacked by men in plainclothes who she believed were members of Pakistan’s Elite Police. The men had beaten her, fondled her, and once she was totally overpowered, left her lying in the midst of a mob. 

Now she was back, and it felt like she had never left. Our daughters played together as we drank tea and ate samosas. I realized just how much I had missed her, this woman who understood both parts of myself, being Pakistani and American at the same time. With the perspective of distance, her work in the hustle of Pakistani politics and my work on the page seemed to fit together.

After the tea cups were dry and the plate of samosas empty, she told me her news: she had married again in Pakistan. I was overjoyed. Her marriage in Wisconsin had disintegrated when she’d decided to leave for Pakistan—it had been one sacrifice among many. Her new husband adored her, she told me, and his credentials were impeccable. He was a public-interest lawyer; he provided representation to the oppressed. But there was a catch: he was already married. Amna had become a second wife. His first wife, as irony would have it, shared my name: Rafia. She lived out of the way, in her husband’s ancestral home. Theirs had been an arranged marriage, Amna told me, but the other woman was dependent on him, and Amna did not want to destroy her life.

That night, I couldn’t sleep. I had written a book about the curse of women judging other women and the torrential cruelties that followed. But the moral parameters of polygamy were clear to me. It was something I had closely felt and observed. I’d spent my childhood witnessing my aunt, a first wife, being tormented by the shame of her husband choosing another woman. Polygamy was a story in which the man was the criminal and the second wife a coconspirator. I refused to consider the possibility that not all polygamous marriages were identically exploitative.

Amna’s confession upended these convictions. I realized that as close as I had felt to my aunt’s pain, I was still an onlooker in these relationships and not a participant. Perhaps my condemnation of what I saw as unfeminist came from a desire to create a binary, a good and a bad. And of course I had taken moral refuge in my aunt’s side. She was the spurned first wife, the childless woman spending every other week alone, while others had choices, options, the possibility of love. I blamed her miserable existence on the legal system that permitted polygamy, and those who participated in it.

There are moments of reckoning in the life of every woman, when belief and moral certainty collide with the incongruent details of a new reality. I knew, of course, that not all feminists fit into the boxes I had created in my head, and yet I’d never expected to be confronted with their fragility in such a way. In the days and months that followed, I thought about Amna again and again; I would forgive her, and then berate her in my head. And I incessantly questioned my own beliefs. Whom should I support, and who was I to judge? Did I owe my aunt a lifelong opposition to polygamy? Did I owe it to my feminist principles? I had written a book about the messiness of women’s lives, and now I was confronted with the messiness of one woman’s life. A part of me was eager to stand in judgment. But I was forced to acknowledge my friend’s love and her truth as she was living it.

My friendship with Amna had formed as I was building a sense of myself as a feminist writer. I had been so sure of how I saw the world. Now the affection and esteem I had for this woman was a challenge to my very foundations. It was the first time I had questioned the assumptions underneath my vision of a linear path of progress for women. The divide between those who were better or worse off was not so clearly defined. Soon after, my work in the American legal system, and Amna’s work in Pakistan, would further dismantle such naivete.

*

On paper, 2010 was a landmark year for Pakistani women: a bill to protect women from harassment in the workplace was signed into law by President Asif Ali Zardari. But laws require enforcement. As one lawyer put it, “The law is good, but this is a male-dominated society, and it will take time for people to accept it.”

Around the time that the law was touted as a victory for Pakistani women, Amna was appointed to a syndicate overseeing Lahore’s Government College University, one of the most prestigious learning institutions in Pakistan. Among the tasks of the syndicate was to consider sexual harassment complaints from GCU’s faculty and staff. It was through this process that Amna and the other, mostly male, members of the syndicate heard the case of a young chemistry professor, Shazia Khurshid. Khurshid was one of the few female professors in the male-dominated sciences faculty. Her work focused on the removal of toxic chemicals like lead and chromium from industrial wastewater. 

Earlier that year, Khurshid had written a letter of complaint to the chief minister and governor of Punjab. She alleged that Sahibzada Faisal Khurshid (no relation), the registrar of GCU, had told Shazia that she needed to provide him with sexual favors before she could be promoted from lecturer to assistant professor. Khurshid’s letter came before the syndicate, and the syndicate ordered an investigation. The registrar himself insisted on attending the hearing, at which witnesses would testify. This was only the most visible of the many obstacles in the way of the investigation. Shazia also received threats on her life from the registrar’s many allies. She would never be permitted to stay in her job, she was told. 

Watching this unfold, Amna was enraged. The government loudly and openly touted its progressive policies toward women, its commitment to “protecting” them, and yet you would never know this if you sat in on the meetings. Everything that Shazia or other women said in corroboration of her allegations was shredded or simply branded as a lie. At the same time, no effort at all was made to protect Shazia from continued attacks. When Amna pointed out these biases, she was labeled a troublemaker. The governor of Punjab, a liberal man who was vocal in his support for women’s causes, and who had appointed her to the syndicate himself, called her at the height of the tension. “Let it go,” he told Amna.

Eventually, the registrar’s tenure renewal was rejected, and he left GCU. The rejection had more to do with politics than with adherence to sexual harassment law. His ally, the governor, had been assassinated in a terrorist attack. 

*

That year, I had just begun work as a lawyer at a domestic violence shelter in Indianapolis. I was thrilled. Access to an attorney drastically decreases the chances that domestic violence survivors will return to their abusers, and I felt it was the best thing I could do with my law degree. My office at the shelter was right off a living room area with a television. When I arrived in the morning, and when I left, women and children were sprawled on the couches, their faces lit blue by the screen. Each time I passed, I wondered if the women were replaying in their minds the crisis that had led them there, the uncertainty of their future, and the weight of the decisions they had to make. 

We talked about those decisions behind the doors of my office. Would they get to keep their children if they filed for divorce? Would their spouses pay child support? Where would they live? How would they get a job? The questions went on and on—I could answer only some of them, and very few had to do with the law. Even the legal questions stumped me, not because I did not know the law but because so much depended on the discretion of judges and prosecutors, a majority of whom tended to be male, and who had crowded dockets and little time to consider the details of each case. 

Take the case of Glenda (not her real name), who came to see me with her three children, her body covered with bruises. She filed for divorce and scheduled a custody hearing. Until the final hearing, Glenda was granted only temporary custody. She had to allow her husband to see the children every other weekend. They exchanged the children at a McDonald’s not far from the shelter; the public place would ensure that nothing happened, was the thinking, even while Glenda was required to see her abuser in person. The morning after the third exchange, however, Glenda returned to the shelter, packed up her things, and left me a brief note: “Sorry, but I talked to him at the McDonald’s, and I think I won’t be able to survive without him.”

Had the law worked in Glenda’s case? I was not so sure. I was obligated to inform my clients that they had to coparent with their abusers: they had to see them, talk to them. Given the psychological snare that abusers build around their victims, this was like nudging them into a wolf’s den. Domestic violence law did not take into account the relationship between the spouses unless the children were also abused.

Rape laws presented their own challenges. A woman I will call Rachel was raped by an acquaintance while she was working a late-night shift at a convenience store. She was left stunned and injured in a back room, but she needed the job—so she worked the rest of her shift. Then she went home and took a shower. She did not go to the police until the next morning, when a friend was able to accompany her.

Rachel was in hiding at the shelter. She was afraid her rapist would find out she had gone to the police. The police and the prosecutor, however, felt no urgency in investigating the crime. Rachel was one of my first clients to have been raped by a man other than her husband, and the legal protections were greater for someone in her position. Out of optimism, I had reassured her when she came in that her rapist would be caught and that what she had gone through would not be forgotten. But it was forgotten. The rape kit had not yielded much evidence, not enough for the prosecutor to file charges. And because Rachel had known the man, he said, it would be difficult to prove that the encounter had been nonconsensual. Rachel left the shelter, clutching the protective order we had filed for her. 

*

Amna and I did not see each other again for nearly a decade. When we did, it was at City College, in New York City, at a lecture I was giving about the lies one needs to tell in order to live. The piece was sardonic. I confessed to lies I’d told in order to survive as a brown woman in America, and lies I’d told in Pakistan to be able to push boundaries. When people asked me where I was from and why I had come to America, I avoided the truth, which was that I had moved from Pakistan at the age of seventeen because of an arranged marriage. It was a lot for most people to hear. (As it had been a lot for me.) The truthful answer positioned me as a Muslim to be feared and as a woman to be pitied. So instead I said that I came for college. This, I thought, made me sound like a stronger woman. At the end of the performance, I cynically pronounced that lies were the brown feminist way.  

Amna had texted me a week earlier. I knew from her social media posts that she had moved back to the United States. The work she’d been doing as a member of the National Assembly of Pakistan had proved taxing—nearly all the political parties had formed a united front of deeply embedded misogyny. And in an effort to survive on the paltry salary she received (she refused to take bribes), Amna had been splitting her time between two continents. She would travel to the United States for six weeks, moonlight as a physician in remote hospitals and ERs, and then live off the proceeds in Pakistan.

There were other truths about our careers that we had to confront. In different ways, both of us had been prevented from doing the jobs we felt were the best way to help women. In 2012, the Department of Justice cut funding allocations under the Violence Against Women Act that paid for the legal-aid program I worked for at the women’s shelter. Without the grant money, there was no program, and no job.

Amna’s story, per the pattern of our friendship, was far more dramatic. What had stopped her work was not funding; it was banishment. In summer of 2012, the Supreme Court of Pakistan held a hearing on the issue of dual nationals. They judged that, according to the country’s constitution, anyone holding dual nationality was disqualified from holding political office. Within days, a criminal case was lodged against Amna. She was found guilty of deception for not declaring herself a dual national on the forms she had filed with the Election Commission of Pakistan. Her defense was that there was no place on the form to state such a fact. Though she was eventually acquitted of the charges, her family, which included a former Supreme Court justice, turned against her. Her husband, no longer enamored of her public profile, grew abusive, freely spending the money she’d earned during her trips to America. Amna had had no choice but to leave the country. In her absence, she was declared an “absconder.”

The dual nationality issue was a front for deeper disgruntlement. Amna had upended the system, making visible the cases of the raped women who’d been left to die and the corruption of local leaders. People from remote villages began arriving at her doorstep every morning to seek her assistance. She made connections in small villages and settlements, and developed influence with the Punjab Assembly. In the meantime, the list of Amna’s enemies grew and grew. Because she refused to be dependent on the wheeling and dealing that was a mainstay of political life, she was considered a threat.

That night in New York we stayed up late, talking and planning. By the morning, we had a plan. I had been invited to teach a class at City College on guerrilla feminism, and I would stay with Amna in New York City for the duration of the semester. We were gleeful—we had spent our lives fighting, and now we, two fighters, would be living together. 

*

This was how Amna and I ended up being together on the morning that Dr. Christine Blasey Ford stood on Capitol Hill to take her oath before the Senate Judiciary Committee. As we watched, our stomachs churned with the fear and anger that so many women felt. We couldn’t move. We couldn’t eat or drink.

The intensity of our connection to her was somewhat surprising. From the outside, neither of us seemed to have much in common with Blasey Ford, no quick affinities. But we instantly recognized the failure of the law to serve feminist causes. In Pakistan, many legal protections existed for women: laws against honor killings, domestic violence, and sexual harassment. And yet, as Amna’s experience as a legislator showed, there was no cultural movement to uphold these laws, demand their enforcement, and transform society. Amna had tried to spur a grassroots movement, but it had not materialized.

Like so many other American women, I had watched with relief and hope as the heads of predatory men fell under the force of the #MeToo movement. I told myself that change would trickle down. First we would shame men in the public eye, then achieve legal reform for all the laws that shortchanged women in divorce and custody, that set impossible evidentiary standards for sexual assault and rape, that made it nearly impossible for sexual harassment cases to go to criminal trial. After the movement got going, laws that would bolster the position of women would come. 

As we watched Blasey Ford’s testimony, we hoped this living tableau of feminist struggle would mean something. That it could, maybe, mean change. 

*

It was not to be. On October 6, 2018, Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed to the United States Supreme Court. The same day, he was sworn in as a justice. As Amna and I mourned, as women in America mourned, something else happened. The chasm that for me and Amna had separated America and Pakistan, the two arenas of our lives and our activism, seemed suddenly less cavernous. The distance between the liberated women of America and the oppressed women of Pakistan has for years been a bedrock assumption of global feminism. This idea—that the US is many rungs above Pakistan on a ladder of liberation that every society is climbing—lies beneath every dialogue between women at the United Nations, or at the World Bank, or at the many forums where members of Pakistani empowerment programs ask for funds. One side, the white and Western side, knows better than the other; one side boasts gender equality, parity laws, and a culture eager to invest in them. The other does not. 

Kavanaugh’s confirmation made evident that misogyny here was no different from misogyny there. It ended the premise that America in particular, and the West more generally, was the place to flee to rather than flee from. It can be said now that there is no special flavor to the patriarchal cruelties of Pakistani village councils, to the tortures inflicted by the Taliban; it is all the same poison, meted out by US Senate committees just as by tribal jirgas.

There is, somehow, hope and possibility in this. If the contours of misogyny and patriarchy are similar, if the lies and abuses and denials are made of the same fabric, then women speak a common language. These collective truths have been deliberately obscured by #MeToo deniers, by Blasey Ford’s interrogators, by those who have quietly let abusers continue inhabiting their jobs and their perches of power. 

It will take a little while to make this into the universal discourse it could be: a global feminism based on an equality of suffering. A common resistance made of resilience. Just as women’s bodies remember the traumas inflicted upon them, so, too, must women remember to expect justice and to demand it. The pain of one woman can make millions come together and forge a collective whole.

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