A month after the US election, feminist writers, activists, lawyers, artists and journalists across the South Asian region are still processing the shocking victory of Donald Trump, whose campaign rhetoric was consistently obnoxious and misogynistic.
Shocked and upset over the result, many said they felt deeply saddened by what Americans had done and made them reflective of their struggle for women’s rights in their country.
Several women interviewed for this piece said they were looking forward to Hillary Clinton becoming the first American female president but towards the final days of the US presidential campaign they could sense Trump’s victory, albeit tinged with anxiety.
“Four days before the election I began telling people around me that I hope Americans don’t do what we do. Pakistanis treat election day as a holiday and cook biryani,” said Zahida Hina, Karachi-based novelist and op-ed writer who wrote several columns backing Democratic party and Hillary Clinton in daily Express.
Guwahati-based writer and executive editor of Eclectic NorthEast Nasreen Habib anticipated Trump’s victory “even though I dreaded it”.
The shocking result of UK’s approval of Brexit on June 23 was one of the reasons for expecting Trump’s victory.
“I had an anxiety that Trump might win because after Brexit it was clear that people are choosing protectionism. The mood is anti-globalisation,” said Swati Bhattacharjee, an assistant editor at Kolkata-based Bengali daily Anand Bazaar Patrika and general secretary of the Indian chapter of South Asian Women in Media (SAWM).
Lahore-based artist and activist Farida Batool also cited Brexit as a harbinger for Trump’s success. “Because of Brexit I had a feeling … people didn’t realize what they were doing when they voted for Brexit.”
For Udaari and Humsafar serial writer Farhat Ishtiaq, “the kind of anti-immigrant, anti-Islam, anti-women” speechifying by Trump was the underlying reason she felt he would win the election. “People were feeling these things but were not saying it and here comes someone like Trump who gave a voice to their feelings.”
‘Unable to process’
But now that American people have put Trump in power, women in the region have yet to come to terms with it, feeling dejected and angry.
“I was not at all anticipating his victory and feel particularly bad he won the election especially [keeping in mind] his crude comments about women,” said Asma Jahangir, Lahore-based human rights lawyer and activist.
“I find it impossible to believe the US would vote in this manner. I am really upset,” said theatre actor, director, dancer Sheema Kermani, who lives in Karachi.
Editor-in-chief of The News Minute Dhanya Rajendran, headquartered in Bengalaru, and independent journalist Geeta Seshu, based in Mumbai, echoed similar sentiments. “Trump’s victory will possibly have such far-reaching consequences that I am unable to process it just as a woman and a journalist,” said Dhanya.
“I was shaken by the extent of misogyny the election seemed to show up,” said Geeta.
Just like us
Pakistani feminists drew comparisons between US electioneering and that of Pakistan.
“Our election system is not good but then this election also made one realise their system is not great either. The only difference is they accept the result whereas we don’t,” said Farhat.
“And you know how it is here, women say, ‘it is okay, tolerate beatings of your husband, after all he is a man,’ there the American women were justifying Trump’s vulgar comments about women saying ‘this is how men talk’. All their education seems to have made no difference,” added Farhat.
The whole campaign made Farida recall the discussion she had with her students at the National College of Arts Lahore about the male voice lending authenticity. “I remember reading Michael Moore’s piece about the election and he wrote what if Hillary Clinton was not a woman, in other words what Moore is saying the conservative belt would have reacted differently. Their fear was, he wrote, the next president would be a transgender.”
This could be, as a lot of people were saying, because America is perhaps not ready for a female president. “It is not entirely possible to write off the fact that the US may still not be ready for a woman president,” said Colombo-based editor and lawyer Dilrukshi Handunetti.
“I do think US is ready but Hillary Clinton was not that female,” said Summer Qassim, lecturer at the Department of Social Sciences, Institute of Business Administration, Karachi.
Others said it had more do than gender bias. “It was anti-Clintonism and Hillary was seen as the establishment,” said Asma.
“It is difficult to make out how much of Hillary Clinton’s defeat was because of lack of faith in women. She was probably not seen as a dependable, transparent and dynamic leader, even by a section of educated women. People may still vote for economic or political policies related to livelihood,” said Swati.
In an email interview, Dilrukshi wrote: “It appears that Trump’s campaign, though appears aggressive without logic, has managed to address some core fears and phobias of the American public such as Islamophobia, terrorism, immigrants including refugees.”
“Hillary openly supported LGBT rights not understanding how conservative America is. Plus the emails released during the last leg of the campaign also affected the outcome,” said Zahida.
‘Women don’t have an independent voice’
Post-election, these women reflected on feminism and the role of women in politics.
“Our society is filled with double standards. We still have difficulty talking about feminist issues when they are human rights issues,” said Farida.
Explaining this further she told of instances of masters students sent to her by male colleagues whose thesis topics in any way relate to women. “I feel feminism is treated as a gaali [swear word].”
The minimal presence of women in political parties is what Zahida finds troubling. “PML-N should know this is the 21st century and they have to bring their female political workers to the fore. Fauzia Kasuri and Andleeb Abbas have been treated terribly in PTI. The way Imran Khan speaks about women and the way he treats them, it seems as if he and Trump are long-lost brothers. Faryal Talpur should be pushed to one side and deserving educated women of PPP such as Nafisa Shah, Sherry Rehman and Shazia Marri should be brought in leading positions.”
Sheema said even though Pakistani women are in the parliament yet “they hold men as crutches. They don’t have their own independent voice.”
With respect to India, Nasreen said: “The ruling BJP government has a handful of women and they are often pitted against each other as if only women compete with women.”
When asked what is the way forward, Swati replied: “Trump’s win is a reminder of what we are up against. There are many Trumps by other names. Women in the US and other countries will still have to fight most of the same fights.”
Geeta felt women need to “keep trying to wrest political power everywhere” and according to Dhanya “one significant learning is we have to learn to engage with conservative voters better, to engage with opponents with respect and intelligence.”
“Encouraging young women in student politics in India is the way forward,” said Nasreen.
Farhat doesn’t have high hopes though. “Some people were saying Trump was talking in this way just to get votes and as president he will be different. But I think he too deep down in his heart felt this way. He is going to do exactly what he said during the campaign. Divisions between Muslims and non-Muslims, whites and blacks are further going to escalate.”