As a man, it had not occurred to me that smoking a cigarette could be such a powerful political statement for a woman.
As a doctor, it is not possible for me to endorse smoking of any kind. As a feminist and a social political writer, I find myself applauding Mahira Khan for the power she has bestowed to women’s resistance movement. I am taking into consideration her contribution to exposing the deep-seated misogyny of ghairat-mongering Pakistani men. The nicotine in Mahira’s veins is ostensibly as harmful to patriarchy as it may be to her personal health.
Some may argue that this is not what ‘feminism’ is supposed to look like. If anything, Mahira depicts a self-defeating brand of feminism that would expire from self-induced emphysema before landing a single meaningful blow to institutionalized sexism. But these are usually the ones who underestimate the perversity of anti-women attitudes, which can be just as dangerous as a stick of tobacco.
Mahira Khan inadvertently made a powerful political point. “What point?” inquires the angry anti-feminist. “That women should start smoking to fight patriarchy?” The point is that boundaries of what “good women” are permitted to do, cannot be determined by a male-dominated society. Women are in charge of their own lives and their own lungs, and random boys on the internet just have to find a way to get over it.
Consider Rosa Parks – an American black-rights icon – who famously refused to vacate her seat on the bus for a white man. “What’s the point?” inquires the casual racist. “That black women shouldn’t let white men sit on a bus?” The point is that white people should not have the exclusive privilege to determine the limits of black people’s freedom.
The right to wear a backless dress and smoke might seem like petty goals for feminism; so is the right to occupy a seat in a ‘whites-only’ section of a bus. But those aren’t goals in themselves, as much as they are statements of protest against the rules of a prejudiced system. Mahira Khan’s does not require anyone’s permission to be able to smoke a cigarette.
The scale of ignorance that is on display on Pakistani social media, is a sample of the hate Qandeel Baloch faced on a regular basis. Even defenders of women’s rights like Momina Mustahesan fell straight through the pseudo-moral trap of issuing a tsk-tsk to Qandeel Baloch. The same Momina then defended Mahira Khan’s right to do whatever she pleases with her own right. The comparison of her support to Mahira and her condemnation of Qandeel Baloch offers an important teaching moment about the absurdity of non-intersectional feminism; a sort of feminism that seeks to safeguard nothing more than the rights of one’s own class. The trolling of Mahira over a picture of her smoking a cigarette, is a threat that Momina’s class of educated female celebrities may easily relate to. Momina does not expect to find herself in the same position as Qandeel Baloch, therefore the latter’s right to her body is not as worthy of defense under the umbrella of self-serving feminism as Mahira’s right to a cigarette.
Activism is not meant to be a personal struggle. It is, almost by definition, caring about issues that do not affect you personally. It is about collective welfare, and is fundamentally socialist in nature. Anything else is self-service masquerading as social justice.
The outrage against Mahira is evidence that the country’s abundance of ghairatmand men are paradoxically the source of its greatest shame. The world is not nearly as concerned about women who curse and wear short dresses, as it is mortified by Pakistani boys hurling abuses at women who are doing nothing but exercising control over their own lives.
And to those ‘moderates’ who frown at Mahira’s pictures arguing that it does not help women’s rights; well, it depends on what you understand by ‘feminism’. Is ‘feminism’ not about pushing the boundaries of women’s liberty, and ensuring that they have the right to make the same decisions – healthy or not – that men have always been able to make?
“Good women” are of no value to this country’s sociopolitical progress, because what’s “good” is defined by a system that is rigged against women. The torch is being wielded by “bad” women who defy society’s expectation of what they are allowed or not allowed to do with their own bodies; thereby making a statement that the boundaries are their own to draw.