Lahore in the summer is colonised by lawn billboards. Fifty-foot women flanking the Jinnah flyover informing us that lawn season is here. IT’S HERE, and this is only Vol 1. I think their ubiquity is supposed to elicit a Pavlovian reaction in women stuck in traffic. But behind those lawn billboards, behind every patronising reassurance that ‘Main Perfect Hoon’, there’s an undercurrent of commodity feminism. Don’t listen to the patriarchy – shrug off your husband, ignore your mother-in-law, forget your friends, but hey girl, we’re here for you, we’re your ultimate friend. Buy this, wear this, why? because YOU’RE WORTH IT, YOU DESERVE IT. We’re empowering you to go get all you want, your hopes and dreams of being a strong woman with that elusive healthy self-esteem just like the women in the ads. All for the low, low price of Rs.7,975 (note: the suit is three-piece, unstitched, and made by people who won’t even see a tenth of that price).
Yes, we should all be feminists but Khaadi’s new song shows why commodity feminism is bullshit. If you weren’t already taking everything corporations sell us with a salt lake then get ready to start. This is a clip from the video. It perfectly exemplifies everything that’s wrong not only with commodity feminism but how far the movement has gone astray in the desire to make it ‘mainstream’. The female singers in the song are literally shown above the male labourers working in Dickensian-like conditions presumably making the clothes that Khaadi sells. Female empowerment hovers above the poor working classes who remain at the bottom of the oppressive structure – yet now they have the prospect of being ruled over by both men and women.
Instead of a political movement that demands a massive overhaul of the system, mainstream feminism today is more about keeping the structures as they are and just ensuring there are more women at the top. As Jessa Crispin says, “If you have women in positions of power behaving like men do, that is not a defeat of the patriarchy. … That’s just patriarchy with women in it.” Crispin is staunchly against feminism in a capitalist framework and argues that unless we get rid of the hierarchy, we can’t get rid of patriarchy.
Representation has become the most important hallmark of women’s success. As a result, we celebrate Pakistan’s first female CEO of a large commercial bank and the fact that we have had a female President without questioning the power structures that are inherently patriarchal, nepotistic and oppressive. Instead of seeing this as the Pyrrhic victory it is, those lucky few are supposed to be an example for the rest of us – see what you can do if you lean in? See how those bad bitches get ahead in a man’s world! So what if the women at the bottom of the pecking order are in exactly the same position as before? At least now they get to sweep homes where the women are also company heads! At least we get to have female ministers who can drop bombs on foreign countries as well as men can!
The ‘lean in’ fad had me for a while because I’m great at helping the economy with self-loathing. It’s so damn attractive to think that you can get ahead so long as you just change your entire personality and assert yourself Don Draper style. This is why people now market themselves all the damn time. You can’t even scroll down your Facebook news feed without being sold on someone’s fucking brand as if a potential employer might be on your friends list. But this shit is exactly what capitalism wants. It wants us to foster a sense of individualism that makes us believe we can get ahead by doing everything our employers demand of us and ‘have it all’ by employing people on barely-there wages to do all the other stuff you no longer have time for. If we give our all to compete with and be better than everyone else, it means we’re less likely to form cohesive bonds with our co-workers. When your bosses’ approval is all you need to get ahead, you can’t see the forest for the wood factory. We’ve bought into the framework so much we’ve started to see our employment as our self-worth, revelling in our boss’ inability to cope without us, and our need to work overtime. We’re not only complicit in our own exploitation, we get off on it.
In the Khaadi video, we’re supposed to focus on those empowered (middle-upper class) women rather than the sweatshop labour behind them. Feminism becomes a mere smokescreen, a Potemkin village masking the terrible plight of labourers at garment factories and the fact that we have one of the lowest labour costs in the world yet make around $12.5 billion in import income from the work produced by that labour. Let’s focus on the capital e Empowerment sheeple!
This consumerism is targeted at women because we’re better at buying shit. The beauty myth perpetuated by the patriarchy makes us easy to convince that we’re a product away from looking and feeling better. This is why body positivism is an unwelcome change. Gul Ahmed’s ‘Main Perfect Hoon’ campaign was all about thin, fair, and tall no longer being the only signs of a Pakistani beauty. You can be dark, fat and short and we’ll still consider you beautiful and you can see yourselves in an ad to prove it and ALL of you should buy our lawn. This doesn’t change the myth, it just changes the goalposts. You still have to be beautiful, we’ll just make the definition more inclusive. Buy that black dress you’ve always wanted, don’t think, don’t hesitate, don’t ever have a moral dilemma about anything. Treat yoself girlfriend, you deserve it! Your value comes directly from what you own, not only because you can afford it, but because you’re worth it. Don’t think about how that product got on the shelves, you’ve had a hard day at work anyway, just engage in some selfish hedonism for once (read: always).
Crispin questions this side of feminism. She asks what is left in calling yourself a feminist if everything you do, from getting a blow-out to buying the shit you’re sold, is now empowerment. What does the word mean now that it’s been hijacked by capitalism? The answer is nothing. It’s meaningless. If your movement is less concerned with reforming the system than being ingrained within it, it’s lost its purpose.
Feminism can be much more than this. Let’s reclaim it. Get woke about corporate exploitation. Boycott companies known for poor working conditions. Stop buying shit we don’t need. Burn down lawn billboards.