I am a woman. If someone were to ask me what that meant or what it was to be a woman, for all my accumulated experience, qualifications, and extensive reading lists, I would not be able to give an answer. At least not one nuanced enough to convince the feminazis, the post-modern skeptics or the painfully kind patriarchal figures that quietly patrol the outer edges of my life, and of all women who live in patriarchal societies. But thankfully no one has asked me that yet. Perhaps that is one reason I have never felt the need to truly question myself or my position despite living in a densely gendered society – or maybe that is precisely why no one has.

Yesterday I attended a seminar organized by the Pakistan Women’s Foundation for Peace in order to celebrate International Woman’s Day, on the subject of “Women’s Empowerment- -a victim of poor governance”. I expected to hear an array of talks on failed government incentives and partial legislations, failed social policies and so on. This I heard, and more.

In something of a reverie I found myself later that evening quietly sitting at the back of the Beach Luxury’s Jasmine hall listening to Dr. Huma Baqai talk about traits women were found to excel in according to a recent study whose name I failed to catch.

Women’s empowerment finds itself a pressing concern in a country as struggling as ours but as speaker after speaker punctuated their talk with phrases like “economic justice”, “women’s place in the socio-economic order”, and Dr. Asad Sayeed’s explanation of “micro-health insurance plans” designed to protect women’s “assets”, I became aware that the discourse on paths to empowerment has subtly but undeniably shifted. In place of the more commonly called upon education and citizen building initiatives, the emphasis was being laid squarely on the shoulders of the monetary giant.

The talks touched upon, but did not bring health, education or domestic rights into the forefront, implying that giving women access to capital would eventually pave the way for the rest of their needs to be met. The axis of empowerment has now clearly become the economic one. And as capitalism and free market enterprises have become monolithic concerns, of both professional and scholarly dialectics, it struck me that the woman equation was not to be left out of it at any cost. It is no longer just women in first world countries who are fighting for wage equality, who feel they need to fight for themselves and free agency of their own bodies, but women below the poverty line living in chauvinistic settings, who also feel that they can gain firm footing for all that they lack through incentives offered to them in domains of business and enterprise.

From what I have always understood, women are projects in the social domain, projects that are constantly being worked on and worked upon world over. Everywhere I looked I had always seen campaigns and projects aimed at bettering their sense of self, helping them overcome domestic issues, raising educated children and so on. In no way do I feel these efforts are fruitless or meaningless, but as I sat there yesterday listening to the speakers, remembering the working passion of silent and strong feminine shadows of my own experiences of womanhood, I could not help but think of Donna Haraway’s seminal work ‘The Cyborg Manifesto’.

For Haraway, cyborgs are, simply put, intelligently evolved women. She writes that cyborgs are “entities made of, first, ourselves and other organic creatures in our unchosen ‘high-technological’ guise as information systems, texts, and ergonomically controlled laboring, desiring, and reproducing systems.” In a dynamically changing political, scientific, and economic world becoming a machine, no matter how efficient or sophisticated, lacks vision. I cannot think of a single woman I know in Pakistan who would find that their ultimate aspiration. In our developing capitalistic setting where economic salvation is being looked upon as the only salvation, it occurred to me that an alternative mode to the ‘cog in the wheel’ and the ‘mechanical coil’ that is our lives is highly desirable.

There is no denying that poverty stricken women are most in need of our attention, and quick fix solutions are best available through financial assistance. But unsettlingly the more I look into current dialogues on the matter, economic empowerment seems to have become the woman social activist’s slogan, byword for emancipation and demand: a slice of the pie, wage equality, credit eligibility and all that jazz. I undoubtedly agree that all of those things are important, but it would be a reductive exercise imagining that to be the ‘be all end all’ point for women’s emancipation, national or global.  

So what can women do? Well for Haraway, the answer lies in the ability of women to go above and beyond limiting binaries. By using whatever tools at hand, whether cognitive, material or otherwise, women can forge new frontiers for themselves. And this is what I see ordinary women around me striving for and encouraging.  Making use of the economic system, rather than being used by it, for women’s needs is where empowerment might find a more permanent home. Education is, of course, relevant but more advanced resources must be made use of to attain goals that affect more than half of the world’s population after all.

It is not strange how out of all the critical material on the question of women I have come across, my mind settled on the one where women are fluid and natural derivatives of the tools they have at hand. This is surely what my mother and aunts did, this is what I see women in almost all social circles consistently doing, and even what I wish for; utilization of every possible asset, including my time. In truth, this is perhaps what Pakistani women need to do: undergo a mind process which allows them to understand their limitations, diversity amongst all our sub-groups, and an active engagement with all that surrounds us, including what is profitable (in more senses than one) and what is not.   

If women are part of the overarching social and financial structures of the world, then they will not settle for simply being recognized – rather they feel they must be represented on all fronts. If capitalism’s logical conclusion is to commoditize all resources, including people, then one must deal the same hand to women- -for mutual benefit of course.  And if women refuse to limit themselves to economic drudgery, become Cyborgs, work with the tools supplied to them by a swiftly mutating economy and advancing technology, re-defining the needs and obstacles they face, then perhaps what it means to be a woman will no longer have to be sorted, classified, or justified.