What does burnout look like for Pakistani feminists?

I felt exhausted and helpless. And eventually, listless. I was burnt out.
Updated Dec 27, 2019 04:27pm


I was late to the party. I didn’t want to be an activist. I didn’t even want to be a feminist.

I mean, I had always known that I wanted to be an agent of societal change, but I thought that in order to be that, I had to climb to certain heights to be effective. On some level, I still believe that — that activism can only go so far. How much can we scream into the ether before we’re hoarse or likely dead?

But in the past two years, there was one incontrovertible truth that I could no longer disregard: The women’s rights movement was making actual headway.

Angry feminists demanding their due were pulling down powerful and cruel men. Women were walking the streets and social media became a weapon. Videos of men misbehaving started circulating and the people were crying for their heads. Even capitalism, that bandwagon jumping monster, co-opted feminism and ad campaigns seemed designed to appease the ‘woke’ masses. It was happening everywhere.

This was working.

And here I was sat in Pakistan. Where human rights abuses are so normal that we have them knocking at our windows. A lowered window, a quick crisp and cold note, a moment of self-aggrandising charity and we’ve driven quickly past. The injustices are varied and many, and righteous anger is easy to come by as a result.

Diving into activism

First world feminism is difficult because of the necessity for nuanced discourse, whereas third world feminism is difficult because of the very real danger of death and mutilation.

We ask for simple things. Basic human rights, an end to jirga-sponsored gang rape, an end to the concept of honour killings and acid attacks... the ability to simply walk our own streets and live to tell the tale. Sexual minority rights. This is a simple fight with its faultfinders clear monsters — the type of monsters who denounce activists and advise their followers to rape them.

So when I began to work towards ending the arm of the patriarchy in Pakistan, I was afraid but full to the brim of that energetic zeal every feminist requires to function in the face of the abyss that is patriarchal cruelty. I could handle it. We were part of a global fight, the momentum of which could propel us to heights unimagined — particularly in Pakistan.

I researched, I wrote, I stood by women in desperate need, I promoted feminism in my capacity as an admin of a prominent women-only Facebook group and I tried my best to be a person women could turn to for help.

And so it began. People knew to reach out to me for help. I would be woken up by phone calls of women terrified that their ex-husbands had kidnapped their children. I would wake up in the morning to consistently stressful news such as Jamila Ansari, a feminist activist, having been murdered by her husband for her activism.


How do you explain to angry men that by criticising women’s rights’ activists in Pakistan, you were promoting their death, mutilation and rape?


I would be in meetings when I’d get news like an activist had been arrested, her family desperate for news of her whereabouts. Journalists would vanish and return after a "talking to”. Women and girls were coming forward with new stories of harassment at the hands of celebrities and businessmen.

Children were turning up raped and dead, their bodies destroyed and the land baying for justice — “let’s hang him! Let’s hang him publicly for all the world to see how much we hate him!”

How do you explain to a triggered nation what public hangings could do to us on a subconscious level? How do you explain to angry men that by criticising women’s rights’ activists in Pakistan, you were promoting their death, mutilation and rape? I was properly immersed and I couldn’t breathe.

And then came the barrage. The consistent disdain and aggressive discourse. We were the privileged feminists with the audacity to speak for women who were so far removed from us and our experiences. We weren’t the ‘real feminists’. People questioned our motives, called us hypocrites and made us each pay dearly for any misstep any one of us may have made.

Yet, I persevered. As we all do.

Spotted at Aurat March 2019.
Spotted at Aurat March 2019.

Recently, however, I found myself falling steadily and strangely into silence. There was no one particular thing that had happened; it was more the weight of a consistent bombardment.

I couldn’t see a child on the street without thinking of how 90% of street children are raped on their first day out. I couldn’t see a woman in a burqa without wondering whether she was wearing it on pain of death. Or whether she was to be kidnapped. I couldn’t see underfed children without seeing flashes of those images from Kasur. I worried about every Hindu or Christian person I met. I felt exhausted and helpless. And eventually, listless.

I was burnt out.

What does burnout look like for activists?

Activism, by its very nature, faces consistent forms of defeat that seem irreversible. You’ve spent so much passion, you’re emotionally invested and you’re consistently battle-weary. And then you lose. And you’re losing against what feels like an insurmountable and global evil.

Stress, anxiety and depression are part and parcel of this: if you don’t work on self-care and let these feelings fester, you’ll find yourself suffering from burnout.

Burnout was first coined by psychologist Herbert J. Freudenberger in the 1970s He defined it as a “state of mental and physical exhaustion caused by one's professional life.'' I faced this once before as a teacher, but thought the passion I had for activism would help propel me past any of those feelings, but it didn’t.

In fact, this burnout felt quite different, almost like heartbreak.

In the study “Nobody’s paying me to cry”: The Causes of Activist Burnout in United States Animal Rights Activists, researchers found three major causes of activist burnout.

1. Intrinsic motivational and psychological factors: Due to an intense emotional and passionate connection to their activism, activists feel a sense of personal responsibility to work indefatigably — martyrdom, essentially,
2. Organisational and movement culture: An uncompassionate culture that shames and emotionally blackmails activists in to giving more than they can healthily give and
3. In-fighting and marginalisation amongst activists: Interpersonal tension, hostility and in-fighting lends to exhaustion and a sense of having to cope with consistent oppression and bias.

Comedian Shehzad Ghias, a vocal supporter of women’s rights, attempted in his own way to discredit and mock men attacking the Aurat March by pretending to be part of a ‘Mard’ March. Fellow women’s rights’ activists launched into an attack at his audacity to “use the movement like that.”

He’s been bullied online repeatedly, having his masculinity questioned by one group of people (his own gender) and then on the other end of the spectrum, having his character assassinated by his own people. I reached out to Shehzad for his thoughts on activist burnout.

Related: Should feminists claim Aurat March’s ‘vulgar’ posters? Yes, absolutely

“You can’t pour from an empty cup, and anyone posting online must practice self-care and self-empathy. It’s important to take a break, it doesn’t mean you’re weak or giving up the fight,” he said.

“Recharge and come back with a new perspective. Sometimes when you’re in the thick of it, you’re just fighting fires and you don’t see the bigger picture. Anyone feeling burnt out, take a step back, reflect and live to fight another day. Like I did!”

A feminist publication of which I am now the editor, was also taken to task for investigating Patari and interviewing a member of its leadership regarding allegations against their CEO.

What was meant to be an investigative series looking into companies at the centre of the #MeTooPakistan movement was seen as an unnecessary attempt to give a platform to someone who was allegedly standing by an alleged harasser.

Strangely, the most vocal critics were those who had (anonymously) helped staff write the questions for the interview.

Also read: Responses to Dua Mangi’s abduction are proof that our society loves to victim blame

Our social media accounts faced hacking attempts and our online publication’s backend came under attack. Writers left us, editors left our editorial council. People were worried that there was no room for investigative feminist journalism in the faith based #MeToo movement and were convinced that they would be attacked by their own people.

We took down the interview and people erroneously assumed that it was done so at the behest of Patari. An organisation that was founded by feminists for feminists, was crippled by feminists.

Be gentle — to yourself and others

I’ve now taken a step back, focusing on self-care. I ask here that the public please be gentle towards those people who have the audacity to believe that they can change the world.

Understand that they do this out of a desire to help and this is everything — everything — to them. When you interact with activists negatively, what you say and do cuts deep. Who will be left standing to demand that you receive your rights?