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What needs to change

“With religion as their worldview and feudalism and patriarchy as their systems of delivery, Pakistan’s politics and sociology are rigged against the emancipation of women,” analysts share their views

What needs to change

Why do Pakistani men hate their female counterparts so much? They hate them at home, in the market place, on TV and even in the air conditioned sanctum of the parliament? “And they hate them with an intensity that borders on the passionate,” says media and political analyst, Adnan Rehmat.

They dole out the most horrendous and barbaric punishment anyone can imagine — from acid attacks to forcing them to marry, to handing them over as retribution in the form of vani and swara. They may be stoned or flogged; even raped and gang-raped and if that is not enough then murdered but before that burnt alive.

Side-by-side these “real” world crimes committed against the women is the technology related violence meted out on them which is not on the radar. They are stalked, bullied and blackmailed.

Add to that the daily fare of a volley of verbal sexist abuse thrown at them by husbands, brothers, fathers and now even political leaders, that too, in full public view.

“The spate of violence — both physical and verbal — against women in Pakistan reported over the last few weeks is bad even by Pakistani standards,” says Rehmat, pointing to the recent “burning” of women for wanting to marry of free will; “misogyny in statements” by members of the cabinet; “catcalling” fellow women legislators and use of “uncouth language by a religious party senator” as well as attempted physical assault on a woman panelist on a talk show.

Why did young Zeenat Rafiq of Lahore have to fall in love and elope to get married to a person her family did not approve of? She had to be made an example by being burnt alive; a week before 19-year old Maria Sadaqat, was murdered in Murree by a group of men for refusing to marry the son of the owner of a school where she taught.

Then Khawaja Asif, the Defence Minister of Pakistan who is also the minister of water and power, put his mask down when he ridiculed Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf leader, Dr Shireen Mazari, for her appearance and voice in front of the parliament.

The heat had not even settled on Asif‘s unwarranted ranting when Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam’s (Fazl) senator, Hafiz Hamdullah, attacked rights activist Marvi Sirmed in a talk show in what nuclear physicist Dr Pervez Hoodbhoy termed a language “laced with sexual filth”.

“When even parliamentarians can do this publicly, it underscores the decreased dignity accorded to women in today’s hyper-religious environment,” says Hoodbhoy, a public intellectual.

To classical dancer, Sheema Kirmani, one way to end violence against women is to make Pakistan a secular society. “Remove religion from public life and the state and make religion a private matter,” she says emphatically.

But many say violence against women in Pakistan is nothing new. Between 2014 and 2015, nearly 933 people, mostly women, were killed for honour in the country, according to official figures provided by the Ministry of Human Rights in 2015. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) reported 1,096 cases of honour killing during the same period.

Read also: Where there is no honour

There is a growing display of “callous disregard for the rights of women and downright maleficent behaviour by senior representatives of government and parliament,” says Rehmat.

“Despite gallant movements by women to resist this tide of misogyny, the country’s overtly patriarchal character is being reinforced by indirect support from the government’s indifference to suffering of women,” he says.

“With religion as their worldview and feudalism and patriarchy as their systems of delivery, Pakistan’s politics and sociology in their current forms are rigged against the emancipation of women,” he explains.

“It is difficult to end this violence as it suits men and women will continue to suffer,” laments Dr Shershah Syed, renowned obstetrician and gynecologist.

“Religious leaders believe that women are there to serve and please men and no other role is acceptable,” says Syed, who often treats young girls brought to him with severe injuries to their genitalia and pregnant women beaten up blue and black.

“And it’s in keeping with Council of Islamic Ideology and other Islamist thought — that women cannot have a role in public sphere. They must be wives only — and that too obedient to men else they’ll be beaten,” says Afiya Zia, a feminist researcher-scholar.

“Little wonder then that the average person believes that giving equal rights to women will overturn the status quo and to counter this they resort to their comfort-zone influence over women’s futures and fates as arbiters instead of facilitators,” says Rehmat.

But associate professor, Kausar S. Khan, who heads the Division of Behavioural and Social Sciences at Karachi’s Aga Khan University, finds hope in the ongoing protests by the civil society.

Protests there may be, but where are the Pakistani men? asks Zia. “Why don’t masses of men come out saying they condemn the idea of beating wives or boycott the channel on which women are abused,” she says, referring to the recent Marvi Sirmed vs Hamdullah altercation.

Zia also has problem with armchair protestors who “only tweet or issue statements” from the safety of their living rooms.

“Where is their presence and why aren’t they challenging these criminals?” she asks, adding, “Simply venting on social media is beyond ineffective — it’s self indulgent.” She mourns that Pakistani women have “very few defenders”.

“We must not allow ourselves to be dragged into the quagmire of despair and lament,” says Khan. She believes there is a need to assess the psyche of the perpetrators to understand them before violence can be stopped.

“Those who abuse, kill and maim women have a peculiar psychology that needs to be fathomed in order to curtail it.”

The Pakistani law may allow a woman to marry of her choice, Islam may give the woman a right to choose her spouse, but cultural norms and traditions do not. So, while the world may be in the 21st century, in the mind of Pakistani men, women must continue to lead the life as in the 18th century.

“People are confused that, on the one hand, there is progressive legislation and, on the other, such horrific brutality,” says Zia, but adds that it is not a contradiction, it’s complimentary.

“Women break boundaries now — more working, more marrying of their own will, more vocal in the parliament and defying male rules and codes in homes and communities. And the state is legally bound to protect them. So the only way men can deal with controlling women like in the past or regaining control is by punishing defiant women themselves,” she explains, citing American author and journalist Susan Faludis’ warning of a “backlash” (incidentally also the title of one of her books).

“This violence is to send the message that women who don’t fall into line will be punished by men as representatives of God even if the state won’t take action,” says Zia.

Zohra Yusuf, chairperson of the HRCP agrees with Zia. “I believe patriarchy is feeling threatened by the progress (even if slow) that women are making and the courage they are showing in asserting some rights (such as the right to choose a marriage partner).”

But what Yusuf finds beyond shocking is mothers’ involvement in killing of daughters.

To add insult to injury, Pakistan government’s official religious council — the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) that enjoys financial favour with the government which allocates a whopping Rs100 million annually has fanned violence perpetrated against women by coming up with misogynistic recommendations on the role of women in society.

The latest suggestion being that it is alright for husbands to “lightly” beat their wives if they turn down sex. They even want the minimum age of marriage to be lowered to as young as nine if a girls shows “visible” signs of puberty.

Zia finds such pronouncements “extremely dangerous” because they “offer moral impunity”. “Those who say these statements are innocuous or redundant or are in denial,” she warns.

Hoodbhoy, on the other hand, has observed that while Pakistan’s English-speaking elite may have responded with “righteous indignation” to the bill sanctioning the “light” beating of “wayward” wives, with the focus of its ire as CII’s chairman, Maulana Muhammad Khan Sherani, they have “studiously stayed clear of interpreting those verses of the Quran that apparently justify such punishment”.

Further, he observes, that CII’s proclamations have not evinced a particular negative reaction from either Urdu newspapers or ordinary people. “This suggests that Sherani’s views are scarcely different from those commonly accepted,” he says and concludes, “Clearly, the premises behind today’s patriarchal society are not under significant challenge.”

To classical dancer, Sheema Kirmani, whose theatre and dance company promotes the plight of women and suppressed minorities, one way to end violence against women is to make Pakistan a secular society. “Remove religion from public life and the state and make religion a private matter,” she says emphatically.

“The religious character of the constitution will have to give way to secular inclusivity of rights, equality, and equity,” concurs Rehmat adding, “An aggressive affirmative action streak in favour of women should underline all laws and curriculum, government policies and legal languages of the constitution and laws be “purged of the image of subservience between genders”.

Zofeen T. Ebrahim

Zofeen T. Ebrahim
The author is a freelance journalist based in Karachi.

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