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Burden of honour

Burden of honour

By: Asna Ali

“If you research all these crimes against women that are written about in newspapers, you will find that in most cases the woman brought it on herself. If all women started wearing Afghan burqas, the crimes against them would stop.”

So spoke a university professor and I am reminded of his words whenever a heinous crime against a woman is reported, like the very public murder of Farzana Parveen who was attacked and killed in Lahore. She was probably not wearing an Afghan style burqa.

‘Honour’ as understood in Pakistan is a strange and malleable concept. It is pliant enough to endure if the sons of a house decide to indulge in drunken revelry surrounded by prostitutes. But it is tarnished if a woman of the same family decides to move away, live alone and pursue a career of her own choice.

Farzana had broken a fundamental rule of survival by choosing her husband herself and not agreeing to marry the man picked by her family. Doubtless there is more to the story than this but it ended with the lynching of a pregnant woman in broad daylight, in front of a court, witnessed by the police and public.

There are many other women like Farzana who are killed by their family for not toeing the line. There are many more who are not, because they shy away from taking any step which could result in such an extreme instance of violence. They look at Farzana and others like her as cautionary tales of a patriarchy that metes out swift and deadly justice.

The prerogative of family members to punish ‘their’ women however they see fit is upheld by society. The law is absolutely powerless in this regard because no one is willing to enforce laws that would diminish the power of patriarchy. What if you decide to punish the killers of a lynched woman or to speak out in her favour and ‘your’ women see that as a sign that being independent is acceptable.

Public murder is the last stop on a very long road that provides an average misogynist with various ways to exert control. Simple gestures like unashamedly staring at any woman who happens to be in the line of sight is one of the most common forms of this behaviour. Cat calls, rude comments and stalking often follow. Ask any woman who has ever stepped out of her house and she will relate a multitude of instances where she was made to feel objectified and unsafe.

So to avoid external threats, women must rely on the magnanimity of their family – and that too comes at a price. There is an unwritten rule that for the protection your male family members provide by ferrying you to and from various places, by scaring off harassers and generally by their very presence, you must uphold their honour, whatever that actually means, at all times and as best as you can.

It entails obedience in matters small and large. If you fail to abide by these rules, protection is no longer available and you are left to fend for yourself in the big bad world.

That fear, of being abandoned by family and what the consequences of such banishment could be, is what makes many women abide by these rules. This, and the knowledge that if they decide to stand up for themselves they will stand completely alone. No parent, sibling, friend or bystander will step forward to support them.

So smile and nod ladies. Put on those Afghan burqas. You want to live, don’t you?

The writer is a businessstudies graduate from southern Punjab. Email: asna.ali90@ gmail.com

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