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(UN)representing Domestic Violence

(UN)representing Domestic Violence

By: Zainab Zeeshan Malik

Recently UN Women launched its #BeatMe campaign to coincide with the Global 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Based Violence which run from 25 November to 10 December. The Campaign appears to be centered on a video, launched on social media, that features prominent women who have excelled in diverse fields inviting men to beat them at what they are good at. For example, the video contains a shot of Samina Baig, the only Pakistani woman and the third Pakistani to climb the Mount Everest, inviting men to beat her to the top of the mountains. Like most campaigns launched on social media the video has received mixed reviews regarding its message.

Highlighting stories of prominent women in Pakistan who have shattered gender stereotypes by excelling in male dominated fields has great symbolic value in reforming public consciousness. Firstly, it challenges the predominant narrative wherein women are primarily portrayed as weak and victims. It also provides role models for girls who live day in and day out internalising patriarchal notions that women’s place is in the home. While more and more women are entering higher education, there is still a dearth of female leaders in the public sphere. This leads to the aspirations of young women being restricted to the limited roles they see their mothers occupying.

However, beyond commemorating the achievements of a group of women, the video falls short of acting as an effective advocacy tool against domestic violence. The video by inviting men to ‘beat’ women at what they are good at the video seems to be based on the assumption that women are capable of excelling in all fields and are not inferior to men and therefore should not be beaten. This is clearly a problematic line of thought. A person’s beatability is and should not be predicated on the worth of ones skills. Domestic Violence is a malaise that transcends beyond ability, class, ethnicity and religion. Research has not demonstrated any link between relative education/professional success of women and/or men and a decrease in the rate of domestic violence. A doctor husband is just as likely to abuse his professor wife as a farmer husband is to abuse his seamstress wife. There is a tendency in Pakistan to demonise the lower socio-economic classes as the “other”- who staggers home drunk at late hours of the night and beats up his wife at the slightest provocation. This allows the elite to categorise Domestic Violence as a problem of lack of education, unemployment and lack of options to victims and simply one that does not effect it. However, women from lower socio-economic classes simply have their lives on display due to the physical proximity of their neighbours and their mobility to earn money. Women from higher socio-economic classes have more social capital to protect and therefore bear the violence silently.

To make the connection between capabilities and beatability is also problematic as the reverse side of the argument would be that were women not capable it would be acceptable to beat them. Making women prove their worth in order to escape domestic violence is simply an off shoot of patriarchy where men do not have to do the same. On a simplistic level, Domestic Violence is a manifestation of the hierarchical and dualistic gender binary that constitutes as patriarchy. There are two distinct genders- Male and Female. One is superior and one is inferior, one is strong and the other is weak. These two genders also determine the distribution of power in relationships in a way that one must necessarily have more power than the other. Socio-cultural norms that uphold patriarchy legitimise violence as a means to reinforce the heirachical relationship between men and women. Daring men to beat women simply reinforces the dualistic nature and hierarchy between the genders. A campaign effectively addressing domestic violence needs to firstly challenge the gender binary that maintains it. Why must we fall in either one of these two categories and why are they mutually exclusive? Why does one have more power than the other?

Another more obvious problem with the video is its reliance on English – a language that is not understood by majority of Pakistan’s population. Even those who understand it relate to it in a way that they can respond to advocacy messages. So the question is – who really is the intended audience of the video? Social media has been described as an echo chamber and an alternative reality. It is fortunately or unfortunately not a reality that applies to the majority. So a video that was clearly intended to focus on a social media audience will have limited reach and therefore effectiveness as an advocacy message for an issue that impacts a sizable proportion of the population. If the video was intended to show the rest of the world that Pakistani women have achievements then one needs to question how effectively funding is being utilised.

Pakistan has one of the strongest women’s movements in the world. Starting from the 80’s the women’s rights movement has demonstrated unity and coordination and is a force to be reckoned with politically and socially. UN woman should make an active attempt to utilize this network’s experience and nuanced perspectives on the state of women in Pakistan and in fact posit it at the forefront of all its advocacy.

The Nation

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