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Religious extremism sanctifies violence against women

By: Babar Ayaz

Extremists give religious cover to all anti-women social and cultural values of the tribal and feudal societies and innovation: Ijtihad or Ijma

Women rights activists are gearing up the world over to celebrate the ‘One Billion Rising’ of women and men against ‘violence against women’. The organisers’ view is that every third women is raped and beaten around the world. The world’s women’s population is roughly 3.5 billion. The other day Aurat Foundation organised an interesting seminar on this issue in Karachi to discuss various reasons for violence against women.

In Pakistan, cases of women who are beaten are more common than women who are raped, but that does not mean the country has a low number of cases of rape. In most cases, the victim and her family do not file a case because they fear a social stigma that may remain attached to the girl for the rest of her life. However, independent media and NGOs are playing an important role in bringing out cases of violence against women now than they used to do a couple of decades ago. This has resulted in raising awareness in society about violence against women but that does not mean that the number of such cases has gone down.

This issue has many facets that are highlighted by the media and NGOs from time to time. One question that is on the mind of women rights activists is how rising religious extremism has translated into more violence against women. To analyse this issue let us first decide what is extremism, the term commonly used these days. No person or organisation that believes in extremism refers to himself/itself as an ‘extremist’. It is some other party that labels a person or a body of people or an expression of an ideology as extremist or followers of extremism. Extremism manifests an absolute position taken by the people or groups of people, who reject plurality of society and want to enforce a uniform view, ideology, culture, national and racial supremacy, if need be using violence.

Now let us focus on the religious extremism in Pakistan and violence against women. Religious extremism is where people of one religion or a sect of the religion believe that they are true followers and those who differ are infidels. In the first place, religious extremists believe that their claim is the absolute truth and ultimate divine reality.

In Pakistan, we have many sects of Islam, but there are some who believe that any localisation of religion and evolution of cultural values in the last 1,400 years are a deviation from Islam. They want to adhere to the references of the first 38 years of Islam. The cultural and social values of Hejaz in the mid-seventh century and even in present day Saudi Arabia are very different from many other countries with a Muslim majority. The extremists in Pakistan want to set up an Islamic emirate and their model is the Taliban government in Afghanistan, which was extremely oppressive against women. But the issue here is that while they suppressed women, maintaining that the values purported by them were in accordance with the true spirit of Islam, the fact is that these oppressive values are a part of the age-old tribal system.

Thus, while opposing religious extremism we have to be clear that it is not the main factor responsible for violence against women. Violence against women is more deep-rooted in the social norms and cultural values of societies. In tribal and feudal social values, women have a subservient role to men, so Islamists only provide religious cover to these values. In most tribal and feudal societies, we see more curbs on women and if they try to break these norms, men resort to violence. Sometimes even women use violent means against other women. We have seen how daughters-in-law are burnt by mothers-in-law in cases of domestic conflicts and on issues of dowry. We have seen how a mother led a hired gunman to kill her own daughter at Hina Jilani’s office for ‘breaking tribal values’ by trying to marry the man of her choice. When Senator Iqbal Haider moved a resolution for this broad daylight killing in the Senate, only one senator supported him. Others who had a tribal and feudal background opposed it, saying it was their Pashtun tradition and an Islamic injunction could not be invoked.

When four women were mauled by dogs and buried alive in Balochistan, MNA Zehri, who is a minister of the present so-called liberal government warned people not to interfere in the Baloch traditions and social system. He also did not invoke religious edicts. But if an argument is carried forward with such tribal and feudal value supporters, they seek refuge behind religious traditions and dismiss the opposition as the people who want to corrupt women by introducing western values of equality. The tradition they practise violates the laws of the state as they prefer to decide the cases related to women’s right in jirgas, which are parallel judicial systems in the tribal and feudal areas of Pakistan. As women are considered the property of men, vanis (women given in conflict resolution) are used to settle murder disputes and girls and boys are killed as karo-kari (extra-marital sex) in the name of so-called honour.

The cover is provided to such killings by the Islamic laws incorporated in the constitution and our penal code. For instance, after honour killing by say a brother, the father forgives him under the Diyat law and the son goes scot-free. They actually collude to kill the daughter. Similar cases are also reported from Hindu communities in India.

A question can be asked that if violence against women is part of the tribal and feudal value system then why such cases also happen in the cities where the capitalist social and economic system is dominant. Here it has to be understood that social and cultural values that are the superstructure of any outmoded economic system do survive like a hangover from bad liquor, for a few generations, even though the relations of production change with economic and technological advancement. Now similar cases are even reported from cities that have dominant capitalist value systems. We have many cases amongst Pakistani immigrants who have migrated to the west in which parents killed or threw acid on their daughter’s face because she had a boyfriend.

This brings us to the question why are we all appalled by violence against women or struggle for equal rights for women today more than ever. A short answer is that we judge tribal and feudal traditions and social values that are not in conformity with the social-democratic post-modernist period. Unless the feudal economic structure is changed, the process of changing the relations of production and the social superstructure cannot be unchained.

The moderate Muslim tries to rationalise Islamic traditions (Sharia) and is of the opinion that with time and place these traditions should be readjusted. That is where extremists come in and give religious cover to all anti-women social and cultural values of the tribal and feudal societies and innovation: Ijtihad or Ijma. The extremist’s narrative is that as there is no ambiguity in the values and the role prescribed for women in religion, there is no need for any innovation to meet the needs of the 21st century.

Daily Times