By: Navid Shahzad
In a universal context, all violence is a means to assert power. In Pakistani and Indian cities, rapid urbanisation without gainful employment has left a large number of people economically powerless, unable to lift each other out of nose diving poverty. As a result, the weakest and most vulnerable members of society (read women and girls) bear the brunt of male anger and frustration. Treated as property or even worse, chattel, they are in one man’s derisive terms, ‘only factories’ for making babies! The dehumanisation of women is perhaps even more pronounced in non-urban areas where the powerful and the powerless are pitted against each other in a constant battle for survival. In an interview with Channel Four News on December 21, 2012, author and activist Arundhati Roy made a clear connection between the widening gap that has arisen between rich and poor, and the subsequent increase in violence against women. She pointed out that the electronic media’s propensity to place everything “out there on television for conspicuous consumption” has resulted in “an anger and psychosis building up and women at the top, middle and the bottom are going to pay the price for it”. Elaborating further, she emphasised that women’s bodies have become “the principal terrain on which male rage is venting itself”. Acid burning, bludgeoning, strangulation, daily domestic violence that plays out as severe beatings to maiming are the many ways and means that men employ to ‘rein’ in their women or those of the community.
What is ironic however, is that despite deep-rooted structures of patriarchy in both Pakistan and India, there remains plentiful representation of women leaders and warriors within Islam as well as the rich culture of India that affirms the respect paid to women historically and in texts such as the Ramayan. While the Prophet’s (PBUH) wives are held up as exemplary women who were free to trade, debate and accompany him into battle; today the sexually and perhaps economically independent woman is perceived as an aberration, threat and insult, while her less empowered sisters are denied the opportunity to pursue careers, choose their spouses and limit the number of children they wish to birth in a society that boasts nuclear weapons and mega-transport projects. A specific type of political violence better described as terrorism has attracted an enormous amount of attention in the past 15 years. Governments have spent billions in concerted efforts to eradicate the menace. While the collective global conscience may have its work cut out for it in battling this hydra, the dragon seed of violence against women has unfortunately not received the same attention. Inherited prejudices and ingrained mindsets in countries such as India, Pakistan, Somalia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan, to name a few, continue to make a mockery of women’s rights.
Let us face it — part of the reason is that in Pakistan women’s rights are not considered equivalent to human rights since they are in a manner of speaking a less important, lower set of issues. How often a man marries or how many times he beats his wife is easily shrugged off by a world dominated by masculinity, but it is critical that these actions not be relegated to something equivalent to a laundry list but be treated at par with other horrific forms of violence such as genital mutilation, rape, kidnappings and slavery. It is therefore important that we acknowledge the Jolie and Hague led global summit initiative that was launched in London recently. The establishment of a high-profile platform condemning and acting to stem violence against women worldwide is long overdue. Unfortunately at home, reform will not come through high profiling, legislation or street protest (a lesson the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf needs to think about soberly) since governments in Pakistan have never had the courage to implement so-called ‘progressive legislation’. Little can be expected from a government that allows the functioning of a medieval Council of Islamic Ideology to interpret laws that are patently misogynistic. For violence against women to abate, it must be ensured that all such crimes are reported and punished. The law must remain fearless in the face of the enemy, whether it is terrorism or violence against the vulnerable; only then will the necessary change begin to manifest itself as concepts governing masculinity and femininity realign themselves to allow for reciprocal, mutually respectful relationships.
This is a massive enterprise since a change in mindset requires a revisit of textbooks, values and norms as taught and practiced in homes, at schools and in public. More importantly, this change in mindset must be accompanied by institutional reform. The deep chauvinism that runs through our public institutions is evident from the number of women employed to the number of women in key positions. One rejoices in the fact that given even a sliver of an opportunity, women can put Pakistan on the world map — for the right reasons! We need look no further than Brazuca, the FIFA official football made in Pakistan by our women. Here’s more power to them.