By: Navid Shahzad
The question of why public violence appears to be so prolific in India and Pakistan is a matter that begs thoughtful debate, just as much as there is a critical need to search for solutions to it. Since 2011, India has periodically been described as “the fourth most dangerous country for women”, a reputation lent greater credence by the shameful rape and murder of Jyoti Singh Pandey, the medical student who died tragically 13 days after a barbaric attack in 2013, and the even more brutal rape and hanging of two teenaged girls recently. Similarly, terrorist attacks notwithstanding, Pakistan has won itself the dubious honour of being the most dangerous country in the world for journalists. Raza Rumi and Hamid Mir may have survived but reliable reports confirm that as many as 31 journalists were killed in Balochistan alone in recent years. Never ones to allow India to race ahead of us in any domain, we have not lagged behind on the violence against women issue either, as is amply demonstrated by the daylight stoning to death of a 25-year-old pregnant woman near the Lahore High Court premises and in full view of police and public. Dispassionately analysing the issue of violence against women, which in itself is neither a recent phenomenon, nor confined to the subcontinent; the brutal fact is that both countries suffer from a ‘woman problem’. The truth is, being a woman in either country has never been easy. The simplistic view that sees just the male individual as perpetrator skims the surface of an enormously complex socio-political nexus of factors that drive violence against women.
A prime force is the deeply held set of beliefs and values held by men and often by women as well, which instigates and condones horrific brutality against women. Historically derived from Greek and Roman law, the term ‘patriarchy’ refers to the system of male domination over women in society wherein the male head of the household exercises absolute legal and economic power over his dependent female and male family members. While an amalgamation of Judeo-Christian religious ideas, Greek philosophy, and Western legal codes established and promoted ‘patriarchy’ in western society; in our context, where the family remains the central unit, patriarchy has long been considered a normal and natural practice. It can certainly be argued that various factors such as poverty, unemployment, stress, psychological disorders, alcohol, drugs, etc, can be causal factors of widespread violence against women, but it is ‘patriarchy’, as perceived and practiced in our part of the world that largely explains the widespread nature of violence against women. Both Indian and Pakistani societies perpetuate the belief (and expectation) that the female child should be a good daughter and later an obedient wife. Docility and the ‘silencing of the female voice’ are prized characteristics as is evidenced and reinforced through various dimensions of cultural life and literature such as mythological epics and a subsequent interpretation of the ‘good wife/woman’ through stereotypes in cinematic narratives. Any deviation, albeit a perceived one, must be punished, often employing violence in the extreme.
Teaching Shakespeare over decades has encouraged one to a critical analysis of both patriarchal practice and its impact on women in his plays. Cultures and ages apart, much of what one sees in the plays is ironically not too remote from our own societal expectations. Lear’s unequivocal belief in Cordelia’s obedience to his demand is severely tested; much to his embarrassment and anger her behaviour shames him publicly and she must be punished for the perceived affront. Poor Ophelia, a pawn in her father’s hands, seemingly abandoned by the man who professes to love her, loses sanity and life in a battle where she is mere collateral damage. Perceived as betrayer and liar by the love of her life and abandoned by the male members of her family, she is a woman alone who must pay the ultimate price.
Desdemona’s ‘betrayal’ of the Moor must end in her death by strangulation at the hands of a husband obsessed with the idea of ‘honour’. Gertrude’s ‘moral idiocy’ besmirches the holy union between man and wife and the dead king’s ‘honour’ can only be restored through a savage purging that leaves the stage littered with corpses. Juliet’s ‘crime’ is not that she falls in love with Romeo but that she rejects the suitor her father has handpicked for her — and so it goes on. In a chicken and egg situation, reel life regurgitates real life male beliefs that honour and virtue reside in and are symbolised by the body of the female. The screen body, under scrutiny of the male gaze, must inevitably meet its ‘deserved’ end when violated or violating male codes of morality. Ironically, both western/eastern brands of patriarchy, religiosity and ingrained socio-cultural constructs about ‘honour’ can be satiated only through violence against women graphically visualised in scenes depicting suicide, murder, mutilation or worse.
In societies such as ours, submissiveness and a sense of duty towards family and community robs the individual of thymos, or what the Greeks understood as ‘self-worth’. While both men and women suffer from this stripping of self-esteem; the latter are the worst affected by the fact that it is not only the dictates of patriarchy that diminish women but that cinematic, mythological and literary narratives also continue to reinforce the belief that women’s bodies are ‘territory’ to be conquered and held at all cost. In particular, the majority of Bollywood item songs with their suggestive lyrics and semi-erotic presentation of women as objects of desire for male consumption serve to reduce the female status further.