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Woman in the middle

Woman in the middle


THE television anchors who were broadcasting the hostage stand-off described her as a “shuttlecock”.

For those who have never heard of the sport of badminton, a shuttlecock, also known as ‘bird’ or ‘birdie’, is a conical projectile made in part by gluing bird feathers around a cork base.

The woman they described as a shuttlecock was named Kanwal and she was the wife of 51-year-old Muhammad Sikandar, who decided to stage a hostage stand-off on Islamabad’s Jinnah Avenue the day after Pakistan’s 66th birthday.

She deserved her title. In the hours between the time when the gun-toting Sikandar got out of his car and when he was finally overpowered, Kanwal was tossed from side to side, between husband and law enforcement, her black form flitting across millions of television screens around the country.

At times she was the mother, giving the two young children snacks; at other times she was a wife, getting water for her thirsty gunman husband from the trunk of the car.

Clad in her black burqa, she seemed at all times devoid of a voice or volition of her own. When she wrote, it was to pen down Sikandar’s ranting demands on paper for police officials. When she spoke, it was with fear that she and her children would be killed.

The question of Kanwal is an important one. As the wife of an unreasonable man, a crazy man, one who could possibly have killed his children and other people, what could have been expected of her?

The more empathetic among us would immediately dilate on the constrictions of her circumstances: obviously the abused wife of a domineering man, an armed man, an insane man. She tried to feed her children; she tried to assist with the negotiations that would garner their freedom; she did what she could.

Less lenient others would wonder whether she knew beforehand that her children, herself, and so many others were about to be endangered; whether the stores of food that the couple had in the car, the documents, the history of her husband’s rants could have warned her; whether a braver woman would have done things differently to prevent the enactment of a near-deadly tableau.

Was Kanwal being a good wife in obediently going along with Sikandar’s plans or was she being a bad mother, who despite having at least some foreknowledge of what was to come, chose to let it happen? After all, she was a just a woman and what could she do?

In this sense, the hostage crisis of last week, with all its drama and denunciations, its moment of inveterate heroism and its deftly produced catharsis, presented the condition of many women in the country.

While their tales of hostage-taking may not be watched on national television, or played out in the neat space of an evening, or involve visible weapons held to their temples, the basic elements of the plot remain the same.

Married to men who control every aspect of their lives, they cook, clean, produce children, and are slowly and methodically excised both of independent thought and moral responsibility for their actions. If the man is master, the woman must not question him, perhaps not even if he is about to kill her children.

In return, her lack of strength, her inaction, cannot be held against her; a husk of a woman cannot possess kernels of courage, and motherly bravery is a liability in a society that values only wifely submission

In the story of Sikandar, his wife Kanwal appeared to do only and exactly what she was supposed to do, as per the standard of Pakistani culture. Pakistani law, however, mandates a different evaluation.

According to the law, separate persons, even women, are assumed to be in control of their own actions and hence responsible for them. Women, even women married to abusers or, as in this case, possibly insane men, are presumed to have the same degree of independence as the men themselves.

The law in Pakistan does not make accommodations for the fact that the culture insists and even demands a surrender of volition, a giving up of will, a mute aping of individual actions without the possession of an individual will.

Owing to these reasons, then, not long after the hostage stand-off the Islamabad Capital Territory police registered a First Information Report, booking both Sikandar and his wife under Section 324/506 of the Anti-Terrorism Act.

At the end of the story, Kanwal, the woman in the middle, the obedient wife who put her husband’s demands before law enforcement officials, who never tried to dupe her ranting husband and escape with her little boy and girl, has been booked under the same category of crime as the man who masterminded it.

Perhaps her fate will generate some introspection among other women, who, silenced and dependent, say little when their husbands inflict abuse on them and on their children. But to consider that possibility is unrealistic and possibly even unjust. Women beaten down and abused into silence cannot be suddenly resuscitated by the fear of criminal punishment inflicted by laws that deny their reality and effectively victimise them a second time.

In a Pakistan where women face cultural censure for the most innocuous acts of free will — going to school or singing at wedding celebrations — the law feigns ignorance of what culture imposes.

Kanwal, the wife of Sikandar, is at once expected by culture to submit, and by the law to rebel and be responsible. She chose submission, and now the millions that watched her last acts of obedience must decide if she should instead have rebelled.

The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy. rafia.zakaria@gmail.com


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