While many pictures are worth a thousand words, some can be worth more than a thousand elegies. The image of the charred body of a teenage girl, tied to the seat of a burnt-out vehicle, is bound to remain etched in our memories for a long time to come – shaking our collective conscience. This picture is also worth a thousand FIRs against the Pakistani state, society and, particularly, its men who through their acts of omission and commission have failed millions of such women.
Almost around the time when Ambreen was immolated, many women were harassed at the political rallies of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf. While the gruesome murder happened in a mountainous rural area in the Abbottabad district, these incidents of harassment occurred at the most populous urban centres of the country – Islamabad, Lahore and Peshawar – and at the political gathering of a party that mainly represents the educated middle class.
It also appears ironical that Ambreen belonged to the district where Sana Mir, the captain of the Pakistan national women’s cricket team, comes from. The celebrated sports star represents the new Pakistani woman who can live her dreams with the complete support of her family and with the applause of the whole nation. Ambreen, on the other hand, had to face her gruesome end only because she had allegedly supported a friend who was marrying of her own accord – a fundamental right enshrined both in religion and Pakistan’s law.
These contradictions hint at the fact that Pakistani society is in the crucible of transformation. As some sociologists have noted, violence against women often increases when societies come under strain due to rapid social, economic and political changes. In such circumstances, the rise in incidence of violence against women may signify a challenge to the existing gender relations. The violence increases as many individual men try to shore up their sense of identity, feeling endangered by the apparent contradiction between the reality of their lives and predominant stereotypes of masculine power, success and control.
In simple terms, there are men who consider their manliness threatened by changes in society that favour women. They try to use violence as a tool of social control against women, hoping that they will stem the tide of social change. Such crimes are by no means confined to the remote rural areas. Pakistan has a very high incidence of violence against women in the most developed urban districts. Aurat Foundation’s report ‘Violence against Women in Pakistan’ shows that Faisalabad, Lahore and Rawalpindi are the worst districts in terms of crimes of violence against women.
The stereotypes that these criminals stand for – and kill for – are by no means a preserve of the members of the illegal village councils. In every Urdu textbook, you can find a Rashida helping her mother with cooking while her brother Rashid goes out to fly his kite and have fun with his friends. And then there are other those honourable misogynists who rant against women’s rights on popular television shows. Many of them flaunt university degrees, have background in civil services or hold senior editorial positions in leading English newspapers.
Violence against women is a continuation of the same message by other means. Instead of pen and paper, or pulpit and television, it uses women’s bodies as the medium to communicate the argument. Ambreen’s burnt body was a message for other women in the community, and beyond, that they cannot be allowed to exercise their agency or the free will. In case of the PTI jalsa, the harassers told women that they must keep out of the political space because it is an arena for men to assert their power.
Women have been in the political space in Pakistan since its foundation. The movements against two military dictators, Field Marshall Ayub and General Zia, were led by two incredible women – Mohtarma Fatima Jinnah and Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto. Begum Nasim Wali Khan and, for a short period, Begum Kulsoom Nawaz also impressed the nation through their courage and political acumen. However, all these women belonged to the ruling elite and they enjoyed the status of ‘honorary men’ in the political space.
Women from the working class have also been there in the political space from the beginning as foot soldiers, because they are in the public space anyway. What has changed in more recent times is increasing interest and inclusion of middle-class women in the national politics. Let us take a young girl, Malala Yusufzai, as a symbol of this shift. She not only stands for the middle-class aspiration for women’s education but also the resistance to the Taliban who, amongst other things, symbolise oppression of women and complete control of men over women’s bodies.
The PTI has brought more women – educated women – to the political space than any other party. However, it has failed to ensure their security. And when faced with the challenge of harassment, it decided to exclude them from its political meetings rather than start a campaign against the harassment of women. Quick to blame others and reluctant to take any responsibility, the party has tried to paint itself a victim by claiming that the harassers at its jalsas belonged to some other party. If this was the case, why did the PTI workers not apprehend these harassers and hand them over to the police?
In the established division of labour amongst Pakistan’s power elite, women-related issues belong to the ulema because they derive their power from having a final say over relations between men and women, and on family matters.
The PTI appears to agree on the status quo. In April, it sent Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s Women Protection Bill to the Council of Islamic Ideology for approval, only weeks after the council had declared a similar law in Punjab to be un-Islamic. The council is headed by Maulana Mohammad Khan Shirani who belongs to the JUI-F; Imran Khan is a mortal enemy of his boss, Maulana Fazlur Rehman, and his party. While the PTI is willing to fight a battle against the JUI-F on every street corner, it has no hesitation in handing over women’s rights to Maulana Shirani, who is perhaps the worst thing to happen to Pakistan since Ziaul Haq.
The PML-N’s role in this has been equally shameful. They have attacked the women workers of the PTI by referring to them in a derogatory manner and blaming them for inciting harassment. And this is a party that is grooming a woman, the daughter of our prime minister, as its future leader.
Violence against women, including their harassment, is not a PTI problem or a PML-N problem. It is a Pakistani problem and a problem of Pakistani men who are finding it difficult to redefine their masculinity in the changing times. Those who are using these crimes as a stick to beat their political rivals are complicit in these crimes. We want all tigresses back, whichever party or profession they belong to, to the world of power and action. That should be our message to those who think that they can block the path of the rising sun.