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Women and culture

By: Haroon Janjua

The lives of women in Pakistan have traditionally been conditioned and regulated by social and cultural customs as well as specific religious laws, culminating in widespread discrimination and violence against them.

Women’s movements in Pakistan have a history of struggle against subjugation and oppression. The political transformation brought about by dictatorships, such as anti-women legislation by Gen Muhammad Ziaul Haq has degraded the status of women in an already conservative society. Control over women’s bodies, minds expressions and freedoms has been and still is legitimised by invoking culture, religion and tradition.

Patriarchal social structures and their interpretations of norms and values relegate women to the position of chattel of the male members within family and community.

The barrage of inequities women face in Pakistan include honour killings, rape, forced marriage, physical torture, acid attacks and harassment in the public domain, and such acts are given cultural sanction through names such as karo kari, vani, etc. These are not mere feudal glitches occurring in remote areas because they are formally supported by politicians and legislators in centres of power.

The patronage by those in power perpetuates such inhuman practices. The continued settlement of incidents, vendettas and disputes through jirgas/panchyats by exchanging girls and women even in the presence of the legal justice system is widespread. It is worth noting that the visible incidents are less than the tip of the proverbial iceberg. The estimated number of rape, incest and molestation cases is huge, of which a very small percentage either gets reported or accidentally comes into the public domain.

Most people try their best to cover up or even internally justify such incidents for fear of social reaction.

Parallel systems of justice, such as those initiated and sustained by tribal courts still continue to threaten women. Such structures have a destructive influence in assuming precedence over Pakistan’s common civil and criminal legal code, without having any formal validity other than stubborn adherence to outdated traditions.

While jirgas do serve sometimes to dispense quick local decisions, they often do so at the cost of justice itself. Numerous incidents such as that of Mukhtaran Mai and Aasia Bibi are shameful examples of serious flaws in the system and flagrant violation of human rights. Women are seldom given an opportunity to defend themselves against false allegations and more often than not are found guilty based merely on biased male testimony which is considered as sufficient evidence.

Various human rights organisations have reported honour killing cases in areas under the influence of the tribal jirgas. According to an independent organisation Aurat Foundation, 25 such cases have been reported primarily in Sindh and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provinces in 2014 alone. A famous jirga held two girls guilty of an illicit relationship and they were killed in Shikarpur Sindh in March 2014. The jirga was supervised by a local politician.

Thousands of women are killed every year by their families in the name of honour. A few weeks ago a 25-year-old pregnant woman was stoned to death in broad daylight by her family members outside Lahore High court in the presence of custodians of law. Her ‘crime’ was that she had breached so-called family honour by marrying a man she fell in love with. This twisted definition of honour comes from the fact that women are still treated as men’s chattel, and not as thinking, feeling individuals in themselves. Even minor assertions of independent by women are treated as “honour violation”. This, of course, is only to be expected. As the saying goes, the empire strikes back to protect its own ill-gotten privileges.

At a time when most of the developed countries have altogether abolished capital punishment even for the most heinous crimes in pursuance of universal code of human rights, the crucial question remains: do we want to continue with a system which is so hopelessly primitive and remains totally oblivious to evolving social and ethical norms?

While the world is marching forward, we are steadfastly regressing to the days of the caveman dragging his woman by the hair, holding a club in his hand to batter her. Is that the kind of society we want in our beloved country? A point to seriously ponder over.

The writer is a freelance columnist and independent researcher. Email: , Twitter: @JanjuaHaroon

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