By : Bina Shah
FOR as long as I can remember, people have been talking about the possibility of revolution in Pakistan. They were originally inspired, or perhaps frightened, by the Iranian Revolution in 1979, when ordinary Iranians rose up under the leadership of the clergy and overthrew Western-backed Reza Shah Pahlavi.
As an intellectual exercise, Pakistanis have always wondered whether a similar revolution could take place in Pakistan, and if so, what would that revolution look like? Some envision it as a religious revolution where the Pakistani religious right wing encourages its militants to come out on the streets and seize power and enact Sharia throughout the country. Others imagine a revolution along the lines of the French revolution, where the have-nots slaughter the haves in a bloody uprising, and take control of their land and property.
Most people dismiss the idea of these kinds of revolutions, however, in light of the cloud of apathy in which Pakistanis live. The status quo, they think, is here to stay. Well, the revolution is already here, but it doesn’t quite look like what people imagined it to be. Nor is it being enacted by the people they expected it to encompass. Pakistan’s revolution is a women’s revolution, and although we’re in its early stages, it’s already looking powerful enough to change a nation.
Although women have always participated in political revolutions around the world, the women’s liberation movement in the 1970s was the first time that women, mostly in the developed world, joined together to agitate for their rights. While many offshoots of feminism, including radical feminism and socialist feminism, developed from this movement, women in countries like Pakistan did not feel its benefits directly in their lives.
Pakistani women had their own problems to deal with when Bhutto started to Islamise Pakistan. Then Gen Zia picked up the baton after deposing Bhutto, hurtling the country towards even greater heights of gender discrimination. And he wielded that baton unmercifully on Pakistani women’s bodies. Pakistani women have never truly held full authority over their own bodies; their bodies belonged to their families, to their male protectors, fathers, husbands, brothers and sons, who decided how and when to dispose of them through marriage or other means.
Now the state was codifying the control of women’s bodies, prescribing jailing, lashing and even execution for adultery and for the crime of being raped. Encasing them in chadar and chardiwari, repressing their very existence until the practice of pre-Islamic Arabs burying their baby girls at birth started to look less painful compared to how Pakistani women were being symbolically buried throughout their lives. And while Zia is long gone, regressive societal attitudes towards women live on.
Reading Ta-nehisi Coates’s excellent book on race in America, Between the World and Me where Coates writes of the state’s ability to enact destruction on black bodies with no repercussions for perpetrators of those attacks, it struck me that the same thing happens to the bodies of women in this country.
Here in Pakistan, families enact the violence, but the state is complicit through its inaction. Without legal and social reform, Pakistan’s girls and women will continue to be shot in the head for trying to exercise their own autonomy. Men will continue to enslave women while pretending to be their protectors and caretakers. Half the country’s population will continue to function as second-rate citizens, and justice and peace will forever remain elusive in Pakistan.
The furore of the religious right against the Women’s Protection Act in Punjab, and the anger and hysteria about something that is morally unarguable — a woman’s right to not be abused, thrown out of her house, even killed — proves that a rotten nerve has been exposed to the light. We cannot accept this situation as the status quo anymore. Yet as proven in the American Civil War, men do not give up their slaves easily.
Revolution begins when a human being says “Enough.” Pakistan’s women have finally said “enough”. Enough of the domestic violence, the sexual harassment and abuse, the beatings, the acid attacks, the ‘honour’ killings. Enough of keeping girls illiterate, of stopping women from collecting their inheritance, from owning property. Enough blood — their own — has been spilled.
Pakistan’s women are raising not just their voices, but their bodies. They are insisting on the right to be educated, to work, to live in safety and security. Women parliamentarians are taking up their cause in the legislature, enacting laws to protect them. Nobody can reverse this social awakening.
It may seem like the path to chaos and societal destruction, but when the smoke clears, it will change Pakistan for the better. This revolution may even rescue us from the morass of degeneracy that has gripped us for so long we no longer know what a normal environment for women looks like.