Worst place to be a woman

Girls on phone camera footage clapping to a wedding song

Published in the Daily Times on June 9th 2012

While the rest of the world fights for an equal payday for women and women empowerment principles in the corporate world, Pakistan remains, according to The Independent, the worst place for a woman. There are four times as many men as there are women in the workforce in Pakistan.

However, even these uncomfortable statistics did not prepare one for what happened last week in Kohistan, the mountainous north of Pakistan. At a wedding, four women danced and/or sang along while someone filmed it. In response, a tribal court or jirga sentenced them to death. According to reports from witnesses from the area, they have already been murdered.

When it comes to women’s rights in Pakistan, we have to fight first for their human rights. Particularly what makes the Pakistani woman vulnerable is the pervasiveness of religion in every part of civic life including the law and state. Armed with the fallacy that women are the honour of the tribe/country, men reign over them and decree all sorts of punishments. Although death is the extreme form of that, an equally harrowing punishment is seclusion and segregation, where their right to mobility is curtailed. When a woman cannot move, she certainly cannot run. She cannot particularly escape a dangerous situation, which in many cultural scenarios she is subjected to. These women’s crime was to be born in a country where men claiming divine authority are more powerful than them. Their punishment was that they had nowhere to run to.

A wedding is a time of celebration, a time of love and joy. Women in this part of the world are the essence of all the above. For centuries they have adorned their hands with henna art, worn their best jewelry and embroidered clothes, sang and danced. Has fundamentalism and Islamic extremism grown so much that our very essential cultural rites of passage are stripped off us? That we are no longer allowed to carry forth the traditions of our ancestors? That some notion of exported Saudi morality will cut through something that is essentially Indus? That the womb that creates will be looked at as evil and an anti-God entity and not an embodiment of beauty to be embraced? That the girl child, from the moment she is born would only be a transfer document, from father to husband to son?

Pakistan has gathered many stars on the boulevard of shame, starting from the attack on Ahmedis two years ago, then later the murder of Salmaan Taseer for defending a falsely accused victim of blasphemy and the consequent garlanding of flowers for his killer by bigoted lawyers, and now this. This shame is inconsequential for the world, for we have lost all rights to be called a dignified nation, but what is worse is the message we are signalling our posterity –that minorities and women should roll over and die, that there is no justice they will ever find here.

If those women have already been murdered, justice is too little too late, but what we can do from here on is what matters.

The Chief Justice has taken suo motu notice of the case and has demanded that the girls be brought to his court. In the battle of the courts to take over the jirgas, people are the biggest casualty because this is not about the slow speed at which it would happen, but the fact that it is about the mindset of people. Honour crimes have nothing to do with location, but as a recent case in the UK proves, murder follows Pakistani women wherever they are.

Mindsets will only be changed if women demand that their rights be safeguarded; without any noise to reclaim their place as equal citizens in society there will be more such examples. Civil rights activists need to take to the streets; parliamentarians need to stop throwing punches and start legislating stronger reforms for women, and the police, especially in local areas, need to gain more control. More importantly, the president and prime minister need to speak up vocally about this.

Philistinism as an ideology in Pakistan will be the ultimate reason for our downfall as a nation. Tragic this is for it was our founding father, M A Jinnah who said, “No nation can rise to the height of glory unless your women are side by side with you. We are victims of evil customs. It is a crime against humanity that our women are shut up within the four walls of the houses as prisoners. There is no sanction anywhere for the deplorable condition in which our women have to live.”

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