Pakistan’s foreign office has reacted to the hit US televison show Homeland rather negatively for calling the country a “hellhole”. It has also reacted to the atrocious killing of 100 and more of its children in Peshawar by asking the national media to show more palatable stories on television, especially during bedtime. A lawmaker explained that perhaps showing smaller issues like rape or murder was the way to go. A brilliant way to go, I say. Much like climbing a ladder set against the wrong wall.
Sadly, this is how we, as a society have decided to deal with the gender question. The year 2014 has been a particularly bad year for women. It was the year that saw Farzana Perveen, a pregnant woman, beaten to death with a brick outside the high court in Lahore. It was the year absurd and demeaning backlash against Malala fermented in Pakistan. It was the year Aasia Bibi’s case got her into the deeper dungeons of a flawed legal system. It was the year a 20-year-old woman in Layyah area in Punjab was hung from a tree after being gang raped. And then there was the usual: the 1,000 and more honour killings, the thousands of suicides, 90 percent of women experiencing violence, more and more girls dropping out of schools, more and more young girls being made child brides, some of the world’s worst records on maternal mortality, millions outside the inheritance system and hundreds acid burned.
Internationally, there were similar stories. The Delhi gang rape shocked the world but the backlash against the attack on that woman was a measure of the success of feminism. Women and men took to the streets in Delhi and across India there was a movement that cut class and caste barriers. Sadly, when the rights of women are violated in Pakistan, women’s protests are lukewarm, usually led by the upper class. Others, at best, are some women representatives of less sexist political parties and it ends at that. Our measure of success in feminism would rather not be measured nor can it be called a movement.
When any woman’s rights are violated, it is a collective blotch on all women and on feminism. Take Saudi Arabia for example. It is the only country where women are banned from driving. Since 2011, a campaign has been launched to overturn the ban, with some women defiantly driving cars in public in protest. Two Saudi women have terrorism charges against them for driving where they were not allowed to. Lujain al-Hathlool at the age of 25, and Maysa al-Amoudi, at 33, were arrested recently after the former was caught driving into Saudi Arabia from across the Emirati border. Why are women banned from driving when men are not? This is nothing but plain backwardness. As the movement for women’s empowerment grows stronger in Saudi Arabia, so does the fear of the state’s heavy-handedness. It can only inspire silence.
Other Muslim countries, seemingly progressive, have also had heads of states suggest women are unequal to men and cannot take up tasks such as digging. This started a Twitter campaign of women archaeologists around the world digging and putting up pictures under the hashtag #WomenDigging. Very few have the courage to recognise that any ethos based on inherent inequality of the sexes is ultimately flawed. Despite examples of women in our religious texts leading empires, dictating scholarship and managing businesses, we have confined women into domestic roles and forbidden their existence in public space. Pakistan will implode with this strategy, if it has not already.
When we look west we see that there has been significant progress in terms of women’s empowerment but on the essential questions there are still the same threads of oppression. In the wake of Ray Rice’s (a US footballer) assault on Janay Palmer, his fiancé and now wife, there was a global movement on Twitter about raising awareness about domestic violence under the hashtag #WhyIStayed. Some of the stories women expressed in heart breaking 140 characters talked about the same crippling fears that women in South Asia face when confronted with violence from men.
Unlike these movements globally, there is no form of organised protest in Pakistan to what are some of the most outrageous violations of women’s rights. The reason for this is because there is utter confusion among our middle class about what constitutes human rights and what is sanctioned by religion. Victim blaming is the norm. With a growing drift towards religious extremism, this lack of organised movement will only become more pronounced.
For 2015 to be any better, there must be at least three things: a growing protest culture among women, greater adaptation of technology and new media that enables naming and shaming of perpetrators and a strong legislative lobby to change the laws and their enforcement in Pakistan so women are truly protected.