Not easy being a woman in Pakistan

By Tanveer Zaman Khan (translated from Urdu by Dr Karamat Iqbal)

In the Pakistani society women are treated as a symptom of all that is bad. Even worse, men are seen as inherently good and whose corruption is blamed on women. Women are the temptress who use their obscene bodies to lead the innocent man astray. In fairy tales and myths and legends women are presented as witches and ghosts; to be avoided. This creates a most horrendous picture and perception of women in the nation’s mindset.

All this in a society where men control absolutely everything. Within the home fathers, brothers and husbands, in their own way and with their supposedly God-given powers do as they wish; to control women, to abuse them and destroy their lives through such evil cultural practices as :

  • Wani – a custom found in parts of Pakistan where girls, often minors, are given in marriage or servitude to an aggrieved family as compensation to end disputes. Vani is a form of arranged or forced child marriage, and the result of punishment decided by a council of tribal elders.
  • Karo kari – a practice of honour killing. The country has the highest number of documented and estimated honour killings per capita of any country in the world. such a killing is murder of a member of a family by other members, due to the belief the victim has brought dishonour upon the family or community. The death of the victim is viewed as a way to restore the reputation and honour of the family.

When the woman leaves the home she knows she is entering space that does not belong to her. Men will treat her as if she is a wild animal who has escaped the jungle. She will be raped by their looks alone, creating absolute terror for her. If a man takes a fancy to her and she rejects his advances then he may resort to throwing acid on her; a case of ‘if I cannot have you no one can’. If a woman ever looks likely to gain the upper hand in a dispute with a man then he has the whole social, legal, political and religious system on his side, to ensure that his masculinity is not marred even the slightest.

If the rest of the system is not enough then the Urdu language will step in with its rich vocabulary that can be used by men and the general society to put the woman in her lowest possible place. Labels such as: insolent, audacious, shameless, impudent, impertinent, wicked, freedom-loving, pleasure-seeker, vagabond and, if all else fails to categorise and castigate women then there is always ‘westernised’, a catch-all label that defines everything that is undesirable and objectionable.

When women demonstrate against their oppression, such as through the Aurat March (Women’s March) they are subjected to propaganda from the media and especially from the government and religious lobby:

  • They are Western agents, being funded by the West
  • They want too much freedom
  • They are all lesbians
  • They dress inappropriately and unacceptably
  • The educated (too much education!) women are leading other women astray

From the moment they are born, women are unwelcome and seen as a burden. The birth of the first girl maybe tolerated but the arrival of second or third girl in a family will likely lead to visits by relatives to commiserate with her unfortunate parents.

Some argue for more laws. In reality it’s not a need for more laws it is fair and serious implementation of existing laws, to protect women as free and equal human beings. Above all what is needed is change of a toxic anti-woman culture where men flaunt multiple wives, something that is supported by religious leaders as a good thing. Men have created the culture for their own benefit, according to rules that suit them and where they have a free-for-all in oppression of women.

Whether she is killed, raped, sexually assaulted, attacked when she leaves home… it is the woman who is to blame. She is blamed whether she wishes to work, to be educated, to leave home or indeed demands any rights as a human being. According to the county’s justice system a woman is expected to put up abuse from men. It is a laughing matter that if a woman wishes to bring a case of rape or other assault or abuse against a man she will need witnesses.

Across the Pakistani society abuse of women (and children) has skyrocketed to heights never known before. Nowhere is safe for women. Even women parliamentarians are abused and assaulted by their male colleagues, which makes it known for the women that they are in a male space which does not welcome them.

The whole system – from the lowest clerk to the highest office – is of the view that women are to be blamed for their rape and murder. Even the Prime Minister Imran Khan has blamed rape of women on their inappropriate dress. His comments have shaped the national discourse. This led the activist and writer Noor Zaheer (author of ‘My God is Woman’ and ‘Denied by Allah’) to point out that inappropriate dress accusation does not explain abuse of women. According to her, what the Prime Minister said has been said for generations, where victims are blamed for their abuse. So, the accusatory finger begins to point towards the victim and away from the perpetrator. Such sexist attitudes are designed to limit the lives of women. In any case what he said is nonsense when one is to look at appropriately dressed women who are abused, such as those on the Hajj pilgrimage.

The recent murder of Noor Mukadam in Pakistan is a sad illustration of the problem of women in Pakistan. Described by The Guardian newspaper as ‘gender terrorism epidemic’, it involved the 27-year-old woman allegedly tortured and beheaded by the son of a business tycoon. “In a country where so-called “honour” killings are common practice, the brutality of the killing has forced Pakistan to confront its poor record on gender-based violence.” The newspaper also reminded us that in the World Economic Forum’s global gender index, the country is ranked 153 out of 156 countries, just above its Taliban-ravaged neighbour Afghanistan. What is appalling in the situation is not that she was murdered, which it is, but that the media and large sections of Pakistan society have blamed the victim, for just being who she was and where she was i.e., in her murderer’s house as if being there was an invitation to be deprived of her life.

Pakistan is a sick society where all systems and structures and institutional policies and practices are anti-women. It is an unsafe environment for women; from cradle to grave (yes, even after death they are not safe). So, what is it that women demand?

Demands of Pakistani women

Compared to what women can take for granted in many countries and cultures, the demands of Pakistani women are quite simple and basic. Central to their demands is equality with men, in the home and outside; freedom of movement (including to access male spaces); freedom of choice in matters such as relationships and life generally (My body, My choice); freedom to travel; freedom to drive a car or cycle/motorbike; equal access to work and opportunities; equal pay; freedom from abuse and harassment; safety and dignity in the workplace and wider society. In other words, women demand equality with men, in the home and outside. They demand all the rights that are taken-for-granted in the wider civilised global community, and which are their human rights within the United Nations charters.