Why The #MeToo Movement Has Missed Momentum in Pakistan


*Originally published at Himal Southasian. Unedited version below:

As the #MeToo movement steers ahead with momentum across various parts of the world, Pakistan remains largely unaffected by it. Far from making waves, the movement has hardly made ripples in the country.

5ad871cd9d50aPerhaps the only prominent case relating to the movement in Pakistan has been of famous model, singer and actress Meesha Shafi coming forward with allegations of sexual harassment at the hands of fellow musician and actor Ali Zafar. Zafar denied the accusations and subsequently filed a defamation suit against her, while numerous celebrities rallied to his support. In fact, his film Teefa in Trouble, released after the allegations were made public, was screened in theatres all over the country and ended up raking in more than 300 million.

Pakistan’s entertainment industry has not stood unresponsive on the matter of sexual harassment, with scattered statements emerging from within it, but more in distrust than in support of #MeToo. Model Sadaf Kanwal recently remarked disparagingly about the movement on a prime time talk show, declaring that she had never faced sexual harassment or abuse and going on to say that, You know aap ke saath Metoo jab ho, tab boldo. Baad mai aap ko yaad araha hai metoo, So I think jab ho boldo. (You know, when you have a MeToo incident, say it then. Why are you remembering it later? I think when it happens you should say it.)”

Kanwal’s remarks cannot be seen in isolation and indicate a greater malaise at play when it comes to the matter and conversation of sexual harassment in the country.

Why has #MeToo remained a murmur rather than taking the shape of a movement in Pakistan?

This is not without cause.

Stigma and Sanction

Foremost among these is the taboo and stigma surrounding sexual harassment in Pakistan. Any disclosure of sexual harassment or abuse, including child abuse, is considered shameful and a source of indelible stigma and dishonor for the victims or survivors, and their families. As an issue which is preferred suppressed and hushed up by the society, any public conversation about it then becomes inevitably inviting of backlash. The social repercussions for any individual braving their trauma to air their story are deeply undesirable; spanning subjection to blatant vilification, malicious mud-slinging, victim-blaming, outright threats and even ostracization. Victims of sexual harassment and abuse must routinely confront and counter vehement efforts to dismiss, doubt and demean their harrowing experiences.

Condemnations and repudiations of Meesha Shafi’s allegations against Ali Zafar have often commonly been based on the argument that she was simply doing it for “cheap and quick publicity,” thereby trivializing sexual harassment and recasting it as a mere ploy for attention-seeking. That even Meesha, a celebrity who has successfully featured in Hollywood, Bollywood and Lollywood films with an established career as a popular musician, wasn’t spared this charge can only offer a brief view of what an ordinary woman would have to endure were she to openly voice her allegations or ordeal of sexual harassment.

Legal Hurdles

In addition to the oppressive social and cultural treatment of the issue, the legal framework in Pakistan does not aid the creation of an environment conducive to any fight against sexual harassment. Fatima Anwar, a member of Pakistan’s legal community, draws light to the the degree of difficulty involved in taking sexual harassment cases to the courts. “We have basic penal code provisions against harm and laws against workplace harassment, but we do not have a distinct and separate law that directly addresses, criminalizes and deals with sexual harassment as a whole,” she says. It was due to this particular legal loophole that Meesha Shafi’s case against Ali Zafar was rejected as it was pursued under the existing Protection Against Harassment of Women at Workplace Act, in view of which her relationship with Ali Zafar could not be deemed as being one of employer and employee. Fatima elaborates that “the evidentiary standards, if the case does not pertain to penetrative rape, are very flawed. Sexual harassment rarely happens in broad daylight with multitudes of witnesses, therefore it is usually the word of the survivor against the attacker. Factor into this the institutional sexism of the courts, the internalized sexism of judges and the widespread harassment within the legal profession itself, and you realize that the likelihood of a conviction for a sexual harasser is very low.”

With scarcely any social and cultural structures, or even legal recourses, in place to offer support or redress to victims of sexual harassment, many women in Pakistan choose to keep quiet than to battle the backlash accompanying any disclosure of the distress they may have suffered or continue to suffer.

Feminist Fissures

Another hindrance to the full exposure of sexual harassment cases in Pakistan is grasped by writer Rafia Zakaria, who identifies the fissures, even within feminists, which contribute to the weakness of the movement in Pakistan: “When faced with an actual #MaiBhi moment, the vast majority of Pakistan’s feminists, the most notable of whom tend to be among the country’s elites, are choosing inaction, ambivalence or silence.” Hamna Zubair, an editor at Dawn newspaper, argues “film and entertainment industry’s response to these harassment allegations reveals how, once again, issues of justice and equality in Pakistan take a back seat to the social and financial entanglements of the upper class.”

That class associations, fraternal feelings and financial interests trump a staunch commitment to causes is an indictment of many people in Pakistan and the pervasive parochial tribalism which prompts them to frequently jump to the defense of many solely due to their shared belonging within a group; reducing their faithfulness to social justice, egalitarianism and activism as lip service, and genuine solidarity an act contingent upon convenience.

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Dr. Nida Kirmani, Associate Professor of Sociology at the Lahore University of Management Sciences who writes on gender, Islam and women’s movements in South Asia, opines that “we still have a long way to go when it comes to a wider understanding and sensitivity around sexual harassment. Sadly, even in circles that one would think are progressive, there is little understanding or acceptance of the seriousness of the problem of sexual harassment. While awareness is growing slowly, one would need a wider critical mass of people who are receptive to claims of sexual harassment in order for a Pakistani #MeToo movement to really take off.”

Risking Liberties

A third barrier to galvanization around the #MeToo movement in Pakistan is tied to its potential for being employed to bolster a reversal or restriction on the limited liberties many women are allowed to avail in society such as the freedom to study and work or even mobility in public spaces. Any surfacing of instances of sexual harassment, especially in educational institutions, workplaces or public spaces, is taken, by many, as vindication of the traditional and conservative ideas which call for confining and sequestering women within the four walls of their homes and prohibiting interactions with members of the opposite sex. The argument goes that it is precisely to prevent such unpleasant and unwanted occurrences that religion and culture instruct women to stay in the safety and comfort of their homes under the watchful and protective gaze of their fathers, brothers or husbands, and not venture beyond it unless absolutely necessary. For many women, revealing an experience of sexual harassment, may be used to remove and bar them from the spaces and locations of the occurrence altogether. To disclose, therefore, is to risk hard-won but fragile and precarious liberties. Disclosing instances of sexual harassment or abuse in consensual relationships would endanger these women further since dating is often explicitly forbidden or looked down upon. Consent ceases to be central when the focus shifts to your involvement in a relationship or space that you weren’t supposed to be in, in the first place.

Earlier last year, student and social-media user Ushnaa Habib took to Twitter to collect, compile and publish a stream of anonymous accounts of sexual harassment, many of which named well-known individuals as the perpetrators. Recalling her decision, she describes that “it took an immense strength from the women’s side to even consider opening up. The fact that they wanted to remain anonymous still breaks my heart because the fear of what men will do to them is far greater than you and I can imagine. There were screenshots and testimonies I could not even post, because of how scared the girls were. [But] the main role here, I think, is of the family. Every single girl was scared of her family and not necessarily the men they were naming. They didn’t want their mother and father to find out. But those with supportive families, were fierce and blunt.” Going public with experiences of sexual harassment is then accompanied by the very real fears of reprisals and fear of bringing shame and dishonor to the family. Moreover, such disclosures can be used to advance and implement curtailment of intermingling with the opposite sexes and a limitation of the liberties available to women.

Pushing for Change

Despite the lack of traction gained by the #MeToo movement in Pakistan so far, attempts to change the situation continue in the country through the painstaking efforts of women’s rights activists. Dr. Nida Kirmani provides the reminder that “women’s rights activists have been working consistently and persistently on the issue of sexual harassment for years. It is because of them that we have gotten as far as we have in terms of having a law in place at the national level and some formal mechanisms in particular institutions. The discussion of #MeToo should be seen as part of that wider movement. We have a long way to go, but I see a lot of rays of hope as well in terms of the older and younger generations of feminists working separately and together to lift that stigma and silence and create an environment where it is safe for survivors to speak out and actually get support.” And although Ushnaa Habib eventually found herself at the receiving end of numerous threats, including those of rape and death, in the same spirit of creating an environment where it is safe for survivors to speak it, she maintains her belief that she “did the right thing.” Similarly, Nighat Dad, who heads the Digital Rights Foundation which seeks to combat cyber-bullying and make the internet safe for women, has been in the process of compiling the names of pro bono lawyers willing to facilitate victims of sexual harassment. Renowned director and actress Angeline Malik has also launched the #InkaarKaro (Refuse) initiative that hopes to spread awareness regarding sexual harassment and its various forms, bring people together and “allow them to share their stories and assure them that if they feel they have ever been wronged, there are many others here to support them.”

The results of the #MeToo movement may be uncertain in Pakistan but what is for certain, however, is that it has given rise to a moment that has brought the subject of sexual harassment to the fore; and made possible at least some conversation about it, even if limited or even if uncomfortable, and even if it is a conversation on the movement’s negligible impact itself. #MeToo may not be Pakistan’s defining moment in the uphill struggle against sexual harassment and abuse, but even the silences which rendered the movement largely mute in the country, ironically and piercingly also rendered visible painful everyday risks and realities for women here.

-Hafsa Khawaja

Resenting the Public in Public Spaces


*Originally published at Timsaal.

The class divide in Pakistan is frequently documented in figures, percentages and statistics. Yet the divide is not in want of numbers when its evidence can be located in an everyday spaces and attitudes.

Recently, a Twitter user commented about witnessing a woman glaring down a man in a local mall by loudly expressing her disgust towards the “ghareeb aadmi” of his kind venturing into such places.

The incident could be brushed as an isolated outburst of a rude individual, but not quite. It is illustrative of a wider phenomenon: the deeply-held classist and elitist entitlement and resentment in urban public spaces.

“Mahol kharab kardia hai in logon nay”

“Mahol kharab kardia hai” is a thinly-veiled expression for the elitist inability to share space with the “aam awaam.” The classist elitism is driven both by a revulsion for the lower classes or perhaps any class below the upper middle and upper class, and an open desire for exclusion of these “others” to maintain a monopoly of certain territories. This classist and elitist territorialism appallingly hinges on asserting that the right of ownership, access and participation in certain spaces lies and is retained in the exclusive domain of a single group, while quite literally asks for the class divide to be enacted and reinforced on ground. In such an imagination, members of the lower, working or even middle classes, and members with rural backgrounds, are “cheap”, “tacky” and “paindu” in their attire and ways; polluting the ambience of places conventionally associated and visited by the urban, affluent and educated sections of society.

The case against the public intermingling with lower socio-economic strata is also often couched in a language of fear and risk of harassment and hooliganism in public spaces. But it remains to be emphasized that the repulsion directed at the sight of people from lower classes sharing a space exists even if these people are with families. It is not harassment but their ways, mocked as “cheap” or “paindu” for how they dress or carry themselves, their Punjabi, their broken-English or lack of English, which elicits this. On the matter of harassment, it is offensive and baffling that one would associate it with a particular class, especially with the lower classes which are already greatly stereotyped and demonized in our society: “lazy”, “chor”, “paindu”, “jahil.”

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Any woman can attest with absolute certainty that harassment is not a class problem. We’ve been made to feel uncomfortable in various public spaces, even in ones entirely visited by men of the seemingly “educated” and “refined” classes. When it comes to harassment, what we have is not a class problem but a gender problem. To reduce harassment to class is a dishonest and dangerous narrative.

Packages-Mall-Inner-ViewIt remains to be proven, however, how a class, with its superiority complex and faux sophistication, entitles its members monopoly over public spaces. And it remains to be reminded that all persons in this country have an equal right to enjoy malls, parks, events and whatever else there is. This is especially important considering the present situation: the ubiquitous fear and danger of security risks have considerably throttled cultural and recreational life in the country. Gone are the days of frequent concerts, festivities and cricket matches. A careful attempt at revival, however, has begun since the past few years with the opening up of certain narrow channels of entertainment: restaurants, malls, cinemas, and occasional festivals.

Public spaces and events as they are, they’ve allowed various segments of the urban population to access and participate in them, but as much of a breath of fresh air this has been and as welcoming as the democratization of public space should be, it has been accompanied by the aforementioned discontentment in certain quarters. Although several classes still remain barred from accessing these spaces and events due to the limits of familiarity and financial affordability. But ask those who remain repulsed, wronged and affronted by this development and images of an utter disaster would be conjured up. Who let these hordes of the hoi polloi into our idyllic abodes of privilege and into spaces which must only belong to us; the most special, the most cultured of them all. After all, haven’t you heard how fluently we speak English?

This segregation of the poor from the prosperous, which is often proposed for existing public spaces, events and activities, already concretely manifests itself and is enforced by the construction and maintenance of various housing schemes like Bahria Town and DHA which are, in effect, gated communities that do little to welcome and accommodate but a particular class. The entire landscape of such housing communities is oriented and designed to attract and entertain the rich or the rising. Take parks and tracks, for instance. Access to many of them is contingent upon memberships, the fees of which are often hefty and unaffordable except for a particular lot.

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The situation is compounded by the abounding suspicions and caricatures about the poor within these areas. Earlier this year, mass texts purported to be from Defence Housing Authority Lahore circulated among residents, cautioning them against allowing their domestic help from interacting with other workers in the neighborhood to “control the increasing number of thefts and other social evils.” The poor are welcome in these housing schemes and communities, but only to be sequestered in servant quarters, under the strict surveillance of their sahabs and bajis.

Even keeping aside the posh housing schemes and communities, which “often deploy a mix of methods in constructing space and regulating the flow of undesirable bodies”, the case still stands. Ammar Ali Jan, in fact, traces the development and management of Lahore itself as an urban space to specific colonial and post-colonial calculations and objectives which converged at “render[ing] the poor invisible” and the creation of  a “demarcation….between the elite areas of the city and those that contained Lahore’s working people.” Clearly spatial demarcation and confinement of the poor precedes, but aggravates, the exclusion from the few public spaces and recreational facilities that the poor too can avail.

But while the socio-economic gulf may be replicated and reinforced structurally in the design of the city as an urban space and elite housing communities, that does not trivialize the weight of exclusionary mentalities and behaviors which desire and drive away those of the lower and marginalized streams from the few places and areas they may be able to access, even if they are unable to participate equally or frequently in them. The arrangement of urban spaces ought to be critically interrogated for the exclusions they foster, but so do individual attitudes. The next time you find yourself wincing at the sight of someone from a different class visiting or occupying the same space as you, stop and reflect for a moment the discriminatory, demeaning and disdainful nature of your prejudice.

The reasons for denying members of different classes the right to enjoy public spaces, events, activities can be endlessly contrived, but their underlying classist and elitist nature cannot be denied. There is a long route to take if such frameworks of thinking and inhabiting spaces are to be overhauled for a truly inclusive society but a few steps towards it are both necessary and significant. It is crucial for people to learn to see and truly treat, with respect, those separate from their class as equal human beings and citizens who have the right to occupy and share spaces, comfortably participate and claim visibility in them. Although the acceptance of such a perspective may still prove to be tremendously difficult for some.

-Hafsa Khawaja

نڈر


نڈر

This was Asma Jahangir.

Attacked on every front that there was; that of her character, her morals, her faith, her sense of loyalty to Pakistan.

Called an agent, a traitor, a blasphemer, and every imaginable and unimaginable label and epithet from the many heaps and streams of hate, misogyny and abuse in this country for the condemnation and demonization of an individual.

And yet, there she stood. Undeterred, unfazed.

نڈر

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“A senior lawyer from Lahore, who does not wish to be named, declares: “Asma Jahangir is working on a specifically anti-Islam agenda and she is getting foreign funding to do that.” The same lawyer contested the Lahore High Court Bar Association election as Asma Jahangir’s nominee but he could not win. “The liberal lawyers did not vote for me because I have a beard and the religious, conservative ones did not support me because I was backed by Asma Jahangir,” he says as he explains how she divides the bar along ideological lines. “She is part of the Illumanti, a secret organisation controlling the world,” he then proclaims.

“When Asma Jahangir decided to contest the election for the Supreme Court Bar Association’s president in 2009-2010, she faced stiff opposition from many sections of the society, including newspapers and television channels. The media campaign against her was led by the Jang Group’s senior reporter Ansar Abbasi and it focused on projecting her as anti-Pakistan and anti-Islam. Six years later, the same media group engaged her as a counsel to represent it before the Supreme Court.”

___________________________________________

There she stood. Fierce.

Shouting at the top of her lungs on issues and matters that people in this country quivered and continue to quiver to even whisper about. Speaking truth to all the powers that be, all the powers that reign and trample many under their tyranny.

She took on the mullahs and the army. The holy and the mighty of Pakistan. She took on the politicians, the judges. The powerful and the many.

And she minced no words. Biting, blunt and brave.

To do so as a woman in a society not used to such a woman, that actively castigates and looks down upon such a female figure, was doubly dangerous; risking her reputation, her personal safety and even her life.

نڈر

_______________________________________________

“This is Asma Jahangir’s style — mixing the legal with the polemical. She knows how to make her presence felt, using calculated aggression, wit and sharp one-liners. For a woman in her 60s, just over five feet in height, she is acutely aware that she cannot afford the other side to dominate.”

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She was an icon for so many of us, especially women.

Amidst the many invisible fetters and fears we wear and parade as conformity to conventions, to traditions, to myopic notions of womanhood and femininity and propriety, which limit and lower our voices, which regulate our tones, which ask us to be careful, to be docile, not to stand out too much, not to draw attention to ourselves, to concern ourselves with nothing beyond the home, to never question, to never stare someone in the eyes, to never disturb things, to bend and break but to always let everything run as it is, and amidst a society and culture that asks us to live and pass in the silent shadows of the night without notice, Asma Jahangir was a fascinating force of defiance, courage and inspiration.

She feared nothing and none. Her voice was loud, it resonated. She tore through conventions and silences. She marched with her head held high. She was not going to hide, she was here to stay.

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And there she stood. For women, for minorities, for those denied justice, for those denied a voice, for those silenced, those comfortably unheard. For democracy, for our rights and freedoms. There she stood and battled, in words, in actions, on the roads and the streets.

And we watched in wonder.
Could there be such a woman among us?
Could we be such a woman?

نڈر

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Asma Jahangir is the woman I aspired and aspire to be. Or at least a fragment of her self and life, for none of us can ever truly be her.

As heartbroken I am, I feel privileged to have been conscious of her life and work, to have witnessed it in admiration and awe. To have had the chance to look up to her. To learn from her. To question, to shout, to speak truth to power, to stand by what you think is right.

نڈر

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“Munizae had just started her first job as a television reporter for India’s NDTV in 2005 when in May that year Asma Jahangir, along with other human rights activists, organised a women-only marathon in Lahore to highlight violence against women. There was serious opposition to the idea by religious parties and groups. On the day of the marathon, the police attacked participants with batons, kicking and dragging them into police vans and taking them to the Model Town police station.

When Munizae arrived at the site of the marathon, the first image she saw was of her mother with her “clothes torn off, her bare back exposed — being manhandled by police officials”. Her reporter colleagues had smirks on their faces. They looked at Munizae from the corner of their eyes. She felt embarrassed — more than that, she was shocked, traumatised.

Asma Jahangir’s husband was out of the country at the time. He immediately came back, only to see Asma’s bare back on the front page of a newspaper. Munizae broke down and cried when she saw her father but Tahir Jahangir was unfazed. If anything, he was proud.

Asma Jahangir was later transferred to jail from the police station. When Munizae got there, she saw her mother “in the same shirt, now stitched up with safety pins”. She was “shouting and essentially leading a protest in jail”.

Nothing, it seems, can ever stop Asma Jahangir from being what she has always been.”

_________________________________________

Today, neither a life nor a light, but a raging fire has gone out.

Rest in power, Asma Jahangir. There was none like you before, and there will be none like you ever.

نڈر

 

-Hafsa Khawaja

A Body of Burden


 “A woman must continually watch herself. She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself. Whilst she is walking across a room or whilst she is weeping at the death of her father, she can scarcely avoid envisaging herself walking or weeping. From earliest childhood she has been taught and persuaded to survey herself continually. And so she comes to consider the surveyor and the surveyed within her as the two constituent yet always distinct elements of her identity as a woman.”

― John Berger, Ways of Seeing

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The female body. The female form. The female figure.

To be a woman in this country is to be constantly, painfully and unusually conscious and aware of a great many things: so conscious of every part of your body; deeply aware of the demands made upon you for its every movement, move and motion to be calculated.

An oppressive consciousness and awareness.

Sit in a certain position, don’t sit in a certain position; don’t lean too much, don’t slouch so much, don’t sit cross-legged. Don’t talk in a certain tone, don’t laugh too loud.

Constantly survey and check yourself.

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It is as if the female body is a burden to be carefully carried and shouldered.

To possess a female body is to exist for and in multiple bodies. You are responsible for your own morality, and that of the other – that of the male. You check yourself and so you check the other. By possessing the vice of a female body, you bear the burden of their imaginations and their impulses. If the gaze or some misfortune falls onto you, you invited it for it is your responsibility to bar it, not that of those who cast it onto you.

You exist with the burden of that gaze on you and that gaze defines how you carry yourself.

It takes nothing but a moment to realize just how these burdens have sculpted you and your persona in the public space. I hold a deliberate and constant scowl on my face, head high, and my walk brisk. It is my way of denying and deterring those prowling leers and stares, of resisting the vulnerability that comes with my skin and whose fear crawls on my skin.

Of leers, jeers, and harassment.

And yet I know it can prevent little. My mere emergence in public visibility is what makes me far too prominent itself. Just being there is what draws attention, I need not create a scene. I am the scene.

The female body is oppressive for the expectations, fears, threats and oppressions heaped onto it are what it heaps onto you.

I catch myself unconsciously glancing at my dupatta every now and then, adjusting it even while it is adjusted. I find myself unconsciously straightening my kameez even when it already is, to make sure its corners aren’t turned, to make sure they cover me fully.

It is a constant ticking in my mind that tugs at its peace; this, being conscious of myself to a painful degree.

embodying-indus-lifeI sit in the car and get uncomfortable when a car or motorcycle veers too close to my window. The proximity is unsettling for the proximity of access of sight is unsettling. I grab the black shades and fix them over my window amid a sigh of relief. There, I am now hidden. Phew.

I step out and it is a struggle to keep my appearance…in order. I can’t hide here.

How can you possibly feel naked with clothes?

How can your own skin induce fear, vulnerability and discomfort in you? How can it induce a desire for invisibility in you?

An invisibility from the leers and stares that pierce right into you, that frighten and unnerve you. Leers and stares that stalk you with a perverse pride, entitlement, insolence and impudence, and with a complete sense of the perverse power they are, which are undeterred by one’s detection of them. The detection only emboldens them.

How do you come to feel uncomfortable in your skin? How do you come to feel uncomfortable by your own skin?

You see the leers and you survey yourself in worry, is the dupatta in place? Is something wrong? Is my kurta too short? Are the chaaks too much? I quickly sling my bag or purse on one side to slump over my legs, while the dupatta falls over the other.

How do you keep prying eyes away? To what extent can you possibly hide yourself? What more can you hide of yourself when the imagination encroaches and penetrates all that is you?

What can I do when I am uncomfortable by my own skin? When I made to be felt oppressed by own biology?

I wonder what it feels like to be in the public and to have a mobility unhampered by an agonizing consciousness of every part of your body, a tiring and grueling consciousness that presses itself on your mind.

How does it feel to not be ashamed of your anatomy?

How does it feel to not want to shrink?

How does it feel to not be stalked, surveyed and to surveil yourself?

How does it feel to just wear your skin without wanting to peel it off, shroud it, or fix it?

How does it feel to not be a woman?

I wonder what it’s like, while the corners of my dupatta and kameez tug at the corners of my mind. Is the dupatta in place? Is my kurta too short? Are the chaaks too much? A constant ticking in my mind that tugs at its peace; this, being conscious of myself to a painful degree.

 

-Hafsa Khawaja

The Bill and the Need for Cultural Currency


*Originally published in The Nation.

There has been much outcry and uproar. JUI-F’s Maulana Fazlur Rehman has called it an instrument for victimization of husbands, and suggested that the government should’ve just declared the ‘husband as wife and wife as husband’. Muhammad Naeem of Binoria has lamented it and linked it to the Nawaz Sharif’s promises to the West for bringing a ‘liberal nizaam’ in Pakistan and an attack against our ‘culture’ and ‘values’. There have been protests and condemnations.

Such has been the reaction elicited from the conservative and religious right in the country by the passage of the Bill for Protection of Women against Violence 2015, which criminalizes violence against women and carries comprehensive remedies and recourse for victims of violence, in the Punjab Assembly.

The vehement opponents of the Bill are proponents of an idea that not only trivializes the occurrence and prevalence of shameful ills and stains on Pakistani society, such as domestic violence, but also believe that it is actually the uncovering and exposition of these ills that really brings bad name to Pakistan and its ‘culture’. They would rather that women be beaten and assaulted in their homes, acid thrown on their faces, buried alive in the name of honor, than let their cries be heard or their wounds be healed.

Yet this reaction is symptomatic of a larger malaise within Pakistan’s culture and society that the Bill has merely managed to reveal. It is a malaise that considers violence against women a legitimate and acceptable force to maintain the stability, sanctity and honor of the family and home; violence as a ‘natural’ instrument of exalted masculinity to ‘straighten a woman up’ or ‘put her in her place’. This is cemented by the presentation of the malaise as a matter that strictly belongs to the private sphere, to the degree that even to speak on violence inflicted upon women is considered a breach of the so-called sanctity of the private. Thus, it may be that the izzat of the home is by a woman, but the woman herself has no right to her own izzat.

Only recently it was reported that a man in the village of Lakha Luddan divorced his wife after she got him arrested for inflicting torture on her.

In light of the existing situation, the fervid opposition to the Bill among certain groups and segments in the country underscore something much greater: the need to create cultural currency for change and reform in Pakistan. Since laws cannot operate in a vacuum, legal strides on issues such as those of domestic violence must be accompanied by efforts to conjure cultural acceptance and traction of the ideas underlying the laws to complement and enforce their strength.

Nazish Brohi sharply captures the predicament confronting women in the country: “Women across Pakistan, meanwhile, continue to face an old ultimatum: they can either claim citizenship of the state or membership of the community. Appealing to the former means expulsion from the latter. Once you go to the police or courts or shelters, there is no going back into the family fold.” This separation between the sphere of the state and the sphere of the private defines a great segment of opposition and anger directed at the Bill by many groups which consider it a breach of space and an encroachment of the exclusive rights such a separation bestows upon the private space i.e dealing with women. This division of spheres aids the aforementioned argument of the sanctity of home and family, an argument that Ammar Rashid of the Awami Workers Party was quick to point out was an “age-old misogynist ruse; used to deny women the vote hundred years ago”, which is being invoked by those targeting the Bill as a dangerous device that can potentially trigger the disintegration of families and its eventual disappearance in society.

One wonders what exactly goes on in the cherished institution of family that such a bill threatens by threatening to expose and punish.

It may perhaps well be true that ideas embodied in legal initiatives, of violence against women being a crime, percolate through to larger society but a top down change must be augmented by the creation of congruent values below in order to render it effective and powerful. After all, a woman brought up to believe that to remain silent in face of violence is to maintain honor would seldom think of appealing to laws. And it is this silence that men make their power and impunity. Therefore, as important as it is for the government to ensure the momentous passage and implementation of the landmark bill, it is equally, if not more, important to undertake a serious and concerted campaign to culturally diffuse the value held at heart of the bill and overturn existing toxic ideas and perceptions centered on the acceptability of violence against women. Such a campaign will have to involve the state and government’s engagement and collaboration with the civil society; and the utilization of means and mediums which resonate with the larger public, such as films, dramas, advertisements, lectures, educational activities, and even religious authority.

To stand its ground against the blackmail and bluster of the religious right protesting the bill, and to dispel ideas that incite and justify violence against women in the first place, are both arduous and uphill tasks for the government but tasks necessitated by the realization that such regressive groups and abhorrent ideas have held the country hostage for too long, and Pakistan must be freed from their shackles if ever to move forward.

-Hafsa Khawaja

Beyhayai On Wheels


*Originally posted on the Dawn Blogs:

The Punjab government’s Women on Wheels programme was initiated this 10th by a rally of 150 women trained by the Special Monitoring Unit on Law & Order and City Traffic Police.

According to a report in the Daily Times:

“The campaign is aimed at increasing women mobility and presence in public spaces by providing them free lessons in motorbike driving,” said PML-N MNA Maiza Hameed. “The Chief Minister’s Special Monitoring Unit (SMU) had launched this campaign for educating the women of Punjab against harassment and violence,” she said, adding that the campaign involved workshops to provide women with free motorcycle lessons and also to educate them on their role in society. “Women from all walks of life are invited to ride motorcycles on a pre-specified road,” Hameed said.

The WoW programme took off but not without condemnations on social media littered mainly with charges of “bayhayai”.

That the sight of women on motorbikes is obscene and repugnant to some in a country where hundreds of children are horrifically and despicably abused for years, an issue soon forgotten, spells volumes about the warped and twisted sense of outrage possessed by many in Pakistan.

It is also mind-boggling how the sight of women with men on motorbikes isn’t “beyhayai” but women alone on motorbikes definitely are. Why?

There is little doubt that this line of thought owes itself to the deep-seated scandalization of female presence and participation in public spaces in Pakistan.  This is a scandalization resulting from any breach of the chaar diwari; a concept, set in values of honour, which frankly holds scant compatibility with the 21st century, but which nonetheless designates and limits women to the boundaries of the private sphere.

To reiterate what I have asserted previously, this scandalization is a part of the bigger problem women in Pakistan face regarding public spaces and places; culturally set as alien territories for them, with the right to their occupation understood as a monopoly for males since public spaces belong to ‘their sphere’ – everything external and separate from the domestic domain to which women ‘belong’. Any breach of this monopoly by women is then either fraught with risks such as those of harassment, or restrained by these risks which limit female mobility and safety, but are rationalized as part-and-parcel of stepping into the ‘male realm’ of public spaces; in which female presence and visibility may be treated as cultural anomalies.

It is about time that we open our minds and stop treating public spaces as a distant realm for women, off-limits to them, in which their presence and participation is an anomaly that must be demonised and thwarted. It is such a view that often sanctions and promotes hostile conditions for when women when they do step into public spaces, which range from roads, educational institutions to work places, because “that isn’t where they are supposed to be”.

And it is in view of this that an initiative such as Women on Wheels is important and necessary, precisely because it resists this myopic idea by attempting the normalization and empowerment of female engagement with public spaces.

-Hafsa Khawaja

Breaching Boundaries: Female Presence and Public Space


*Originally published in The Nation.

 “Because its 2015”, replied the new Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau upon being questioned regarding his choice of gender balance characterising his cabinet; half of which are women.

Certainly the presence of women in positions of power is not entirely an accurate indicator of the general status of women in a country; case in point being Pakistan itself where the late Benazir Bhutto was twice elected premier and yet it has remained a country, which assessed by the World Economic Forum on levels of economic participation and opportunity; educational attainment, health and survival, and political empowerment, was ranked 141 out of 142 countries on the Gender Gap Index of 2014.

Yet Trudeau’s reply does strike as an important message: female representation, participation; gender balance and equality in this day and age should be the norm and not the exception.

On the other hand, the chief of Jamaat-e-Islami recently addressed the women training convention at Mansoora. And while he commendably spoke against the tradition of dowry in Pakistan, and advocated the availability of interest free loans for women wishing to engage in small businesses and welfare programmes for them, he also opined that, “Almighty Allah had made women the queen of the household whereas all those engaged in the so-called struggle for women’s rights had compelled the respectable mothers, sisters and daughters to work round the clock.” Siraj-ul-Haq’s assertion was not only a reflection of the concept that females inherently belong to the domestic domain but also a reminder of its continued prevalence in Pakistan today; legitimised using religion and the cultural ideals of honour, decency and modesty, but also glorified now as some sort of royal privilege possessed by the chaar diwari.

Islam and its relationship with women is another debate but that this is the same religion whose Umm-el-Momineen included Hazrat Khadija, a most successful businesswoman, and Hazrat Ayesha, whose intellect and role in spreading the religion’s message is well-known and recorded, and who also led a war, is an aspect that must not be let out of sight.

But notwithstanding the absurdity of associating NGOs with it, Siraj-ul-Haq’s statement on the ‘injustice’ of forcing women to work is preposterous in itself when the ‘queens’ he speaks of are ‘bound’ to do countless duties and work endlessly round the clock, years on end, in their ‘kingdoms’ without any respite. Commentator and columnist Gul Bukhari retorted to the JI Chief’s statement by tweeting: “Someone tell him it’s desire, necessity, poverty, ambition etc. Bring me one woman compelled to work by activists.”

Indeed the notion that women in Pakistan are ‘compelled’ by NGOs to work posits that no woman would want to work unless pressured by some nefarious forces (such as NGOs, of course), and would be content with belonging to the domestic area with the primary responsibility of producing and raising children, taking care of husband and home. Such a huge judgment flattens the reality, as articulated by Gul Bukhari, that women may, can and do work professionally out of difficulty of circumstances or their personal aspirations.

Since the confinement of women to the household, or their ascension to queen-hood, essentially makes them the ‘invisible’ gender; this concept extends onto the expectation that women remain obscure and hidden; never too prominent in any way – physically or by way of their voices. The exercise of any female agency or choice is then a violation of this designated physical and ideational boundary, often set in traditional values of honour and modesty. And it is this violation that comes to frequently factor in the gruesome incidences of honour killings which take the lives of 1000 women annually in Pakistan. Thus, in a country where such boundaries remain demarcated for many and continue to be advocated, female appearance in public spaces will often appear to be cultural aberrations.

Moreover, the prevalence of female confinement to the domestic as a natural and necessary order for women to adhere to in our society has led to a scandalization of female presence and participation in public spaces. The ugly phenomenon reared its head notoriously during the infamous dharna held by Imran Khan last year.

However, more alarmingly, this scandalization is a part of the wider problem women here face regarding public spaces and places; culturally set as alien territories for them, with the right to their occupation understood as a monopoly for males since public spaces belong to ‘their sphere’ – everything external and separate from the domestic domain to which women ‘belong’. Any breach of this monopoly by women is then either fraught with risks such as those of harassment, or restrained by these risks which limit female mobility and safety, but are rationalized as part-and-parcel of stepping into the ‘male realm’ of public spaces; in which female presence and visibility may be treated as cultural anomalies.

That this scandalization is a potent problem can be seen from the recent beating of female students at KU for playing cricket. It is perhaps infuriating and unfortunate incidents like these which chain significance to campaigns such as “Girls at Dhabas”; projects which aim to resist this scandalization and tacit exclusion of women from public spaces and places, which may not be systematically or legally enforced but are imposed culturally and socially, by attempting to reclaim traditionally male spaces and activities through normalization of female presence and engagement with them.

It is crucial to note that for any political, social or economic progress to be made in Pakistan, women are but an indispensable force. But such a realization necessitates a reconfiguration of cultural imagination which doesn’t confine or limit but accepts, accommodates and creates space for female roles, presence, representation and participation in all walks of national life.

~ Hafsa Khawaja