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

National Clutter


*Originally published in The News.

It’s been over a month since the dharnas came to the capital.

And although Imran Khan warns of a civil war, the political temperature has come down considerably but not after exposing the bare and weak bones of Pakistan’s make.

To start off, with rumors and fears of a coup abound earlier; a most alarming reminder has been the persisting existence of the Third Umpire on the political front. Including a counsel of restraint on both sides, advocacy for facilitation of negotiations and advising the government not to use force, Dawn’s editorial published on 2ND September spoke on this string of the army’s statements and inaction towards the protesters that attacked the Parliament despite Article 245 as:

‘The carefully constructed veneer of neutrality that the army leadership had constructed through much of the national political crisis has been torn apart.’

The fact that army had to issue these statements and later another to assert its neutrality brings out a sneering irony.  

It is obvious that redressing the civil-military imbalance is urgent and yet perilous since the Third Umpire will not be leaving a field it has dominated and played on since decades anytime soon.

Secondly, while mudslinging and uncivil rhetoric has been and is an inherent component of Pakistan’s chaotic political culture, the current developments have assisted their swift mainstream resurgence; lest we forget Imran Khan’s volley of countless allegations and accusations against the sitting prime minister, ministers, parliamentarians, judiciary, police, journalists, bureaucrats and the media; and his free and open use of “oye”, “main choroon ga nahi” to “geeli shalwars”. The on-going rumpus has assisted and promoted the crude rhetoric of violence and slander in Pakistan’s political culture and discourse to once again rear its ugly head.

More importantly, a tweet by Mosharraf Zaidi on Imran Khan’s audacious release of his workers arrested by the police accentuates a disquieting issue:

‘One can blame PM Sharif to a certain extent, but delegitimization of the state machinery is now the unwitting PTI project. Disturbing.’

This act of Imran Khan’s may be hailed as bravado by his supporters, who condemn and decry Anjum Aqeel in the same breath, but since its declaration of civil disobedience, promotion of hundi; attempts to storm state buildings with PAT and this forceful release of arrested workers, PTI and its workers have certainly pursued a path of delegitimizing state apparatuses by way of blatantly defying the law.

With such a course of action, PTI has helped muddle up the distinction between the state and the government; attacking the former to shake the latter.

This is but a dangerous phenomenon in a country struggling for stability and security; adding a political plane to the constant challenges to the writ of the state by a plethora of groups including the TTP.

In the domain of the government, the consequences of ignoring political protests, as PML-N initially did with Imran Khan’s, have been dramatically revealed. Governments, especially that of parties like N which conveniently adopt smug complacency when in power, can no longer afford to be dismissive of opponents’ demands or perform sluggishly.

Moving on, as with every national occurrence, the media’s role has been of vital significance amid the inquilabi and tabdeeli mayhem. With fear-mongering, misinformation and sensationalism media houses flagrantly picked stances and sides. This glaring functioning of Pakistan’s media as propaganda houses for political parties with little room for impartiality and responsibility has been unfortunate. Media coverage has also been concentrated on the capital, with hardly any slot for the plight of the IDPs and later, the flood victims. All of this has once again lent weight to the idea that Pakistan possesses a vibrant, free media but a fledgling one not free from biases, unethical practices and oblivious to responsible, meaningful journalism.

Public discourse has also been affected, albeit with the curse of intense polarisation. With each lot sticking to its viewpoint and party loyalties with charged political self-righteousness, little room has been left for debate and discussion, let alone poor old nuance. All who oppose PTI’s politics are now ‘jahil nooras’ and all those who criticise PML-N ‘youthias’. And with debate and discussion shut off like this, this only strengthens the intolerance that is already embedded in Pakistan’s society and national mindset.

Another societal characteristic emerged amidst the dharnas, namely misogyny and hypocrisy. Appropriated into mainstream political discussion thanks to Maulana Fazul-ur-Rehman invoking the infamous fahashi narrative inside the Parliament, the dancing by women at Imran Khan’s dharna became a part of the political salvo against him.

A non-issue with no political weight or ramification, it is, as columnist and writer Abdul Majeed Abid, wrote:

‘One can disagree with the ‘dharnistas’ on dozens of accounts, without any mention of the term ‘vulgarity’….. this is important only in bigoted, misogynist societies such as Pakistan.’

It is astounding how women and men dancing at rallies can be an issue when there is a war being fought at home and a million Pakistanis are displaced from their homes, left for destitution.

This is a fine encapsulation of the clutter Pakistan is in today.

At the end, it is palpable that the political confrontation which began in mid-August sparked off a tense interaction between Pakistan’s politics, institutions, society and culture; the results of which are unsettling. A close to the current events may be uncertain but what is certain is that as a country aspiring for democracy, stability and prosperity, Pakistan has a long and difficult path to tread if it is ever to move forward.

~ Hafsa Khawaja

Of Choorian, Cultures and ‘Calm Down, Dear’


First published at Viewpoint Online.

Posting the unedited version here:

Often things become such a commonality in countries that their implications and meanings, no matter what they hold, are simply reduced to being nugatory. Such is the case in Pakistan; questionable sayings, practices and customs that should usually arouse attention have become so imbedded in our society through repetition that they’ve developed into being a component of the declining environment.

Just a few months back, when the Parliament deplorably resounded with boorish bellows of ‘protest’ and other actions by the Opposition (that evidently consigned and littered all democratic and parliamentary norms, ethics and etiquettes to the trash bin) till the session’s end as Finance Minister Abdul Hafeez Sheikh presented the annual budget – PML (N) MNA Tehmina Daultana came storming and flung her bangles at him in an entirely misogynist vein.

This, for some, might plainly have been a sign of rightful ‘condemnation’ or just another entertaining event in the history of parliamentary donnybrooks of Pakistan. But what it was an indication of, was left absolutely unheeded.

Hum nay choorian nahi pheni hui!’ (We are not wearing bangles) has assumed form of a very popular phrase amongst the tub-thumping and empty rhetoric of the demagogues in Pakistan.

This expression clearly and solely suggests masculine pride and male bravado along with an endorsement of the opinion (and a much-denoted one to the mores and beliefs of the Arabia of the Age of Ignorance) that women were universally inferior creatures in comparison to men.

By roaring that one does not wear bangles, he intends to put the message across that he is neither weak, a simpleton nor woundable or anything perceived to be of the other sex through the lens of condescension; thus completely depreciating womanhood and making it the subject of derogation.

And this is ignored and even met by cheers from throngs listening to speeches that contain the sentence.

But in the United Kingdom in April, Prime Minister David Cameron was entangled in a controversy while resisting demands for apology after he told a female shadow cabinet minister to “Calm down, dear” during an argument over proposed reforms in the House of Commons. Cameron had  mimicked a famous car insurance advert starring popular chauvinist Michael Winner.

Cath Elliot of Guardian wrote:

“Calm down, dear” is neither humorous nor edgy; it is instead a classic sexist put-down, designed to shut women up and put them back “in their place”.

“Calm down, dear” is what women hear when we’re allegedly being “hysterical” or “overemotional”. It’s that tired old gender stereotyping, the sort that implies that if we can’t even keep our emotions in check, then we obviously aren’t cut out for the more serious male world of politics and debate.’’

While Cameron did not apologise and his aides downplayed the whole affair, it may be rationale to deem that in view of all the media scrutiny and obloquy it drew out, he will be measuring his words and their significance in the future.

Harriet Stowe once said; Women are the real architects of society. How, one might ask.

Women, by divine nature have been bestowed upon with this sole authority and capacity. It is a woman, who nutures a child in her womb and then brings him up, instills values in him while grooming him that directly affect his behaviour, ethos and mentality.

Future doctors, politicans, leaders, journalists etcetra – all constitute a people and are indispensable to the system of the society and world, and each one of them owes his existence to a woman.

The role of a woman  is instrumental in everything. Even a female who is neither schooled,  not married nor a mother, naturally yeilds strength and inspires admiration leave alone one that is given her right to education, choice, freedom, equality and life itself . To remind one of Fatima Jinnah’s role in Quaid-e-Azam’s life would suffice here also.

Thus a woman is the real architect, an irreplaceable pillar of the society.

It was not only to highlight sexism but to illuminate the difference in the wider picture, the juxtaposition of the two incidents in Pakistan’s Parliament and the UK’s House of Commons in this article. What distinguishes the separate countries of the two events from one another, was culture. A culture and society that shuns torpor, prompts introspection and welcomes a discourse; something we are clearly devoid of and replace by impassivity, disinterest about such little things, denialism and nothingness.

It is of paramount importance for Pakistani to realize that it is not a revolution they need but a collective, national socio-cultural evolution.

This verbal male chauvinism, pellucid in the aforementioned Urdu remark, is part of the labyrinth of a mindset and culture in Pakistan that eventually translates and actualizes into the web of repugnant traditions of Vani, Sawara, Karo-Kari etcetra. It is all inter-connected and must be clipped from the roots that are strengthened by how each individual in Pakistan waters them; through silence at the and by ignoring the smallest of its elements (phrases such as the aforementioned).

With the backing and espousing of generations of people of different thoughts and time, cultures flourish and characterize traditons and norms that later all of new eras dare not abandon even if logic dismisses them (traditions). Traditions and beliefs such as, assigning women a position in the community of a lowly figure with not much purpose in life and even little ability. (Due to which’s perception, such sayings and disgusting activities are born)

It is about time as Pakistan totters from crossroads to the brink of a now-or-never stage, that  we cultivate a new culture – for which each indvidual must cast his efforts; question doubtful and wrongly established practises, convention and mores. Adopt better ones, encourage others to.

As individuals come together to become a people, people make a society bound by a culture constructed by them, that society is the base of a nation and nations form countries thus it is dervied that if the people change, the country will inevitably similarly.

To redefine Pakistan in front of the world, Pakistanis must refine themselves and their institutions; the culture and society.

– Hafsa Khawaja