This is practically a thought experiment. One need only imagine a day in the life of an ordinary woman in Pakistan to fully internalise the many horrors that come gift-wrapped in insidious euphemisms of “honour” and “shame” for the Pakistani female. This is not an accident. It is in fact a logical conclusion of a particular status quo in a society neck-deep in a cesspool of misogyny and patriarchy.
But why even invoke hypothetical’s when reality has made itself so horribly pervasive that little, if anything, is left the imagination? Only someone living under a rock would fail to register the grotesquery that goes on at our bus-stops, bazaars, local offices, shops, stores, essentially all avenues that make possible the release of the systemically suppressed frustrations of the average Pakistani male.
The annual Gender Gap Index by the Geneva-based World Economic Forum released recently revealed that Pakistan ranks 141 out of 142, second to last, in global gender equality. This comes as no surprise in a country where rape is more a punishment than a crime, as local jirga rulings so frequently exhibit. This sick phenomenon is often described as “honour rape”; as revolting an oxymoron as can be. Case in point: Mukhtara Mai, who was gang-raped by the orders of a village council a few years ago.
It is clear that this ghastly state of affairs is more a cultural spinoff than anything else. The same culture, one might add, in which the man is the holder of honour and woman the bearer of shame. What happens as a consequence is the exaltation of the male in both the private and the public, domestic and societal. And then, by association, all related attributes find equal elevation – pride, ego, honour, influence, control, etc.
It is no surprise then that in Pakistan’s most unchanging of backdrops, religiously inspired patriarchal attitudes are hard to confront, let alone dismantle
This realisation is made clearer when one casts a glance upon neighbouring India where similar trends are on full display. Pakistan and India, after all, share common history and culture. But what makes things more complex for Pakistan is religion. Unlike secular India, Pakistanis breathe religion. And unfortunately religion, in the way it is largely understood and practiced in Pakistan, is not an ever evolving enterprise subject to sophisticated, contemporary and non-literalist interpretations of an intellectually advanced people. It is rather a fossilised set of do’s and don’ts that reduces morality to the tightrope gymnastics of blind adherence. This is hardly a fertile landscape for cultural revisionism. Less so when the said culture draws heavily upon an impermeable worldview held sacrosanct and above all critique.
It is no surprise then that in Pakistan’s most unchanging of backdrops, religiously inspired patriarchal attitudes are hard to confront, let alone dismantle. And that’s the danger. Because absent a viable counter-narrative, something like the Hudood laws/punishments remains a reality far too quick to manifest. And nothing subjugates women more than such archaic legislation. It is concepts such as the requirement of male witness testimony to prove rape — a near impossible condition to satisfy — overlapping with the cultural obsession with “male honour” that account for the high incidence of unreported rape cases in Pakistan. Granted there will be activists like Asma Jahangir and amendments like the women protection bill to fight/neutralise such laws but who is to say that there won’t be more Zia-ul-Haq types to impose them all over again?
Furthermore, this issue of women rights cuts deeper than Hudood punishments. We know today through numerous studies by academics and economists alike that women empowerment can dramatically enhance economic growth and human development. That it leads to greater employment, labour productivity and higher average household incomes that positively impact spending patterns which in turn stir up the economy. More female literacy also reduces female fertility and child mortality.
Absent a viable counter-narrative, something like the Hudood laws/punishments remains a reality far too quick to manifest. And nothing subjugates women more than such archaic legislation
Surely, Pakistan, a country with less than 50 percent female literacy, could then do well to break those barriers that have long reduced half of its population to second class status. According to the 2011 Human Development Report of the United Nations Development Program, approximately twice as many males as females receive a secondary education in Pakistan. This is troubling to say the least. Such gender gaps scream the urgent need for a thorough shakedown and systemic overhaul of governance, educational spending, and to most importantly initiate a permanent retreat from medieval cultural attitudes that view woman as little more than chattel; human throwaways condemned by accident of birth to male subservience. And if it takes 14 year old girls to take bullets in their heads to fight such a grim status quo, then there is no greater shame upon a nation that ironically and so tragically obsesses over honour.
But in spite of all the above, Pakistani women paradoxically enjoy relatively high political representation compared to women in most developing, and even developed, countries. In this Pakistan is ahead of its regional rivals India, Sri Lanka and Iran. It ranks among the top 50 in the IPU’s list of women representation in national parliaments, ahead of developed democracies such as Canada, the UK and the US. Pakistan is also one of the few countries in the world to have its first woman parliamentary speaker and to also be ruled by a female head of state.
This shows that in spite of entrenched patriarchy and cultural rigidity, the country is accepting of women leaders. Let’s hope this acceptance percolates across the mainstream consciousness. And that people recognise, without equivocation, that there is in all of human history no record of a single society or civilisation that has ascended to great heights by subjugating its women.
To fully understand the urgent need for women empowerment, all Pakistanis must, for a moment, inhabit the mind of the man who founded Pakistan. He 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.”
Let us free our women so we may cease to be criminals.
The writer is an engineering consultant based out of NY, USA. He is also a freelance writer/blogger. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.