Pakistan: A day of celebration, then business as usual for VAW and patriarchy Print E-mail
Pakistan -- Sunday, March 4 2007 Safar 14, 1428

Unfair to the fair sex

By Prof Shahida Kazi


Despite all the claims that the NGOs or government functionaries make to dispel the notion of gender bias in Pakistan, the fact remains that even in modern times women are not allowed to make their own decisions and live their lives the way they want

YET again, we are going to celebrate International Women’s Day on March 8. There will be a series of seminars; women activists will take out rallies; women from the rural areas will be asked to put their handicrafts on display; plays will be performed and motivational songs will be sung; government functionaries will rattle off statistics related to women’s education, health and employment; ministers and members of parliament will speak about new legislation(s) intended to ‘protect’ women -- and so another day will come to and end.

We will all congratulate each other; the NGOs will send glowing reports to their sponsors; and the movers and shakers in the government will be satisfied that they have done their duty for the cause of women’s freedom.

Meanwhile, here are a few examples of newspaper headlines published in the last month alone:

“Girl raped, paraded naked in Obaro.”

“Lovers stoned to death in Multan village.”

“Women gang-raped, sold.”

“Four-year-old married to 45-year-old man on orders of Jirga.”

“Teenaged girls trafficked to Middle East.”

“Trade of underage girls by loan sharks in Sindh.”

“Tribal chief orders parents of his daughter-in-law to sell their daughter to arrange money for second marriage of his son.” “Housemaid raped, killed.”

Add to these the routine reports of rapes, killings, burnings, abductions and suicides comitted by women -- reports that we take for granted and hardly give a second thought to.

What is happening in our country? What has the status of women been reduced to? Are they living beings or just a commodity to be used (or misused) by men?

The statistics, as usual, present a bright picture. They say the literacy rate, as far as women are concerned, has improved. There are more girls in educational institutions than ever before. Separate women universities have been opened. Women are being inducted into the armed forces. The women’s quota has been reserved for government jobs, including for the Superior Civil Services. Women have 17 per cent members in parliament and 33 per cent in the local bodies. Impressive, indeed!

But there’s another side to it, and it is not at all rosy. A Human Rights Commission of Pakistan report says, at least 565 women and girls were killed in the country in 2006 for the sake of ‘honour’. It is nearly double the number compared to the previous year (287). The report acknowledges that many such killings go unreported and the actual figure may be more than 1,000 -- a horrific number indeed. According to another report released by lawyers for the Human Rights and Legal Aid, there were more than 7,500 cases of violence, physical assault and torture against women during the year. Most of these women were victims of domestic violence or honour-related atrocities, and the perpetrators were their close relatives, such as husbands, fathers and brothers.

Again, these figures may be considered as inaccurate as most of the cases go unreported and the real situation is probably far worse.

The report goes on to say the shocking part is that women were victimised more in areas where the so-called educated people reside than in backward localities. The vast majority of such cases took place in Punjab, while Sindh was placed second, and quite a few incidents took place in Karachi.

No matter how shocking they are, figures do not tell the true story. Every few years, a harrowing event takes place that makes our otherwise somnolent society get up end take notice. Screaming and sensational headlines grace the newspapers; a series of letters in the press gets published; statements of condemnation are issued; rallies and sit-ins are held; demands for exemplary punishment are raised; and assurances of quick justice are given. Every NGO jumps onto the bandwagon and wants to make its voice heard. It happened with Mukhtaran Mai; it happened with Dr Shazia, with Samia Sarwar, with Sonia Naz and a score of other victims, and now the latest case is of Nasima or Obaro. But after being discussed in the newspapers for a couple of weeks, the case was conveniently swept under the carpet, the name of the victim all but forgotten, and the protestors went back to their somnolent state.

Instead of labelling these incidents ‘aberrations’ or ‘once-in-a-while-happenings’, we should try to look at them in their proper perspective and understand why they happen. For unless the root cause is understood and removed, no act of condemnation, protest or punishment will help eliminate them and ensure that they do not happen again.

Here I will come back to my earlier question: what is the position of women in our society? Are they living beings or just a commodity to be used by men? This is a crucial question which I think all of us, especially the educated ones, should try and seek an answer to.

The situation is very clear in our rural areas, which are still ruled under the feudal system or the tribal system. There are no two opinions on the fact that here a girl is considered a commodity, an economic asset, an object to be used to settle scores, to cement ties, to pay off loans, to return favours, and to make deals with the enemy.

Here, every girl has her price. A 60-year-old man can get a 12-year-old virgin if he can afford to pay enough; he can exchange his five-year-old daughter for the 16-year-old daughter of a friend; he can give three of his daughters to get a 14-year-old exceptionally beautiful girl.

In fact, the laws governing ‘bride prices’ and ‘watta satta’ are very much part of the rural tradition in all parts of our country. They are so deeply embedded that no cosmetic law or any kind of lip service can change the mindset of the people who have sworn to protect the traditions of their ancestors. These traditions also include the customs of vani and swara, under which girls are offered as compensation and peace offering to the enemy. Such decisions are usually taken by the jirgas comprising elders of the tribe; of course, women are not included in them. And the girls, who may be as young as one-year-olds, have no say in the matter.

Once given to the enemy, they have no further contact with their own families. They may be kept as concubines, as slaves, tortured or put to death -- no one cares. The law has been complied with, the tradition upheld.

Forced marriages are another fact of life in the rural areas. The girl’s opinion is not sought or considered. If she protests or wants to exercise her free will, she is promptly labelled a ‘kari’ and is legally put to death, sentenced by the all important jirga. For very kari there should be a ‘karo’. But in most cases, the karo may be non-existent. Or if he exists, he can safely buy his freedom by paying a hefty price, again with the blessing of the jirga. Or the kari might not be put to death. She will be sold to the highest bidder. In fact, a report says, “Karis are in great demand and command a higher price than the so-called good girls.”

While the landlords keep their own wives and daughters secluded (and in the purdah) the daughters and wives of the peasants, the serfs or the ‘kammis’ are considered fair game. They are treated as their own property and the serfs, already in landlords’ control and under heavy debt, are in no position to protest. Who says slavery is a thing of the past?

As the whole world knows by now, thanks to Mukhtaran Mai, women are also a convenient scapegoat to teach a lesson to the men of low caste families. If a boy from such a family exceeds his limits and dares to look at a woman belonging to a higher caste, the jirga has no problem with him. Select a girl from his family, order her to be gang-raped, and parade her naked in the streets, and he will never do such a thing again.

What a wonderful solution to a thorny problem!

In the urban areas of the country, of course, things are a lot different. Urban girls acquire the same education as boys. In many cases, they step out of their homes to do jobs. They can adopt different professions. Many enlightened parents allow their daughters to select their own mates. Girls get to use mobile phones, computers, the Internet and cable TV, eat out, and hang out with friends.

But are things really that different? Can girls really do what they want? Can they achieve self-realisation or self-actualisation?

From the day she is born, a girl in our society in expected to behave in a certain manner. It is drilled into her mind that her primary aim in life is to get married -- everything else is secondary. She is given the right education, according to her parents’ means and resources, dressed in the proper manner, taught the proper rules of conduct, guided to choose the right career, and ultimately the right husband. The rule is to conform; to do, wear and be what is expected of her, not what she herself wants. God help the rebel, the non-conformist, the girl who doesn’t play according to the rules.

As soon as a girl grows up to be a teenager, her parents’ worries start taking shape. “Will her marriage be a successful one? How soon will she get married?” These are followed by things like the visits of complete strangers to have a look at her and consider her as worthy of getting married to; the tea trolleys that she pushes into the drawing room for strangers to have a look at her; the skin whiteners that she applies to her not-so-fair complexion; the crash diets that she has to opt for to reduce her weight; and finally the proposal from the boy’s family comes.

The joy of her parents, and of the girl herself, knows no bounds, when the boy’s family says that they want the girl to get married into their family. She has scored one up on her friends and on her cousins. In most cases, it is goodbye to further studies, goodbye to all career hopes. Welcome to a new life – the husband, the children, the in-laws, and the kitchen. And so she opts for a new routine, the routine she will follow the rest of her life, as she sets out to become the perfect wife and mother.

Before she was married she’s told, “This is not your real home. Your real home is your husband’s home. Here you have to follow our rules. There you can do what you want.”

But once she becomes the mistress of her new home, the truth sinks in. She has merely exchanged one kind of bondage for another. Now what she can do or cannot do depends entirely on her husband’s whims. Her wishes and dreams become completely subservient to those of her husband’s and in-laws’. As a result, another talent goes unrealised as the girl settles down and starts doing not what she wants, but what others expect her to do.

As a teacher I have seen many cases of brilliant and promising students pushed into marriage during their studies. “Of course, I will complete my honours and obtain the degree,” says a girl naively as she hands out her wedding invitation to me. But later the story takes a different turn. Her mother-in-law doesn’t like her going to the university; or her husband shifts to another town; or, in most cases, she becomes pregnant and the doctor asks her to have some rest.

Many girls, when they come to seek admission to the university, claim they will work after obtaining the degree if allowed by their parents or in-laws. They don’t seem to decide on their own what they themselves want to do or why they have chosen to study a particular subject. Responses like “my uncle thought it was a good subject so I took it” or “my friend was taking it so I also decided to take it” are often heard.

It is sad how much talent gets wasted because of this phenomenon. Girls are not allowed to follow their dreams or to decide on their own what they really want to do. Do they really have to drift half-heartedly into studying subjects they have no interest in and have no plans to pursue further?

In fact, the right to decide is a basic one, which should be exercised by every human being. But it is one right which is non-existent for girls in our society. Be it education, career or marriage, it is not the girl student, but others who usually decide for her.

Like little boys, little girls also have their dreams. “I want to become a pilot; I want to become a scientist; I want to play cricket for my country; I want to play the piano; I want to ...” But, “You should go for medicine,” say the parents. Or, “A simple BA is good enough for you. You don’t have to do a job.”

Therefore, the dream is pushed somewhere down into the subconscious, dismissed as a piece of childish thought, never to be talked about any more.

In fact, the need for social approval is a thing that is drummed into girls’ ears from early childhood. “Good girls don’t do this” or “good girls don’t do that” is a refrain that is drilled into her mind from an early age. Or “if you do this, you will make your mother and father very unhappy” … and worst of all “the honour of our family depends on you. If you do this or that, people will throw stones at us.”

Largely because of the process of conditioning to get parental or social approval, somewhere down the line the girl loses her identity and becomes a mere puppet. She remains no more a person in her own right and turns into a commodity, a thing, who comfortably sits back and lets others make the big decisions for her. “They love me, so they will do what is best for me,” she tells herself and goes with the flow. Of course, there exist rebels and non-conformists too in our society. There are many women who have reached the top of their chosen professions and have made themselves and their families proud. There are great women scientists, writers, artists, and mountain climbers. But there have also been doctors and computer science graduates who lost their lives for ‘honour’ or labelled ‘karis’.

There are women who have chosen to remain unmarried and become top civil servants, economists, physicians and professors. But there are also thousands of others, whose husbands have systematically destroyed their egos.

One of my favourite books is Veronika decides to die by Paulo Coelho. In the book, the heroine, Veronika, a young girl who seems to have everything -- good looks, a steady job, loving parents and lots of friends -- one day decides to kill herself. Why? Because she suddenly realises that her existence has no meaning and that every day is the same. She decides to end accepting what life has imposed on her. Because she has spent her whole life doing not what she herself wanted to do, but what others expected of her.

How many Veronikas are there amongst us who do not consciously decide to die, but are dying anyway? They’re dying because they have lost their zest for life. They have settled down into a routine life which appears complete from the outside but has nothing inside.

Yes, our Veronikas do not decide to die, they are dying anyway.

So this Women’s Day, all of us should ask ourselves: are women human beings?