~~ Saturday, March 07, 2009
The privatisation of Pakistani women
By Rafia Zakaria
Sexual crimes have been mainstays of Pakistani politics for nearly all of its sixty-one-year history and have been used to legitimise all sorts of regimes. This gives the Taliban ample room to justify yet another repugnant episode in the history of Pakistani women
On March 5, 2009, barely a day after the attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team, the Tehreek-e Taliban Pakistan blew up the shrine of Rehman Baba, a seventeenth century Sufi poet. The bombs had been placed in the four white marble pillars of the tomb and were detonated in the early hours of the morning.
According to the residents of the Hazarkhwani area, the shrine was blown up because the Taliban had an objection to women visiting the shrine. In its capacity to attract women out of their homes, this shrine, commemorating one of the finest poets of the Pashtu language, was considered worthy only of destruction by the Taliban.
This latest spectacle and the reasons given for it are recent iterations of what has been a steady encroachment by the Taliban on the lives of Pakistani women. In recent days, women have been beaten for being found walking with an unrelated male, forbidden from shopping in markets and in many areas around Peshawar banned from ever appearing in public without covering their faces.
A bare few months ago, Shabana, a famous Pashto dancer, was killed and her body left to rot in the middle of the town for days. Hundreds of schools have been burnt and tens of thousands of girls condemned to illiteracy in the wake of an insurgency that shows few signs of abating.
Even educational institutions in cities like Multan, considered to be far from the reaches of the insurgency in the tribal areas, have, in recent days, received threats for allowing men and women to study together. Signs have been put up at restaurants in Quetta and markets in Swat prohibiting women from the premises.
Unquestionably, as the women of the world commemorate the International Women’s Day tomorrow (March 8), the women of Pakistan have little to celebrate and even less to look forward to.
Given this, it is crucial to recognise that the privatisation of Pakistani women and their systematic relegation to the private sphere is not an accidental by-product of the insurgency, but an integral component of it. In pushing women out of society, out of jobs, and out of educational institutions, the Taliban are attempting to redefine the public and private spheres in a way that gives tangible vision to their counter-modern world.
The possibility of women entering the working world, the popularity of dual-income families with consumer habits born of globalisation and the encroachment of Western ideas are precisely the reference points against which this counter-modernity is constructed.
In being the modern world’s visible opposite, this vision seeks to eliminate women completely; it strives thus to eradicate women’s power — through education and financial emancipation — to erode the patriarchal structures the Taliban see as authentically Islamic.
Part of the dynamic paving the Taliban’s way is that it is the potential advent rather than the presence of women in the public sphere that is the target of the onslaught. Pakistani women, especially those most vulnerable to the Taliban’s excesses living in areas like Mohmand, Swat and the outlying villages of Peshawar, do not currently have an entrenched place in the public sphere. Emerging from a tribal and religiously conservative background, these women have been largely excluded from the urban-middle class NGO discourses that have been the feeble (albeit often valiant) representations of Pakistani feminism thus far. The abridgement of their freedoms, the banning of these women from markets in Mingora and schools in Swat thus represents not the taking away of existing freedoms but thwarting the possibilities of future ones.
In doing so, they perpetuate the particular tragedy of quashing efforts to increase women’s autonomy and emergence from male-dominated structures even before women can claim public space.
Eliminating the freedom of women already bearing the yoke of tribal strictures also provided the Taliban with another political opportunity. While the majority of their practices involve the repression of women, the forbidding of certain tribal mores as against Islamic traditions permits an edification of their cause as a sort of Islamic modernity similar to the practices of the early Muslims in pre-Islamic Arabia.
Practices like honour-killing, karo-kari, siyah kari and the marriages of women to the Quran provide plenty of room to invest the Taliban with a sort of medieval charisma imbued with religious righteousness. For the Taliban, this game is an old one, as Professor Juan Cole has pointed out in his article, The Taliban, Women and the Private Sphere; the group followed exactly the same pattern in Afghanistan where Mullah Omar forbade the practice of forcibly marrying widows off to anyone in the tribe.
In addition, the redefinition of public and private and the accompanying pushing back of women into the domestic sphere plays into the moral confusions of Pakistanis already unsure of the cultural implications of globalisation. In a society where the situation of women is deplorable, where thousands of women are killed in the name of honour, where rapists are rarely if ever prosecuted and the testimony of a woman is at times only considered half that of a man, a revolt against the increasing repression of the Taliban is unlikely.
Sexual crimes like adultery and fornication and the moral regulation of women have been mainstays of Pakistani politics for nearly all of its sixty-one-year history and have been used to legitimise all sorts of regimes. This particular history thus gives the Taliban ample room to justify yet another repugnant episode in the history of Pakistani women.
When the Taliban marched into Kabul, they ordered all women to wear burqas that covered them from head to toe and the windows of homes blackened so that women would not be seen from the street. They were forbidden from seeing doctors and from attending school and they could no longer leave their homes without a related male accompanying them.
A few years ago, such a scenario seemed unimaginable in the cities of Pakistan. But with each passing day, each new attack and each unchallenged edict from Mullah Radio, it seems that it may not be as implausible a scenario as Pakistani women had once imagined it to be.