Pakistan - Sunday June 04, 2006, Jamadi-ul-Awal 7, 1427 A.H.
By Moniza Inam
The list of gender injustices is endless. It begins from the cradle or perhaps even before that and doesn’t even end at the graveyard. Any or all of these could be silent victims: a fetus which is aborted before birth because of its gender; a new born baby who is killed by feeding poisonous substances; a fragile five-year-old girlchild who succumbs to malnourishment and under-feeding; a teenage girl who is denied education, entertainment, sports and married off to ease her parents’ burden; a young mother who has no access to healthcare, contraceptives devices, facilities like pre or post-natal care, rest and balanced diet; a middle-aged woman who carries the burden of household on her fragile shoulders and must perform all kinds of chores to sustain life; and those that have no choice in going through repeated pregnancies and face domestic and societal violence. Their crime is unpardonable: they belong to the weaker sex. And under some primitive tribal laws, they can even be beaten, raped, violated, assaulted, battered and murdered on any pretext including honour. All women though in varying degrees from country to country sail in the same boat and face humiliation on a regular basis. This is what we call patriarchal or structural violence against women.
Patriarchal violence against women can be divided into two distinct categories; individual and societal. Individual violence is sickening. It can take the form of an act of verbal or physical assault, coercion or life-threatening deprivation that leads to arbitrary deprivation of liberty. Partner abuse, sexual assault (including marital rape), dowry-related violence, forced prostitution, forced non-compliance with contraception and sexual slavery.
Such acts of violence can be dissected further into physical, sexual, psychological or economic violence. Physical violence includes pushing, shoving, beating, kicking and hitting, burning, biting, strangling, and torture. Sexual violence is any sexual act committed against the will of other person and includes sexual harassment, unwanted comments, exhibitionism, indecent sexual proposals and others. Psychological violence consists of mocking, criticism, threats, isolation, tormenting, and public assaults. Economic violence also assumes many forms such as unequal control over access to joint resources, denying or controlling access to money, employment or education. And now we come to societal violence. It includes structural forms of discrimination or deprivation that women are subjected to as a class. Included in the list is excess poverty, limited access to employment or education, divorce restrictions, salary inequalities, political marginalization and limited access to reproductive health services.
Subjugation and marginalisation of women can be traced back all through the human history. Its signs have also been found in ancient civilisations. For example, in 753BC, beating and punishing a wife was accepted and condoned under the Laws of Chastisement. In 300AD the Church re-established the husband’s patriarchal authority and its values of Roman and Jewish laws.
In the Middle Ages (900-1300) in Europe it was almost a norm for squires and noblemen to ill treat their wives. Early settlers in America based their laws on an old English common law that permitted wife beating for what were termed as ‘correctional’ purposes. In our own subcontinent, women were confined to the four walls of the homes. Among the countless miseries and repressions that they had to endure was the inhuman tradition of satti where the wife was burnt alive, with the lifeless body of her husband, were he to die.
In order to achieve the goal of gender equality, Pakistanis have to get rid of certain notions, which over the years have become a part of their mindset
Societal violence down the centuries has also assumed many abhorrent forms. Many historical ideals of beauty demonstrated the subjugation of women. Those included the ancient Greek practice of wrapping new-born girl’s head; Roman and Persian women were made to apply antimony to make their conjunctivae sparkle; the use of belladonna eye drops by 16th and 17th century women to dilate their pupil; the Elizabethan era practice of hair plucking and the use of lead-based make up; Chinese foot binding and the long-standing practice of tight corseting. But for all the enlightenment and empowerment of women, beauty is what is demanded of the women and for that they go through all sorts of painful procedures such as breast implants, tapeworms to cause mal-absorption and promote weight loss, rib removal, botulinum toxin injections, and liposuction.
Granted that in the current era of ‘free society’ and equal opportunity women go through those ‘beauty enhancement’ procedures of their own free will, yet they are motivated by societal norms promoted by the media that prefers appearance to character and style to substance.
The situation in Pakistan is bleaker than other regions. There are several historical, cultural, tribal and religious factors and they all play their due role in subjecting women to systematic torture and repression. A woman is treated more like a man’s property than an individual with an independent identity.
As far as societal pressures are concerned, Pakistani women have to face the worst of such pressures. A study of the pattern indicates that a patriarchal society with all its components works against the other half of society. The gender-based discrimination which begins from the birth of a beautiful girlchild continues till her death. And the process goes on and on from generations to generations.
Akbar Zaidi, an eminent economist and social scientist commenting on this ruthless aspect of the society says: “Violence is present in all economic classes but it is more prevalent in the middle and upper middle class denomination.” He mentions that it is in these strata of society that girls are conditioned to be submissive and accept every kind of humiliation and violence quietly. The issue of family honour and dignity is deeply rooted in them since childhood. Moreover, they are not allowed to work outside their homes. “In a way, they are subjected to economic oppression along with psychological and domestic coercion,” he adds.
Whenever societal violence is discussed in the Pakistani context, one cannot escape the mention of the infamous Hudood Ordinances. Promulgated by a dictator, who appeared drenched in piety at least in public appearances, the ordinance has become part and parcel of the patriarchal system. Barring few exceptions, all women consider the law from beginning to the end to be excessively brutal, repressive, inhuman and unjust to the fair sex. Whenever and it is more often than not these laws are used, it is a signal for the rest of the women in the country to behave like patriarchy expects a woman to behave or be prepared for the worst kind of punishment.
Commenting on the judicial system of the country, Samrina Shah, who works as a legal aid officer for the PAWLA says: “Structural violence is prevalent in the legal system of the country which is basically anti women in nature and discriminates them in every aspect.” Those women who dare to raise their voices against the abusive marriages and choose their own life partners, against the wishes of the family are dealt with contempt and their plea for justice are ignored. “They are victimised even by their own family in every possible way,” she adds.
Tasneem Ahmer, the Director of the Aks Resource Centre, responding to a question on how the media can play its role in controlling structural violence in a developing country like Pakistan, says: “The media is a key source of information for the public in any country. Information generated through this source influences perception and understanding of an issue including that of structural violence. In Pakistan, like many other countries, the media is heavily male-dominated. They decide what news/views be read and heard. This is why we see acts of violence being re-enforced rather than being eliminated.
“There is a need for a few structural changes in the media to counter or control structural violence in society.”
Identifying remedial measures, Tasneem says that women must help themselves. Their focus must shift to induction of more women into the media; international commitments on human rights and gender rights; peace-building efforts within the media and also at various social levels to counter violence rather than splash it.
Some people attribute this misogynistic attitude to the existing feudal system which is still practised in many parts of the country. Under this system, feudal lords demand women to live inside their homes and not to participate in economic activities. Afshan Saboohi, a journalist, says: “In our country, violence against women is an off-shoot of prevalent pre-capitalist mode of production. Here women are perceived as private property of male members of the family.”
In the end, it can be safely said that in order to achieve gender equality, justice and freedom, Pakistanis as a nation have to shed certain notions which over the centuries have become a part of their mindset as well as of the system that prevails in the country.