Violence against Women
“that was the year when Zainab Noor’s body was mutilated and destroyed by her Imam Masjid husband or that was the summer that a member of parliament forcibly shut down girl’s schools in Kaghan valley.”We could say that was the month when women were stripped naked and made to walk through the streets of Nawabpur because of the men of their family had offended the men of another family. Or that was the month when my neighbour was killed because her husband or brother or father suspected her of being interested in another man or she was burnt to death because her husband wanted to marry again -“, we could remember each day, each hour, each minute, through the number of gang rapes, chulha deaths, deaths in the name of honour, battered faces, broken limbs -that take place in its duration or say
“my mother was divorced on the day that I, her daughter, was born to her.”
For women, it would not be difficult to measure time in terms of loss -the lost opportunities of education and health; the lost children, the lost dreams, the lost potential and gifts with which nature endows each human being, our lost lives.
The Question that arises after this brief look at only some of the forms of violence that women are subjected to is, WHY?
What are the reasons that make women-the targets of such savagery and barbarism in a country where we are constantly told that women belong to a class which is held in high esteem! Either we have failed to understand the meaning of the word ‘Esteem’ in our culture -or the claim is a lie -is yet another form of violence committed against women.
A few things need to be clarified at this stage, if we are serious in our efforts to put an end to violence against women. To begin with, violence is not an isolated matter. It is not just sporadic, unrelated acts of brutality committed by mad men and villains.
Violence against women is closely bound up with their status in society. In the place they have been allocated in the family, the community and the state. It is enmeshed in their economic status -in the fact that we do not recognize women as economically productive, in the fact that house work -the bearing and rearing of children, the daily endless cooking, cleaning, washing, feeding, is not recognized as productive work, and in the fact that we see them not only as sexual objects -either as mothers/wives who produce children and provide sexual services in the home, or as prostitutes and bad women who provide sexual services in the market place.
Nor is violence against women confined only to the overt acts of violence such as battering, and rape, enforced prostitution and the trafficking in women that takes place both across international borders and within the country. When we deny the woman her right to education, it is an act of violence. When we mourn the birth of a girl child, it as an act of violence. When we deny the woman the right to decision making with regard to marriage, it is an act of violence, when, in cases of child custody, we forcibly deprive her of her children, and the law says she is not the ‘natural’ guardian of her child, it is an act of unmatched violence and inhumanity. When we deny the woman the right to make decisions that deal closely with her life, it is an act of violence. When the law decrees that her value is only half that of a man, it is an act of violence and when a man stands up in the street and makes her the target of filthy abuse, it is an act of violence.
So before we address ourselves to the question of violence against women, it is necessary to question some of the assumptions that we accept, not only with regard to violence but with regard to the terms and conditions of our lives as defined by culture and society; by the social and economic arrangements which divide the world artificially into the two mutually exclusive domains of the private or reproductive sphere, to which the woman belongs, and the public sphere of economic productivity which is reserved for men.
Along with the claim that in Pakistan we hold women in high esteem is the perception that if violence against women takes place, then they themselves are somehow responsible for it. Let us take rape, as one example of a crime where both law and custom collude to punish the victim and not the criminal. How many times have we heard -in fact how many times have we our selves been guilty of the remark?” She must have asked for it. What was she doing dressed like that?” or “Why was she there in the first place. If she had stayed at home this wouldn’t have happened!” And as if that were not bad enough, the law, specifically the Zina Ordinance, Zia-ul-Haq’s gift to us, which decrees that in order to prove rape a woman needs to provide four adult male Muslim witnesses to say that rape has taken place. The woman’s testimony is of no account! As a result the woman is punished thrice over -once by the rapist and then the law of the land and yet again by society that condemns her for the crime of another. What is forgotten in the process is the fact that in most cases rape occurs at home and that in cases of gang-rape, the chadar and char divari provide no protection.
Have such rules, such conditions ever been applied to other crimes?
Do we tell a man who has been robbed that it is his fault? That if he did not have money he would not have been robbed? Do we tell him to remain indoors so that his pocket may not be picked? Do we lock him up because there are thieves abroad -while letting the thieves go free to commit more dacoities? Why is there one law for women and another for men. Why are our attitudes so radically different for women and men? Is it not because for centuries women have been made to bear the burden of the crimes men commit?
Let us take another example. What happens when a school or college girl student or a working woman in the office is subjected to sexual harassment by men on the street or colleagues in the office? We blame the woman. The argument again being that she must have asked for it. A woman’s place is in the home. Good women don’t go out. It must have been the way she dresses, looks, speaks, sits, stands, walks, breathes. And the solution again is -keep her at home. What business has a girl with education or with the office. These are male privileges, male worlds. What is ignored is the woman’s fundamental right to education and work. Her economic contribution to the household – the fact that the majority of women who work support whole households. “She is there only to bear babies”, says society, “let her get on with it.” Once again the victim bears the blame of another’s crime. Whose fault is that?
Some months ago a woman came to us seeking protection from her husband who had severely beaten their three-year-old daughter for playing with a four-year-old male neighbor. He said she had destroyed his honour! We would have told her to take her husband to a psychiatrist if this had been an isolated incident. But as you all know, the newspapers almost daily report incidents where male honour has been vindicated through the blood of a woman simply because her husband, father, brother or soli has suspected her of illicit relations, or has perhaps seen her talking to some na-mehram male.
This kind of crime raises many questions. Apart from the fact that even if a crime is committed the individual has no right to take the law into his own hands, the foremost question deals with the concept of ‘honour’ in our society. I would have thought that honour is a good thing, closely related to each individual’s self-respect and personal morality. We dishonour ourselves if we lie or cheat or steal. And for such dishonourable acts we alone are responsible. But this honour that we hear talked about and defended through the blood of others makes no sense. How can a man’s honour lie in a woman’s body? How is it that I as a man can commit rape, which is a dishonourable act, but the persons who are dishonoured are the victim and her family? I, as a man, on the other hand have only proved my masculinity.
How is it that this honour can be retrieved only through the shedding of the victim’s blood and/or the rape of the criminal’s sister or daughter by the men in whose family rape has been committed? Would it not be rational to punish the rapist? Can honour be won through another’s dishonour? Is it logical or rational or even moral for a man to act like the djin in the story who kept his life in the parrot’s body, to place his honour in another’s body and leave himself free to commit all manner of dishonourable acts? Should his honour not be located in his own self and in his own actions? Yet society and tradition justify such irrationality -such acts are called ‘honour killings’ and even the law turns lenient in such cases. Until and unless we challenge such distorted concepts of honour and manhood, women will continue to be victims of violence.
Obviously there is something very wrong in our approach to women and the issue of violence. My argument is that society’s failure in this area is not due entirely to a lack of sincerity when dealing with this issue -though it has something to do with it- but to the fact that we are failing to identify the root cause of the problem. In order to be effective, to find real solutions to violence against women, we need to ask the right questions, examine the social institutions where this violence is first learnt and most often occurs, un-pick the parameters of male female relationships where violence occurs.
My argument is that violence, of which violence against women is an extreme form, is systemic -that its roots lie in the great social, cultural and economic institutions of our society, and if we are sincere in our desire to contain this violence then we must begin at the beginning and look for the seeds of violence in institution of the family, in our cultural perception of women and in the laws that control our lives. Let me make myself clear, I am not knocking the idea of the family unit, for without the family we would be no where. What I am recommending is an examination of the relations within the family which not only socialize us, but also create room for crimes of violence within the family -for let us not forget, that the father who protects his daughter and is ready to kill if another man so much as looks at her, can also turn into the savage who forcibly commits incest with her -and there are enough statistics to prove that incest though rarely reported, is not a rare crime.
It is also a fact that the husband who provides for the family is also very often the man who batters his wife. After all, the chulha murders and the agony, such as Zainab Noor experienced, are not caused by strangers. Can we expect a son who has seen his father beat his mother and curse his daughter on her birth, to grow up respecting women. Further, can we expect the wife, whose security depends on the birth of a son, to take joy in her daughter? Women’s low status, the perception that they are men’s property and that their only purpose in life is to bear children and to pleasure the male body, is closely linked to the violence that women suffer through out their lives.
Unless we learn to respect and value women as human beings in their own right and until equal laws are meted out to all citizens of the state regardless of the sexual difference, our efforts to end violent crimes against women will remain futile. Given the complex and all pervasive nature of the kinds of violence that women are subjected to simply because they are women, it is necessary to approach this task at a multi-dimensional level. We have to begin with ourselves and the ways in which we, as individuals deal with each other; we have also to interrogate and question the language we use and the received ideas to which we unthinkingly and innocently subscribe with regard to the status and rights of women in society. At another more public level we have to demand our rights as women through laws that are just and equitable, through the representation of women in the public field and in the national and provincial assemblies and the senate. As a first step in this direction, I would like to take the opportunity to urge the government to repeal all discriminatory laws like the Hadood Ordinances and to ratify, without reservations, the UN Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.
Violence is then attributed to the influence of alien cultures – “look, women are raped in America! Why do you criticize your own country?” Or we say, “it is the dish antenna, the VCR, western education, bureaucratic corruption, police inefficiency, bad mothers, loss of traditional values and so on. Our allegations define our solutions. “Ban the dish, close down video shops, make the police honest and the bureaucrat efficient. Make the bad mother good and above all embrace traditional values. The news papers are full of this advice. Our statesmen and ideologues grow hysterical repeating these words -and the violence continues. And not only does it continue, it continues to increase and manifest itself in increasingly barbaric ways.