When Hillary Clinton made history and became the presumptive presidential nominee of the Democratic Party, she said her victory was “for every little girl who dreams big”. Alas, so many millions of little girls in Pakistan remain incapable of dreaming big. It is so hard to hold on to your dreams when you are locked up in the dungeons of primitive customs and the price of freedom usually is death by torture.
It so happens that on the same day that Hillary was celebrating her triumph in the US, an 18-year-old girl was burnt to death by her own mother and other members of her family in Pakistan. This teenager had committed the crime of marrying a young man she loved against the wishes of her parents.
But this juxtaposition of two unrelated events is uncalled for because the murder of a young woman in Lahore on Wednesday was not exceptional in any sense. This was just another ‘honour killing’ – almost a routine in our society. We have had many unspeakably brutal murders of young women by members of their own family. Apparently, the number of such tragedies has increased – or more of these cases are now reported.
There was a recent case of a 19-year-old school teacher in a village near Murree who was burned by a group of people because she had refused to marry the son of the owner of the school who was much older and was already married. Nearly three weeks ago, a blind woman was said to have been raped by three men in Kot Sultan in Punjab. She had become blind after her cousin attacked her with acid for refusing to marry him.
So, what does one do to deal with these crimes against women? There is, of course, the larger picture of the status of women in Pakistan and gender inequality that has deep roots in our essentially conservative society. Yes, some laws have recently been framed to protect women but these, particularly the Punjab Protection of Women Against Violence Act, 2016, have further incensed the so-called guardians of our morality and social values.
For instance, the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) was held responsible for increasing incidents of violence against women by some senators when the Senate discussed on Thursday the Lahore incident in which Zeenat Rafiq was burnt to death by her mother. For the first time, the Senate suspended its proceedings for five minutes to ‘sensitise’ the Pakistani society about the growing trend of ‘honour killings’.
We should give credit to Senate Chairman Raza Rabbani for highlighting this grave issue that underlines our social and moral regression. Otherwise, our political parties and leaders would rarely respond to such crimes that have truly subverted the progress and the emancipation of our society. They indulge in passions that may have some traces of the wild and vile emotions that lead to ‘honour killings’.
One measure of the derelictions of our politicians was available in the proceedings of the National Assembly on Wednesday and Thursday. Editorial comments in English newspapers have noted how the National Assembly “manifested one of the worst aspects of our society”. True, the tirade of federal minister Khawaja Asif against the PTI’s Shireen Mazari had hints of sexism. But this may be coincidental because the idiom used by political adversaries generally lacks any civility or decorum.
While reflecting on the issue of ‘honour killings’ and what it means in terms of the state of our society, it is not easy to comprehend the lack of interest shown by our political leaders. They are obviously not overly outraged by the horrid murders of young women who merely yearn for love and freedom. There is no evidence of any think tanks within the parties to understand and analyse our social drift and suggest ways to curb these medieval practices. This is so in spite of the claims of some parties that they want social change and are aspiring to mobilise the young in this campaign.
We make quite a fuss about the fact that Pakistan is, demographically, an exceptionally young country. The youth bulge is so dominant, with its manifold consequences. But when we think about the young, what emerges in the mind is the pulsating mass of rowdy young boys and men. They are the ones who raise slogans in political gatherings.
Do you realise that half of these young people are girls? You don’t see them – at least not the ones that belong to the lower class. They live in a world that has not changed, in some respect, for a long, long time. However, this world has changed drastically in some other respects. These girls have sufficient inkling of how young women live in advanced societies, thanks to the digital access that most of them somehow possess. Even as prisoners within high walls, they may have a cell phone and watch television.
Living in two worlds simultaneously is emotionally challenging even for mature and enlightened individuals. Consider the plight of girls who are brought up in under-privileged families and are constantly discriminated against merely because of their gender. Yet, they have to deal with passions and urges that are natural in a growing person. There are needs that are emotional as well as physical. And they have to come to terms with overpowering temptations.
I sometimes think that our rulers should have thought about ‘honour killings’ and about how to enable the environment for the young to become responsible citizens when they sat down to frame the National Action Plan. After all, it is our society’s extremism and intolerance that makes the blood of fathers and brothers boil when a daughter or a sister exercises the most human and natural freedom of falling in love with a person of the opposite sex. For these girls, it is forbidden to live, so to say.
Far from implementing the National Action Plan in its spirit, the rulers are reinforcing intolerance and obscurantism in many ways. How they handle education and the curriculum in the country is one example. Inequalities and injustices that exist in our society continue to be hardened. What used to be described as Talibanisation of Pakistan is still embedded in the minds of ordinary citizens. That is why our society will not honour a girl as gifted and as courageous as Malala.
It is not surprising, then, that the plight of girls and young women of the traditional sector has received little attention. But the cost of this disdain for reality is high. Pakistan is not moving ahead.
The writer is a senior journalist.