In 326 BC, Alexander gained control of Taxila. His companions found it a “wealthy, prosperous, and well governed” state lying at the cross-roads of three civilisations.
They also found a dark side to the cosmopolitan trading city pulsating with intellectual life. Aristobulus, probably a non-military official accompanying the Macedonian conqueror, relates the shocking custom of daughters being sold in the marketplace by people too poor to be able to provide them with a dowry. “Before purchase, to the sound of trumpets and drums, potential buyers are allowed to examine young women’s bodies…”, he noted. Aristobulus also records the custom of widows burnt on a pyre together with their deceased husbands.
Though free from Satti and open auction of “free women”, Greek city states did not have much to show in terms of women empowerment either. In democratic Athens of the fifth century BC, women did not enjoy any independent legal status. They were not allowed to participate in popular assemblies, benefit from a good education, engage in business or participate in philosophical discourse. Athens’ great philosophers, orators, artists or merchants did not include a single woman. And we are not even discussing women who belonged to the slave population. On average, there were three or four slaves per household.
Such hierarchies were present in societies much older than the Greek civilisation. The first written law, the Code of Hammurabi compiled in 1776 BC in ancient Babylon puts the price of the life of a commoner woman at almost half of the price of the eye of a male commoner.
As Yuval Noah Harari has noted in his popular book, ‘Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind’: “In many societies women were simply the property of men, most often their fathers, husbands or brothers. Rape, in many legal systems, falls under property violation – in other words, the victim is not the woman who was raped but the male who owns her. This being the case, the legal remedy was the transfer of ownership – the rapist was required to pay a bride price to the woman’s father or brother, upon which she became the rapist’s property.”
How have men been able to impose such a system upon women everywhere? Physical strength is the most common explanation. However, this explanation is easier to debunk given the fact that older, weaker men carry the most power and women are often denied jobs that don’t require much physical power.
Another theory ascribes masculine dominance to the male aggression. In the words of Harari, “Millions of years of evolution have made men far more violent than women. Women can match men as far as hatred, greed and abuse are concerned, but when push comes to shove, the theory goes, men are more willing to engage in raw physical violence. This is why throughout history warfare has been a masculine prerogative.”
We do not know when this hierarchy became embedded in human societies. Our best guess places it at the advent of agriculture, some thirteen thousand years ago. That’s when human started organising in tribes and started employing tribal codes associated with property.
Islam rejected these tribal codes of honour as ‘jahiliya’ and insisted on rule of law. From being property herself, woman was turned into a shareholder and owner of property. She was given the right to select a husband and divorce him. She was given control over her body and, like men, made accountable for it. Most importantly, moral codes were applied almost equally upon men and women. An act that makes a woman sinful makes a man equally sinful.
Unfortunately, rather than adopting a progressive interpretation of Islam, Muslim reverted to the pre-islmic jahiliya customs. A good part of Pakistan denies property rights to women. Their rights over their own bodies and their own destinies are negated, and even mentioning such rights is considered an outrage even by many well-educated people. Asserting a moral equivalence between men and women is considered shameful and a transgression of social norms.
Though intellectuals like Orya Maqbool Jan insist that Pakistani men are the world’s best in terms of treating women, they have no statistics to support their claims. On the Global Gender Gap Index, which shows the gap between men and women based on various socioeconomic indicators, Pakistan is ranked 143 out of 144 countries in 2017. A recent survey carried out by the Thomson Reuters Foundation (TRF) has mentioned Pakistan as the sixth most dangerous country for women.
The recent census puts the sex ratio in Pakistan at 105, which means that there are 105 men for 100 women in Pakistan. This is despite the fact that female life expectancy at birth stands at 67, compared to 65 for men. Only two other countries – India and China (notorious for sex selection of foetuses) – have inverse sex ratios.
These numbers hint both at political powerlessness and structural violence. They show that women are not being counted and that there are conditions resulting in more women dying prematurely than men. Maternal mortality is one such reason. According to the United Nations Population Fund, for every 100,000 women, 178 die from complications with childbirth in Pakistan because of poor access to health facilities.
This situation cannot be acceptable to any self-respecting society, and denial is no solution. History is not on the side of those who want to maintain this order. Social change is taking place fast, reinvigorating those who want a new deal and creating a reaction in those who consider their manliness threatened by changes in society that favour women. Some of these men try to use violence as a tool of social control against women, hoping that they will stem the tide of social change. Others use threat of violence or try to silence women using social media as an instrument of social control.
The stereotypes that these criminals stand for – and kill for – are by no means a preserve of the members of the illegal village councils. There are many honourable misogynists who rant against women’s rights on popular television shows. Many of them flaunt university degrees, have background in civil services or hold senior editorial positions in leading English newspapers. Interestingly many of them have a history of apologising for the Taliban violence and some can even be blamed for promoting religious intolerance and inciting sectarian and religious violence.
Can such people stop the march of change by ranting against some placards?
The writer is an anthropologist anddevelopment professional.