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February 25, 2020

A ‘people’s’ history and its sources


February 25, 2020

Another way of looking at a people’s history is through a gender lens. It means not only looking at the past from a gender perspective but also documenting the present with an angle from which you don’t overlook women and their issues. As you know, our history – and even the world history for that matter – has tended to draw a blank so far as women are concerned.

Here I would like to draw your attention to academics such as Dr Afiya Zia and Dr Tahira Khan who have contributed to our understanding of society with a gender perspective. You may ask if a gender perspective and a people’s perspective are the same. Well, they have many similarities and a good people’s perspective to history must not gloss over women’s issues. Then you may also wonder about the differences between a feminist approach and a gender approach to understanding society. Let’s not get into the details of terms such as WID (women in development) or GAD (gender and development).

Let’s also set aside the typology of feminism such as cultural feminism, liberal feminism, Marxist and socialist feminist, and radical feminism, because it is not an academic essay but a series of columns for general readers – both men and women – who may not have an appetite for heavy meals. Suffice it to say here that feminist, gender, and people’s perspectives overlap and contribute in their own ways to our comprehension of history, literature, political science, sociology and other fields of study. Let’s begin with Dr Tahira Khan who is a researcher in gender and politics.

With two Master’s degrees and a doctorate from the University of Denver, she specializes in the political and social history of modern South Asia, with a particular focus on gender and women’s rights issues in Pakistan. Her publications also cover a range of topics from gender and Islam, gender and politics, to violence against women. Her best known book is 'Beyond Honour: A Historical Materialist Explanation of Honour Related Violence' (OUP, 2006). The book is one of the pioneering works on honour-related violence. It is an academic research which combines personal experiences and observation to grasp the concept of honour in both cultural and social milieus.

I am not going into the details of the book, and will just quote one para from the book to give you an idea of how she looks at the attitude of police with gender-based violence.

“The police have been socialized in similar kind of families, schools, and community. They live in economically lower-status conditions and due to their financial constraints they also have more material greed. They agree with the conservative socio-religious and legal perspective of women and tend to think of women as commodity…they are also agents of a weak state system that has never established complete control or influence in many communities, especially rural ones. People living in semi-rural communities do not have trust in the formal courts and police departments.” (Page 247).

Her paper titled ‘Policing, Law and women’s rights in Pakistan’, in Hasan Abbas’s ‘Stabilizing Pakistan through Police Reforms’ is worth reading. Her main thrust is that women in Pakistan are disproportionately exposed to injustice when seeking help from law-enforcement agencies, particularly in local police stations, both rural and urban. Dr Tahira Khan looked at the role of Pakistani women as complainants and victims when they approach a local police station. The women endure abduction, domestic violence, rape, sexual harassment and even life-threatening situations mostly related to family honour, and otherwise.

According to Dr Tahira Khan, women in Pakistan are not a homogeneous group and have their own different conditions and problems. So we cannot examine them through the singular lens of gender. Since women live in contrasting contexts of cultural, ethnic, geographic, and social conditions, the class divides cut across the boundaries of ethnicity and language in both rural and urban areas. This results in social conditions that contribute to the construction of gender perceptions. These gender perceptions predetermine the status and role of women in society and also affect the relationships between women and the law-enforcement system.

She rightly points out that the class and residence of a female complainant or victim determine the response of a police officer. With a plethora of customary laws, Shariah laws, tribal laws, and statute laws, the victim ends up dealing with various justice systems depending on their own socioeconomic status and ethnic identity. In the presence of multiple agencies and systems, women find themselves in a precarious position. In most cases, formal laws of statute in Pakistan implemented through civil courts, play a less significant role than informal laws of feudal and tribal customs that jirgas, kutchehries and panchayats enforce.

Dr Tahira Khan identifies factors such as age, class, context, ethnicity, and residence that change the nature of violence against women. Abduction, child marriage, honour killing, and exchange or forced marriages are more common in rural areas; whereas custodial torture, domestic violence and sexual harassment are common in both rural and urban areas. As complainants and victims, women are prone to facing violence at the hands of the police too. This is not necessarily physical violence but ‘structural violence’ in the form of insensitivity in the system towards female victims. A delay in action, negligence in responding, or outright refusal to recognize the occurrence of violence are common.

From a people’s perspective, Dr Tahira Khan leads us to analyze all this within the economic and social system, as the general attitude of Pakistani society changes with socioeconomic conditions. Women from a lower socioeconomic stratum are more likely to be sent back home by police after denying the existence of any violence. The police are prone to view a female victim as a suspect and try to send her back to the custody of a male guardian. Historically speaking, it is generally believed that no decent woman would venture into a police stations.

“If the case involves a family member, the police will brush it aside as a private matter to be resolved at home. Bribery, extortion, and coercion are all used to discourage or falsify registration.” (Page 88). One of the most disturbing observations is that physical abuse is not recognized unless the injury is ‘bone deep’. A simple bruise or minor laceration does not qualify as crime under the Criminal Procedures Code. Why police officials are insensitive to female victims, Dr Khan says, is because the police itself are part of the same misogynist society, as explained and quoted above.

The police mostly support the perpetrators of honour-related violence who are more often than not family members of the victim. This is done by either not filing charges at all, or by allowing the accused to get away, or by using terms as ‘cultural practices’ and ‘local disputes’. And at times even condemning the victim herself and explicitly sympathizing with the killer’s family. Both formal and informal legal systems come together to create a culture of gender insensitivity among the people and police alike.

This has been our history if you look at it from a people’s perspective, which should of course include feminist and gender approaches too. The history we teach in our educational institutions is devoid of this people’s perspective and makes us believe that our society has been very respectful to women. To support this point, examples are drawn of some outstanding women from our national and religious history which is not people’s history at all.

To be continued

The writer holds a PhD from the University of Birmingham, UK and works in Islamabad.

Email: [email protected]