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September 3, 2020

Return to Salem

Opinion

September 3, 2020

All through history we have seen women being assigned the role of evil creatures who somehow corrupt society and cast wicked spells over its members. There are numerous examples of this phenomenon.

The witch trials which took place in early Europe are an example. A better documentation of such events comes from Salem in Massachusetts in colonial America during the years 1692 to 1693. In one of the most frightening cases of mass hysteria experienced in the modern age, 19 persons, 14 of them women, were found guilty of witchcraft and put to death. Others were imprisoned and some died there while serving their terms.

The entire sordid episode continues to be studied today by psychologists, sociologists, criminologists and others. Even today it has not been forgotten by American society. Some of the country’s best known literature and feminist studies revolve around it. There are points of very specific interest picked up by scholars. Many of the women, and also the men, identified as witches were in some ways unconventional or had defied the strict moral code of the time they lived in. In that puritanical age, this was enough to bring death upon them.

Pakistan is a good place to carry forward such a study. More than ever before we have begun to cast girls and women in the role of modern-day witches. We make moral judgments just like those were made centuries ago at Salem. We decide on the morality and character of a particular woman based on the way she dresses and behaves rather then the way she acts or participates as a member of society. If she chooses to dress unconventionally, or to engage in certain actions such as smoking she is immediately denounced, even ostracised. Her clothing is apparently more important than her intelligence or capacity to do good, and judgement is made instantaneously.

This is also partially true globally but has become more marked here. The person may be working amongst the poorest communities - - helping and supporting them – but still the focus will be on the clothes she wears and if they conform to social expectations. Social media has made it easier to target people in this fashion. Women are most frequently picked out for this kind of abuse.

As the most recent example we can take the case of the women journalists who have been viciously attacked over social media on the basis of the political views they hold. The most vulgar language is in some cases being used against them and in acts that are especially despicable pictures of their families including children posted on Facebook or other forums in an effort to embarrass and humiliate them. This is what our society has come to. We appear not to have moved beyond Salem.

Women in particular are victimized and given the role of wicked persons out to wreck the pillars of a society that is evidently so frail it can tumble just through a few words. Apparently it is impossible to simply ignore these words or to express others to counter them in cases of disagreement or dispute. There is of course no one single vision of the world which is perfectly correct and perfectly accurate. Every individual has the right to express his or her view as long as this does not violate a law or promote the spread of hatred.

There are other ways in which the memories of Salem live on with us today. We make every possible effort to ensure girls adhere to specific norms laid down within a strictly patriarchal society. While parents are often oblivious to the actions of a boy, they will closely follow those of a girl. Yes it is true to that in some ways, indeed in many ways, we still need to ensure the greatest safety for women and girls in public spaces. But we should be doing this by opening up those passages for them rather than excluding them from a whole range of public places.

Each year major Issues issues arise after the March 8 Aurat March. Apparently, it is far too dangerous to our society to allow women to decide how to dress, or even how to sit! Religion or the closely linked notion of tradition is brought into the debate making the matter even more controversial. And even for men who call themselves 'liberal' whatever that particular word means, lack of conformity is not really acceptable. Women are expected to cover themselves and patriarchy essentially determines what these garments are to be.

Essentially, even an adult woman is not given the right to choose. Very few receive support from family members, especially male ones including fathers and brothers. In fact, female relatives may be even harsher in judging them.

On the other hand, we fail to act in any way against persons who hurt or degrade women in any way. Even when a male teacher has been caught red-handed harassing a young female pupil and his messages recorded on her mobile phone, there are attempts to place all the blame on the girl. The principle of the relationship between a student and a teacher seems not to have any significance at all. The notion of consent is so poorly understood that it has no meaning in society. Parents are advised to carefully monitor

their daughters activities by regularly going through their phones.

It becomes easier to blame women and girls for all that is looked upon as immoral or unacceptable. Replicating the environmental factors that prevailed at Salem, social media has become the perfect setting to depict women as witches and to publicly attack them without offering them any real opportunity to defend themselves.

The writer is a freelance columnist and former newspaper editor.

Email: [email protected]