Wednesday September 22, 2021

Mahrams and the illusion of safety

July 25, 2021

Two months after a 25-year-old woman was shot and strangled by a man in Lahore, a 27-year-old woman was shot and beheaded by a man in Islamabad. In both cases, the men were referred to either as the woman’s ‘long-time friend’ or as her ‘boyfriend,’ or as the man with whom she had an ‘illicit relationship.’

The concept of mahram, of male guardianship and protection, implies that any woman interacting with a non-mahram is at risk of being violated. It implies that a woman who forms relations, of any kind, with a man who she is not legally married to or related to has chosen to leave herself unprotected.

The claim, then, is that the resulting violence is a consequence of her own actions. Society asks: ‘What was she doing in his house?’ It solicits: ‘Were they having an affair?’ It suggests: ‘What else did she expect? Islam has rules for the protection of women.’ And it infers: ‘Drugs, promiscuity, sentimentality is responsible for the incident! It's a lesson for youth reluctant to have a parental check.’

Conjuring up debates about women’s associations with the men that assault, violate and kill them has only one purpose: to distract from the perpetrator and the forces that aid and abet him. It distracts by displacing discourses surrounding gendered power structures, customs and misconstrued religious justifications with a discourse that is simply preoccupied with women and their choices. Her choice in clothing, her choice in using specific modes of transport, her choice in accessing public spaces, her choice in who she associates herself with, and her choice in forming romantic relationships. It paints the heinous crime perpetrated against her as the exception. An unfortunate yet isolated incident which is a result of her own actions, and has no bearing on the ‘realities’ of the society we live in. Because in our society, women are protected as long as they follow the rules appropriately prescribed for said protection.

This argument finds itself in a bit of a fix when we look at cases of violence against women within the bounds of marriage. Women in the company of their husbands, who are considered their mahrams and guardians, should in theory be protected. Yet, women in Pakistan are killed by their own husbands for seeking higher education, for refusing to quit jobs, for giving birth to a girl, for serving cold food, for texting, for resisting his second marriage, for not serving tea fast enough, and for taking a shower and wearing new clothes in his absence. Most recently, a 32-year-old woman was tortured and killed by her husband in Hyderabad. Being in the presence of a mahram does not imply assured protection; in some instances, mahrams are precisely those we need protection from.

In such cases, the distraction comes to form through an incontrovertible phrase: ‘It is a family matter.’ The right to a man’s inviolable private life trumps any claims women may have to protect. It ensures that the matters of a private relationship between husband and wife, even if that relationship results in violence or death, remains unquestioned. This claim, too, implies that these incidents are not a reflection of the ‘realities’ of society, but of independent, albeit turbulent, relationships between husband and wife, of which we, as outsiders, are not cognizant.

Being in the presence of mahram or non-mahram is irrelevant to the discourse of women’s protection. Rather, these atrocious acts of violence against women are nurtured by a society that teaches men not to protect, but to discipline. The boundary between the two is blurred, because disciplining women is justified as being necessary for their protection.

A woman’s claim to protection is therefore conditional. It is conditional on her choices, her behaviour and ideals of propriety. If she is killed in the public sphere, outside the confines of her home, these conditions are determined by society in the absence of a mahram. If she is killed in the private sphere, within the confines of her home, these conditions are deemed pre-determined by her mahrams, and therefore not to be interrogated.

Men are granted unregulated power to discipline, masquerading as the duty to protect. It is that power which society feels it needs to protect. The discourses we witness, through comments inundating news articles about the killing of women, are illustrative of efforts to protect that power. The unconditional impunity granted to men is positioned in parallel to preaching anecdotes to justify why a woman’s choices detracts from her claim to protection.

Depending on whether the perpetrator was a non-mahram or a mahram, her death is either conveniently displaced outside the bounds of society or invariably confined within four walls. It is either inappropriately questioned or left heedlessly unquestioned. In both cases, the power of men to discipline remains protected, and her life in death is simply reduced to an anomalistic statistic.

The writer is a PhD candidate in law. She tweets at @daanistan