Wednesday September 22, 2021

Being a woman in Pakistan

Being a columnist in Pakistan is frequently akin to being a pallbearer. You get to participate in the burial of your dreams of a peaceful and happy social order. And this funereal exercise has its familiar rituals. A surge of grief and lamentation, laced with candlelight vigils, is followed by a sense of resignation. You return to that uneasy calm that constantly throbs with the threat of another outburst.

This is how the brutal, barbaric murder – I read the word ‘slaughter’ in one report – of Noor Mukadam in Islamabad on Tuesday is expected to gradually fade out from the flaming headlines where it is presently lodged. This is what we have learnt from similar or even more traumatising episodes in the past.

A heinous crime or a devastating act of terror can take place in any country. It is not the nature of the crime that was committed in Islamabad that distinguishes Pakistan from other countries. What is different in our case is that no outrage of any magnitude is able to shake our conscience to an extent that we are compelled to fully explore its meaning and accept the lessons that emerge from this study.

At the heart of this paralysis is the dogged persistence of certain policies and values that our rulers have prescribed for this country, somewhat in defiance of the logic of history and the dynamics of natural human development. I am sure that accurate transcripts of discussions held at the high table of authority would provide ample evidence of the incapacity of our rulers to command a movement for social change – a movement that is becoming urgent for our survival.

One dimension of the revolutionary transformation that Pakistan needs is highlighted by this nerve-shattering Noor tragedy. It relates to the role and status of women in our society, across all social and cultural strata. But leading this change in an obscurantist, misogynist and violent society that Pakistan has become will not be easy or simple. But who is working for or even thinking of this imperative?

To begin with, Pakistan has to accept that its own place in global surveys and studies about gender issues is rather dismal. Yes, we do not have a good ranking on the scale of social development and democratic dispensation, such as freedom of expression and rule of law. But when it comes to women, our image is very ugly.

This is particularly a disgrace because Malala Yousafzai, the youngest recipient of a Nobel Prize, is from Pakistan and she is an international activist, campaigning for girls’ education. My column last week had focused on the enigma of why Pakistan has literally refused to own her. But there is also Benazir Bhutto, whose face is lovingly recognised across the world.

In any case, Pakistan was placed at 151 among 153 countries in the Global Gender Gap Report 2020, compiled by the World Economic Forum. I know that this and other similar lists would be all grist to the conspiracy theorist’s mill. We do have a fanciful view of who we are and where we belong in the world community. Hence, it would be tough for us to concede that Bangladesh is placed at 50 in this report, higher than some European countries. This, again, is something we need to understand.

Let me also mention the Women, Peace and Security Index, 2019-20, drawn on recognised international data sources to provide a more comprehensive measure of women’s wellbeing and their empowerment in houses, communities and societies in a broader sense. Here, we are at 164 among 167 countries. Surprisingly, the orthodox Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, where women have historically led restricted lives, will be found above Pakistan in global surveys on emancipation of women.

Why this is unbearably tragic is that the growth and social advancement of Pakistan rests entirely on the value that only women can add to our national effort. We have the example of the educated young women in the modern sector who are distinctly ahead of men in many sectors. In some ways, they are the stronger sex. As an aside, I confess that I consider the three women now in my life – my wife and two daughters – are more gifted than I am.

And yet, alas, the Pakistani society is governed by patriarchal and misogynistic passions. It is for the women to protect moral values that are defined by men in a society in which they are suppressed and victimised. Even supposedly liberated women’s lives remain at risk, as Noor’s brutal murder would testify.

At one level, the issue is violence against women. There have been other instances this month of women being tortured and killed by their husbands. In addition to the hashtag #JusticeForNoor on Twitter, also trending are two other hashtags: #JusticeForQuratulain and #JusticeForSaima. We have many stories that underline the prevalence of violence against women that may also have fatal consequences.

Though it was an act of violence of a different kind, what we saw in a video early this month was hard to digest. Two brothers were found mercilessly beating their own sister and mother. We are familiar with easy eruptions of physical violence all around us, which is another sign of how our society is losing its equilibrium, but the issue in this case was reported to be the women’s share in inherited property.

I know I have not been able to adequately portray the travails of being a woman in Pakistan. More tricky would be to deal with the perils of being young, including for men, in a repressive, inhibited and shamelessly hypocritical social environment. No wonder almost all our young people are longing to go abroad, preferably to a country that our moralisers would censure as evil and morally decadent.

Finally, we have to see how the authorities would contend with, in the words of Shireen Mazari, the federal minister of human rights, “yet another horrifying reminder that women have been & are brutalized & killed with impunity. This must end”. Will it?

The writer is a senior journalist.

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