Reimagining justice

February 27, 2022

This year, Aurat March invites people to reimage justice beyond the limitations of the prevalent system

Photo by Rahat Dar
Photo by Rahat Dar

The last two years have seen a lot of violence. The Covid-19 pandemic has been devastating – taking away many, overwhelming the healthcare system and triggering an economic crisis. The burden of care on most Pakistani women increased manifold and there was no compensation. Last year, Aurat March-Lahore responded to this reality with its manifesto that included a feminist approach to healthcare. This year, Aurat March is inviting the participants and the onlookers to do something it is arguably most effective at – capturing the imagination and disrupting conversations. This year, Aurat March is inviting the society to reimagine what justice can look like.

In 2020, many women took to the streets to demand justice in the Motorway case; later they would demand the same for Noor Mukadam and Ayesha Akram. Gendered violence was everywhere, with deeply disturbing videos of Usman Mirza brutalising a young couple and the news of Qurat ul Ain being killed by her husband in front of her children. We remember some of such incidents but there are countless others that didn’t garner attention nationwide. There were likely many crimes where the victims did not come forward. Patriarchal violence cannot be understood on a case-by-case basis alone as that runs the risk of individualising the problem as one ends up analysing the crime in terms of a particular victim, their character, their circumstances and, inevitably, how what they could have done to avoid the situation.

This is why Aurat March seeks to look beyond the current limitations of the criminal justice system, which focuses on individual crimes, to address the root causes that lead to grave offenses.

As a society, we have found it a lot more convenient to build politics out of punishing individuals for violence. This aids the narrative of crime being committed by a few bad apples, or “monsters”. This dehumanises criminals and keeps us in denial of the uncomfortable truth that most abusers are known to their victims. We have not addressed the structural issues that empower abusers. The approach separated the perpetrator of a crime from the society and absolves the latter of the collective responsibility for upholding patriarchal institutions. This is why violent solutions, such as capital punishment, have had no impact on the incidence of patriarchal crimes. Informed research and data tell us that a vast majority of those subjected to capital punishment in Pakistan are juveniles, mentally ill or extremely poor. Some are later found to be innocent.

Courtesy: Aurat March Lahore
Courtesy: Aurat March Lahore

Reimagination can be a deeply painful process, forcing us to confront our traumas and unlearn conceptions of justice taught to us since childhood. If it were easy, it wouldn’t require a movement.

Reimagining justice requires investing more in survivor-centric welfare systems, which means more funding for providing shelter, housing, healthcare and economic and psycho-social services. These services are often not thought of as part of the justice system, which is centred on punitive rather than restorative measures that would provide holistic support to survivors and direct the focus on healing from the harm caused to them.

This requires a conversation beyond visualising criminalisation as the sole solution to addressing violence. The excessive criminalisation has already resulted in defamation laws that are used by perpetrators of crimes to silence and harass survivors with the courage to speak up.

It is understandable that many people find the questions raised by the proposed re-imagination difficult to process; that’s because they are. Thinking beyond just the crime requires confronting complex social drivers behind these crimes, for which a large part of the society is responsible. Such re-imagination can be a deeply painful process, forcing us to confront our traumas and unlearn conceptions of justice taught to us since childhood. If it were easy, it wouldn’t require a movement that faces resistance at every stage.

Demands raised at Aurat March have often been described as “political”. These demands include withdrawal of some of the ‘austerity’ measures taken by the government and measures for environmental justice. The assumption that women are not political is a fundamental misunderstanding. Feminist politics posit that the personal is political and seek to bring the personal into the realm of politics. In working-class communities, the issue of food insecurity, due to runaway inflation or climate change, is a feminist concern. Gender discrimination in patriarchal family structures means that women are more likely to suffer from malnutrition and lack of access to food. In the same vein, some of the development projects disproportionately hurt underprivileged people who are already struggling with the daily problem of living in extremely polluted environments.

To re-imagine justice as feminists, we need to think beyond recreating patriarchal violence and demand economic and environmental justice as well. An equal and feminist world cannot be constructed without fairer social structures where care work is not predicated on the exploitation of women’s labour but is seen as a collective responsibility. It’s a world where access to clean water and air is not a luxury, but a right for all. The realisation of this conception of justice requires long-term solutions and an even longer struggle – but it needs to start with a new imagination. The old systems have failed us.

Aurat March has taken the first steps to introduce this reimagination into our discourse.

The writer is a feminist and Editor-in-Chief at Culturico

Reimagining justice