Change the mindsets of men to change women’s lives in Pakistan
Several incidents over the past fortnight in Pakistan have shocked even a society sadly used to casual violence, revealing a growing tendency of extreme physical vehemence against women – whether they are wives or friends of perpetrators.
First there was the July 15 case from Hyderabad city of Sindh province of a mother of three young children, Quratulain Haider. The gory details of extreme torture for several hours visited on her by her husband resulted in her death, as detailed by one of her young daughters in a video that went viral and was chilling in the depravity committed. Another case was on July 18 of Saima Ali, a 23-year-old mother of three, shot dead by her addict husband twice her age in Peshawar. One of her daughters also sustained bullet injuries in the incident. On July 20, a man held his friend, 27-year-old peace activist Noor Mukadam, hostage at his home in Islamabad and beheaded her. She was the daughter of a former Pakistani ambassador.
In between, on July 16, Silsila Alikhel, the 26-year-old daughter of Afghanistan’s ambassador to Pakistan was kidnapped, held for several hours and tortured in Islamabad before being released.
Clearly Pakistan is failing its women and finding it hard to stop their wanton victimization. According to a report issued by women’s rights group Aurat Foundation, nearly 2,300 cases of violence against women were documented in 2020 in just 25 of Pakistan’s 160 districts. These cases included murders, rapes, kidnappings and physical abuse.
As is evident from the July 2021 high profile cases alone, neither ethnic nor class backgrounds are inhibitive of violence and the ease and impunity with which women find themselves victims of men within their own families and other acquaintances. Even a spate of good laws against harassment, violence and abuse of women in recent years, particularly by the country’s provinces, have failed to deter the victimization of women.
A key problem is the state’s ambivalent approach to justice on the issue of violence against women. While a horrified Prime Minister Imran Khan stepped in to pledge justice for the family of beheaded Mukadam and ordered the top cop of Islamabad to fast-track investigations, the victim’s bereaved father, a former diplomat, stepped before the press and threatened to work with rights groups to campaign for justice “if it is not forthcoming as promised.” Clearly a former top government functionary was not convinced he would get justice through due process and course.
As is evident from the July 2021 high profile cases alone, neither ethnic nor class backgrounds are inhibitive of violence and the ease and impunity with which women find themselves victims of men within their own families and other acquaintances.
Then Pakistan’s interior minister, information minister and national security adviser held press conferences to punch holes in the account of the Afghan envoy’s daughter, without the investigations being completed, in breathtaking examples of victim blaming. Earlier this month, Khan’s government recalled a new national bill to prevent violence against women and sent it to a group of clerics – part of the problem behind Pakistani conservatism – to sanitise it for propriety!
These responses are, unfortunately, part of the larger patriarchal answers to violence against women. For the past three years, nationwide solidarity rallies on international women’s day have been systematically targeted by state authorities, the clergy and even professional groups and some political parties for overstepping so-called social boundaries.
But the people – especially the women – have had enough. This month’s cases of abuse and crime against women have spawned hashtags that have built Twitter trends on the incidents and generated widespread public solidarity and a demand for government action. This, in turn has spawned public protests that the government is being forced to respond to.
Something has to give. The state of Pakistan can no longer ignore the rights of the most vulnerable half of its 210 million population. Social traditions centered on archaic notions of honor, inadequate state capacities of enforcement of laws, continued denial of an education to girls that can inform them of their rights and equip them somewhat on defending themselves are key impediments in empowering women. All these will have to change into a national priority for change to occur that can lead to safer and better lives for women.
Even these steps on their own will not be enough. Apart from prioritizing tackling violence against women as a national emergency and enforcement of women’s rights as stated national and provincial goals, Pakistan will need to focus on changing the generally super conservative mindset of its men as a means of lowering the levels of violence. Without changing the default conservative, chauvinistic and misogynistic mindset of the Pakistani male, women in the country will remain vulnerable.
- Adnan Rehmat is a Pakistan-based journalist, researcher and analyst with interests in politics, media, development and science.