How to tackle gender-based violence in Pakistan
Can you relate these statements with the state of affairs in Pakistani society currently? Women are the property of their male guardians. The male members of society can impose punishments through shouting, beating, abusing, or killing when women do not abide by their rules, commit adultery, or even walk outside of the home wearing ‘inappropriate’ clothing. Historically, these norms were true for the Babylonian and Roman empires in the 1700s B.C.E and 270-180 B.C.E respectively. In the 18th century, English common law also provided men with the right to “discipline” their wives and children. Men’s power to “discipline” women prevailed in English and American societies until the late 19th century.
In past centuries, American and European countries have begun to march against these norms to develop systems that protect women's rights in all spheres of life. However, it is heart-wrenching to observe violent practices are still embedded in the fabric of today’s Pakistani society.
It is in today’s Pakistan where you see cases of domestic and street violence on a daily basis in the news and much of it even does not reach the eyes and ears of the media. Dr. Maria Saeed – a doctor whose body was found hanging from a ceiling fan – investigations are being carried out and it seems that she has been strangulated by her husband Rashid in Lahore on Sep 30, 2021, Noor Mukadam was put to death by her boyfriend Zahir Jaffer in Islamabad on July 21, 2021, Qurratulain – a mother of four, tortured to death by her husband Khalid Umar after years of abuse in Hyderabad on July 15, 2021, Saima Ali and her two children were shot dead by her husband Raza Ali in Peshawar on July 3, 2021, and the list of cases, unfortunately, can go on and on. In addition to that, there are around 1000 women killed every year in the name of “honour” (Human Rights Watch, 2018).
Women experience abusive and controlling male attitudes not only at home but in cities as well as villages. Every day walking on the roads or traveling on buses and other public transports is an emotionally taxing experience. All women who are “allowed to” travel on buses and walk on roads have observed or experienced everyday incidents of pulling of “dupatta” or shirts, abusive calls to have sex with strangers, and hands wrangling around to grope feminine bodies. When one reports these incidents to their family and friends, the advice is to stay silent, “beware” of “these” people, turn your gaze down, do not react while encountering physical or verbal abuse, and do not walk alone on the streets and in public transport. In some families, women are even advised not to travel alone but have a male escort so that they can be saved from emotional and physical trauma. My question is: is this silence helping?
The aforementioned incidents are not just a ‘few’ anecdotes of cruelty but are a reflection of the everyday life for women in Pakistan. It is well-established that 70 to 90 percent of women experience some form of physical, emotional, or psychological abuse from an intimate partner (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, 2020). A non-governmental agency reported 3721 registered cases of violence against women in the first half of the year 2021 only in Punjab and Islamabad Capital Territory (The Sustainable Social Development Organisation (SSDO), 2021). Another 9401 reported cases of violence against women for the year 2020 out of which media has tracked only 1409 cases (SSDO, 2020). And given the complaint structures, it is definite that many more cases of domestic and street violence go unreported. It is no surprise then that Pakistan ranks 154th rank (out of 189 countries) on the Gender Inequality Index (United Nations Development Programme – Human Development Report, 2020) and ranks sixth dangerous country for women to live in (Thomson Reuters Foundation, 2018).
While studying in the United States, when I now read the news about domestic and street violence and watch the “number” of cases reported in media and elsewhere, my brain recalls all those memories of experiencing violence, my heart skips the beats, fear of returning “home” shrinks my nerves, and tears roll down from my eyes. I think about the women who have been facing these cruelties silently in their homes, in public transportation, and on streets, asking for their rights on the streets, at police stations, in the courts, and those that are signing online petitions, and outpouring their experiences and emotions through sharing the posts on social media.
This article is a plea to legal bodies to provide justice to the victims and their families, make the complaint systems easier and accessible, create appropriate legal structures for women to raise their voice, report, and stand tall against violence. Religious, community-based, educational organisations and industries need to create awareness in young children and adults of all genders to fight against domestic and street violence through training on sex education and anti-harassment. These will help raise awareness of and develop aptitudes to raise voice against and confront gender-based violence. Parents and families must stop “blaming” their daughters, wives, sisters, and friends for the abusive incidents that they face at workplaces, streets, and homes and help them raise their voices in public spheres. Every member of society needs to listen to our trembling and vulnerable voices and develop courage and tenacity to march against violence and make our country a safe place to live in. Together we can stop blaming, abusing, and killing women and consider them as humans – neither property nor honour.