Why women’s stories need to be told

The plight of women in Pakistan is so daunting that it is never told in a narrative form, just in statistics

Aisha Sarwari July 18, 2017
The writer is a freelance journalist based in Islamabad. She blogs at www.aishasarwari.wordpress.com. She can be followed on Twitter @AishaFsarwari

A proud Pakistani man on July 12th killed his sister in Badami Bagh, Lahore, because she was divorced and was going to remarry. Bushra Bibi brought shame to her brother. In retaliation, he shot her and fled, but not before he also killed his niece because she accompanied Bushra when she visited her maternal home.

Over a thousand women are killed in the name of ‘honour’ in Pakistan every year. Barely a handful of them make it to the pages of a newspaper. This is because it is always Bushra’s brother’s story, never hers.

The plight of women in Pakistan is so daunting that it is never told in a narrative form, just in statistics. The news stories only define what was done to women. Women almost always never tell their own story. They have no credibility to. For instance, why was Bushra remarrying? What drove her to go to her mother’s house knowing well enough that her brother is a potential murderer? This would never be told. To be newsworthy, women would need violence to have befallen to them — like an axe — slicing and abrupt. It is a blood sport.

Women here fight on two fronts: for the right to be heard and then, if they win on that front, for the right to have a grievance.

It is by telling their stories that women can convey the urgency of how desperate their situation is and how critical it is to find lasting solutions to protect women from ghastly ‘man-made’ traditions like these honour-based murders. Despite the rhetoric of taking women along, most governments in Pakistan have failed to meaningfully improve the status of women.

The government says the right things but doesn’t do much. Leaders often tout the overused line at forums, “there is no honour in honour killing.”

Government policies have failed because the scale of misogyny is too large and often infiltrates policy. They end up applying Band-Aid solutions that throw women a bone: a token woman in power here, a pro-women speech there, a women’s day commemoration here or a daycare centre — all, except the tough work of having murderers like Bushra’s brother face severe consequences.

So even though we talk of millions of dollars that are supposedly allocated specifically to elevate women, reality, however, is lacklustre. Scratch lacklustre. It is an abomination. Even though there is money allocated, including aid money, it is not spent on deserving women or women at all.

Policymakers say culture, religion, value systems do not allow for women to be a part of the development programming in Pakistan. They say women can’t get permission to travel or attend trainings from their male family members. The guardianship culture is to blame, they say. Also, that these women cannot leave their domestic chores to be able to accommodate empowerment programmes. Such excuses are the bane of why already allocated money for women ends up where it shouldn’t — to men and women securely part of the elite.

The only way to ensure efficient channelling of government funds is to ascertain that it is women who are in control of policy and defining what they want and need, what their challenges are and who blocks them from their goals. This only happens when women’s stories are told — forcefully and widely.

If only the problem could be solved with more money. It can’t. Several architects of women’s development programmes say that when women at the grassroots level are offered money to empower themselves with it, they reject it. Fear paralyses women when they are faced with freedom. Women’s financing programmes need to be coupled with training programmes to build internal capacity to cope with growing financial independence.

Women reject financial help for good reasons, too. They face more violence as they tread towards empowerment and social uplift. They disturb the power lopsidedness and force it towards more equality. Violence is one of the key inhibitors of women’s progress in the country. Around 90% of women face violence in Pakistan, according to the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

There is a change in the legal system, women now have more recourse. However, due to the ingrained culture there is a hesitation to press charges against men to whom women eventually have to return to for financial support.

If one could wish for two things here, it would be an end to lazy women’s development architects and a realisation in Pakistan’s government that women’s exclusion makes no political, economic or social sense. It costs to keep women behind.

In World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2016, Pakistan ranks 143 out of 144 countries. There were 15,222 cases of honour crimes registered in Pakistan from 2004 to 2016. According to the Human Rights Commission Report 2016, these cases are on the rise.

Mere condemnation can only save so many lives. We must enable women to be more mobile, self-reliant and violence-free. These are big dreams for a country that seems to build lots of roads, but does not bridge the crucial gap between opportunities for a girl compared to a boy.

It seems like the more Pakistan advances, the wider the echo chamber and ubiquity of misogyny becomes. There is also a severe push back from the right wing to tame women and make them invisible. Taking power back from Pakistani men and giving it to women begins with letting women tell their own stories. Preferably, while they are still alive.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 18th, 2017.

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Toti Calling | 6 years ago | Reply The article starts with saying a proud Pakistani who killed his sister. I think the word proud should have been written with"proud" meaning that is meant as ironic. Other than that, I agree that more has to be done for women in the country and write about their hapless situation also by men. Women suffer all the time, they cannot make their own decisions and must play second fiddle to men. First by men of their family and then men of in laws. This must change. They should be able to walk freely without the permission and make their own decisions. They should get equal share of all the monetary assets and given jobs in all sectors.
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