The horrific rape and murder of an eight-year-old Pakistani girl-child, Zainab, has galvanised all segments of society in Pakistan and the diaspora to publicly condemn violence against girls and women.
There have been rallies where men and women have been protesting the lack of police efforts to catch Zainab’s murderer. On television, anchors have dedicated shows to sexual abuse and child abuse.
Many see Zainab’s murder as an opportunity to discuss otherwise taboo issues. Education activists are calling for revising the school curricula to include information about sexual and child abuse. Others are calling for raising awareness among parents.
Politicians and religious leaders have taken to the podium/social media to express their horror. It seems that the nation has awoken from a slumber — citizens are even meting out justice on the streets, beating up men accused of harassing girls and women.
While well-intentioned, these calls responsibilise schools and parents without paying attention to the historic and systemic demeaning of Pakistani women.
Rape and murder of girls do not happen in a vacuum. It is an effect of sedimented societal views about the female sex and institutional practices that reproduce male dominance, in every domain of life.
We live in a society that abhors women — we don’t like it when they enter the workplace and make it known through harassment and unequal pay. We ogle them when they are on the streets and even grope them when the opportunity presents itself.
We take away their already minuscule space in the mosques by building mosques without a women’s section. We are threatened when they appear as TV personalities and curse at them on air. We make jokes about rape and use cuss words with ‘mother’ and ‘sister’ in them.
We create a political fuss when a girl with uncovered hair is depicted in a textbook. We pass laws like the Hudood Ordinance. We police what women can wear at universities. We even reprimand female professors for wearing jeans!
We do all this and then wonder why eight-year-old girls get assaulted? Who is responsible for this monstrosity? YOU. You, my dear reader, and I, are complicit in reproducing a system that views women as sub-human. We reinforce male privilege through minor, everyday actions from swear words to advocating for policies that make life unbearable for women.
If we are so angry about what happened to Zainab, then it behooves us to first check ourselves and our views about women and girls. We then have to come out and try to hold societal institutions — from the state and the media to the mosque — accountable for portraying women as less-than-men.
Indeed, in Pakistan, women are not considered as fully human. They are viewed as sex objects available for men’s pleasure, as upholders of familial morality and honour, or as domestic managers who will nurture children. Women who deviate from these pre-assigned roles do not have much breathing room.
If men are so mad at Zainab’s murder then let’s see them give up their privilege and make space for women in their professions, on the streets, in media and in politics. Let’s see them pass pro-women laws or just implement the laws already in place. Let’s see them stand up and speak for women when misogynist elements want to push women to the margins every day.
Call me cynical but this sudden righteous anger of politicians, religious reformers, and men at large means nothing if it is just going to devolve into a PR stunt. If we don’t reform our institutions, if we don’t reform ourselves, we cannot be surprised if there are more Zainabs, unfortunately.
Published in The Express Tribune, January 18th, 2018.