Of all international benchmarks, I often find International Women’s Day the hardest one to celebrate. This is rather odd, given that I consider myself an unabashed feminist and much of my work is devoted to celebrating women.
My problem is thematic – how does one cogently, let alone comprehensively, attempt to celebrate one half of the world’s population? There is also a problem with laying claim to something that is intrinsic to ‘all’ women; by attempting to generalise a global experience into a gendered one.
It is challenging to speak both specifically and generally, and, more importantly, to not project personal experiences onto the whole. I used to do this when my friends abroad would belittle and generalise the experience of women in Pakistan, I would bristle at the terminology rather than the truth.
“Yes Pakistani women are largely marginalised and there is a lot of violence but many of us also excel. We attend the best schools in the world and lead in our respective fields, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.”
And then, I returned to Pakistan.
Armed with a degree in Gender and Human Rights, I began to work on Southern Punjab’s districts as a journalist. It was a humbling experience to say the least.
It took me less than a week to swallow my self-satisfaction. Over two years, on an average, I encountered nearly 5-6 rape cases, 2-3 child rape cases and a macabre assortment of acid attacks, public parading of naked women and gender violence in the name of ‘honour’. These figures are not exaggerated, if anything, they are downplayed.
I never qualified myself as a benchmark speaking for ‘Pakistani women’ ever again.
Also read: Five ways Pakistan degraded women
I soon became accustomed to compartmentalising a daily dose of gender violence: speaking to reporters, survivors or family members on the phone and then driving home trying to process it all without collapsing under the staggering weight of it.
It was a shock, it shouldn’t have been. We all know that violence against women in our country is staggering, we have plenty of annual Human Rights reports (local and international) to confirm this, moreover, enough of us know enough people who have experienced it.
What was shocking was that these were the figures from Punjab alone; Southern Punjab, the most affluent, and arguably ‘developed’, part of the country. I had always assumed the situation would be worse in Balochistan, Fata or rural Sindh. Yet, the figures don’t exactly pan this out.
Also read: Violence against women ‘most rampant’ in Punjab
After some reflection and conversation with people who worked on similar themes, I recognised that the reason why Punjab was perhaps more and not less violent is because gender norms are being challenged the most here.
The tide is slowly but surely shifting here due to education, urbanisation and inflation. Women are both choosing and being forced to enter into the public space and so the backlash has been the most pronounced.
As the cosmic global imbalance would have it, Pakistan invariably falls into the latter category in nearly every dimension. Women accomplish so much here everyday, most merely by surviving, but women also struggle more here than in most parts of the world.
Also read: Case pending: Pakistani women’s lives in the balance
The recent furore over the documentary on India’s Nirbhaya case and the subsequent attempts to ban and then disseminate it by the BBC, speak volumes about the scope of the split between how much we all are willing to ‘do’ in the name of curbing violence against women.
This brings to mind another campaign initiated by contemporary Italian artist, Alexsandro Palombo titled #StopAcidAttacks. The campaign follows other attempts at re-imagining Disney Princesses in another light.
They have previously been depicted as Black and Hispanic women, victims of domestic violence, real-life female heroes such as Susan B Anthony, Jane Goodall and Malala and also as disabled women.
Polombo depicts his princesses with half their faces burned off, despite the disturbing context of putting ‘princesses’ in such positions for an audience that – given the nature of the art – is also likely to include children.
Needless to say that despite all reservations, the art itself is powerful. The reason for this is that it juxtaposes innocence and violence in the same frame, as they usually occur.
Polombo has previously said, "I have always been in the front line against inequality, and I always used art as a powerful means of awareness. My art is against indifference, I want to shake consciences. If you're not outraged and don't react, if you stay silent in front of this atrocity, then you're just like those perpetrators of these inhumane acts.”
We have heard this message before – the idea that the only thing that still works to counter violence is shock. In some ways, this is understandable. After all, excessive exposure to violence tends to breed apathy rather than action.
Shock is required to jolt us out of apathy toward action.
The overwhelming reservation with many campaigns that address violence against women is that they are ‘too disturbing’, ‘too depressing’, ‘too disgusting’ and ‘not suitable for all audiences’. Each one of these claims is apologist not to mention, absurd given the scope of the problem.
I showed these images to several people and the overwhelming response to them was ‘but isn’t this too much?’, I tried asking why the art was too much given the action and the question was largely met with generic phrases like, “Yes, we know this happens but do we need to see it? In a children’s cartoon of all places?”
Apparently we do.
After all, children are exposed to all sorts of violence every single day. They play with toy guns, slaughter zombies, humans and opposing armies in video games, watch knife fights and take up combative sport. They know and understand terms like ‘war’, ‘shooting’, ‘Taliban’ and ‘murder’. None of this seems to faze parents about their wellbeing. What makes this worse?
Campaigns like #HeForShe #NotAll #StopAcidAttacks are fine efforts at raising awareness for gender causes but much of our reservations against action rest in the realm of relativism.
Also read: State of neglect
Violence is condemned globally every day, as often as it is marketed. It is not politicised, at least not while we seek to condemn it.
When someone is murdered or beaten or killed, we ask all the standard questions. “Who did it?” “Were they punished?” “This is inhuman, they must not get away with it”.
And yet, when violence occurs against women, it somehow becomes ‘political’, the question is never so much about the ‘who’ but rather the ‘why’.
It is only when the talk is about rape, acid attacks, honour killings that we ask ‘why’ did they do it? As if that should matter.
We live in a society where we allowed it to matter. There are two categories now: there is violence and then there is gender violence. One is bad. The second…well, we need to know why it happened before we can say anything.
Adding a qualifier to violence allows us to add a qualifier to condemning it.
The moment the reason for committing it becomes more important than the act itself, justifications receive more weight than judgments.
Let us hope that this year, we can unlearn this premise.
That in light of International Women’s Day, we can recognise that violence against women is first and foremost violence, and needs to be condemned as such by all those who claim to oppose all violence.