ON Friday evening, I emailed my editor to suggest I write a piece on the growing number of targeted attacks against women in Pakistan. The idea had been brewing for some time, but I was struggling to think what needed to be said beyond the usual tropes about gender and violence. Then came the horrifying news of Sabeen Mahmud’s assassination, and with it the realisation that a society we fool ourselves into thinking is fragile is actually completely broken.
Mahmud is the latest in a line of women who have been targeted, one at a time, for political or symbolic reasons. Her murder comes days after the shooting of Debra Lobo, an assistant professor at a medical college. Before her there was PTI founding member Zahra Shahid Hussain, social activist and urban planner Perween Rahman, and of course, Malala Yousafzai and Benazir Bhutto.
The motives, perpetrators and context for each attack are completely different, offering a macabre laundry list of the types of violence we must contend with in Pakistan, ranging from political and criminal to militant. In many ways, it is simplistic to compare or equate these attacks. But there is something distinctly perverse about a society in which women are targeted in this way.
The reasons for targeting women are obvious: the act is low-cost, high-impact. The targets were in their cars, most of them either unescorted or accompanied by other women — mothers, daughters, school friends — traversing familiar routes, often between their workplace or school and their home. They were vulnerable and exposed, and easy targets for gunmen (it is no coincidence that many of the victims were targeted in Karachi, a city awash with weapons).
The resource outlay to target a woman is minimal, but the terror it produces is pronounced and widespread. With it comes the distinct realisation that the rules of the game have changed — that there may no longer be any rules. There is an audacity to the act that makes it more brutal, that makes the message that is being delivered through the targeting all the stronger. And the impunity that inevitably follows feels just that much more shameful.
Why target women? The act is low-cost, high-impact.
Put simply, the targeting of women exacerbates the fear factor. In a society falling apart, men become accustomed to being scared. But when women are targeted, everyone is scared: women themselves, the children they are meant to nurture, and the men who think it’s their job to protect the women in their lives.
Society is more distraught after such incidents because, despite the many advances of feminism, it is still seen as morally and ethically weaker to target women. Sirajul Haq captured the gist of this kind of thinking in his tweet about Mahmud’s killing, saying only cowards target women. The logic was cruelly distorted earlier this month by the al-Shabab militants who stormed the Garissa University in Kenya: as they went from room to room killing students, they said it was against Islam to hurt women in order to entice female students out of their hiding places. The women who emerged were promptly killed.
Women are of course murdered all the time. They are not immune to terrorist attacks, drone strikes, and criminal violence. But their deaths under these circumstances are the same as those of men or children, stripped of gender, tragic at best, statistical at worst.
Thousands of women also die each year in Pakistan as a result of gender-based violence: so-called honour killings, acid attacks, sexual assaults, kerosene stove blasts. These deaths are no less savage than incidents of politically motivated violence against women, but they are distinct. They are examples of structural violence that ultimately say more about the patriarchal systems in which such violence thrives.
Ironically, the patriarchy that leads to women being killed because of their gender is the same thing that produces extra shock when a woman is gunned down for political reasons. After all, the patriarchy is meant to offer protection to women and bestow a sacred stature upon them. In places like Pakistan where the horrors of patriarchy-driven violence persist alongside the brutality of political assassinations, nothing makes sense any more.
In a homage to Mahmud’s fighting spirit, sense of humour and generosity, I wanted to end this piece on a positive note. Here’s the best I can muster: the silver lining (however tarnished) of these savage incidents is that they demonstrate that we now live in a country where some women feel empowered enough to take a stand and have a voice, and do it effectively enough that someone thinks they’re worth targeting. If these women continue to inspire the rest of us — if even a handful among us can emulate their courage — there may yet be some hope.
The writer is a freelance journalist.
Published in Dawn, April 27th, 2015