The right demand

Updated March 12, 2019

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The writer is a journalist.
The writer is a journalist.

IT was International Women’s Day on Friday. But it was hard for the other half of the country to stay silent for a mere 24 hours. They just couldn’t because the posters/slogans during the countrywide march were just so out there and unacceptable. Even two days later, the ‘tsk tsk-ing’ and the outrage hadn’t stopped.

What were these women thinking? How could they abuse their position by making outrageous demands? And why didn’t they understand their culture and tradition? Where were the serious issues such as rape? Why didn’t they speak for the women from the less-privileged classes? Why did they speak of silly and irrelevant issues (when there are serious issues such as ‘honour’ killings)? Of course, there was great horror for unacceptable and/or frivolous issues such as manspreading; unwanted and unsolicited pictures (as many consider this a staid family paper, I will spare the feelings of all readers by not providing more details); divorce and the price of sanitary napkins.

These were hardly rights issues, it was said.

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Many Pakistani men (and even some women) are all for equal rights for women but as long as it does not translate into support for ‘behayai’ (remember the unsolicited pictures), or even slogans asking for men to heat their own food, or find their own socks, or women who want to sit like men.

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It seems as if they were arguing for women to have waited — for ‘honour’ killings to end, for inheritance laws to be made equitable, for equal pay to be a reality before bringing up ‘frivolous’ issues such as taboos around divorce or judging women for their clothing choices.

In creating a hierarchy of issues, where would we begin to ask for no harassment on the street or in cyberspace?

After all, in a society where violence against women takes such heinous forms such as wani and ‘honour’ killings, it does perhaps seem out of place to start demanding that men heat their own food.

But this argument is based on the assumption that women’s rights can be listed in terms of priority, and that one can only move down the list once the item above has been marked ‘complete’.

Hence, once ‘honour’ killings are eliminated, only then can one move on to wani, and once there is a ‘check’ in front of this can one perhaps move on to domestic violence. And only after all the acts of physical violence against women are eliminated should we move on to asking for more equitable inheritance laws and equal pay.

Take a look: Women in Pakistan most vulnerable to harassment on Facebook, WhatsApp — report

But in creating this hierarchy of issues, where would we begin to ask for no harassment on the street (eve-teasing as it is sometimes called in our subcontinental English); would it come before or after harassment in cyberspace? And what about allowing women to decide on birth control measures for themselves? Where would this be placed on the list? And it seems that with such serious issues to contend with, asking for equal representation on corporate boards or more women in cabinets should simply be shelved for the time being.

Second, there is an argument prevalent in the privileged parts of society that if women are not being killed or beaten or stopped from studying or working, they really should not be complaining about other issues. In other words, agitating about mansplaining, sexist swear words, and social views on clothes are not ‘real’ issues when women are being killed or maimed.

But Pakistan is a society where modernity and tradition jostle for space. It’s a place where Mukhtaran Mai is still struggling for justice; where the Muslim world’s first woman prime minister was elected 30 years ago; where women (and men) were apparently killed just seven years ago because a video revealed that they were enjoying music in the presence of men; where we also have laws outlawing sexual harassment at the workplace.

There are parts of the country (and society) where women struggle to marry of their own free will or get an education but in others, women struggle with getting their male colleagues to treat them with respect. And the rights movement will and should talk about all kinds of issues.

To argue that one is more real than the other is to argue that while extrajudicial killings happen, Pakistanis should not crib about the ridiculously high prices the automobile sector charges, because the latter only concerns a more privileged section of society. It’s possible to talk about both the issues and agitate for both at the same time.

Or to use another example, there are some who say that criticism of civilian governments or questions about accountability can endanger democracy in Pakistan. It will not. We can and must work for a stronger democracy and better governance from our political parties at the same time.

Special report: Sexual harassment in workplaces in Pakistan

Similarly, working women can talk about sexual harassment and about not being heard in work meetings; others can discuss the social taboos surrounding those who have walked out of marriages; and all of them can talk about rape and ‘honour’ killings as well as the burden of juggling work and housework, as in many households, men are not expected to lift a finger at home. These issues need not wait till what is deemed more ‘serious’ and ‘legitimate’ (by some or many) has been addressed.

As we jostle tradition and modernity in our politics and society, half of this country also has the right to talk about all the problems they face whether in the rural areas or in corporate offices.

Last but not least, if some demands seem offensive or ill-suited to our ‘culture’, we need to remember that in some parts of the country, ‘culture’ allows women to be killed. Yet we expect the men from those parts to understand that their ‘culture’ is not acceptable. So why can’t our more urbane, educated compatriots be challenged and questioned about what they deem acceptable?

Let’s not put a limit on what women can dream and aspire to. Even if it makes some of us uncomfortable, at least it’s forcing us to debate and engage on what women rights are.

The writer is a journalist.

Published in Dawn, March 12th, 2019