FIRST they came for the marchers. When the Aurat March was held around the country on March 8 and women in Peshawar and Karachi and Faisalabad and Islamabad came out to march on the streets, many men and some women were upset.
The taunt this time, as it has been at other times during the history of Pakistan’s women’s movement, was that these were elite women, used to frittering away their time on petty problems, women whose wealth made them impervious to the ‘real’ Pakistani woman and the issues that she faces. There was one difference, however, that may not have been admitted aloud, but which pricked and prodded the critics of the march.
It was obvious, even from a cursory glance at pictures of the march, that things were different; these were not the trickle that had marked the numbers of previous marches. There were more women than there had been before. To those who do not like to see women in public, women occupying public space, this was cause for concern and for anger. So they settled on the signs; the placards the women held; unacceptable and inadmissible in the land of the pure, said the angry.
It is a dark realisation when one half of the country wakes up to just how little the other must think of it.
The controversy over the march lasted for a long time — not days, but weeks. Some notables got into the plot, the feminist poetess Kishwar Naheed amongst them. At an event also held in connection with International Women’s Day, Naheed — who has published a dozen volumes of poetry — drew attention to a few of the signs that she found most upsetting; one that read “Main awara hoon [Yes I am wayward]” and “Main khana garam karloon gi: bistar khud garam lar lo [I will warm the food, you warm the bed yourself]”. Values, the poetess opined, must not be discarded in the pursuit of empowerment. Others, mostly men, smugly chimed in. Creating rifts between women, after all, is how patriarchy endures.
No sooner had the many angry men settled down that they found a new and also female target. Last week, a video surfaced of a woman named Asma Aziz. In it, she made a plea; her long-time abusive husband had demanded that she dance for him and his friends. When she refused, they tied her down, tortured her and then shaved off her head.
The bruised and battered woman was turning to the world for help; she had not yet been able to register a police report, she said because when she went to the police station, the cops demanded money.
The video began to make the rounds on social media and soon Shireen Mazari, the federal minister for human rights, took notice of the situation tweeting: “My office was informed by the Station House Officer at Kahna Police Station, the police has registered an FIR and arrested both accused under Section 337(v) and 506. Medical report of the woman is awaited, husband is one of the arrested.”
Lo and behold! It seemed that for once justice would be delivered to a hapless woman who had suffered terrible abuse. Soon any who had believed this could happen in a country where men believe that beating women is a right granted to them saw their hopes crush and crumble.
One newspaper printed a seemingly unsubstantiated report attributed to Faisal Aziz (the husband) which alleged that the two, husband and wife, were addicted to ice. This little tidbit, coming from a man who had eight previous cases of burglary registered against him, was signal enough to begin doing what Pakistanis do best: put the victim on trial.
In its ensuing episode, a video was produced showing the woman dancing to music with her husband. If a woman could dance like that happily once, then her objection to her husband’s request made no sense. A woman who could dance like that, all the allegations surmised, was one without morals. A woman without morals was, in their view, a woman who could justifiably be abused.
It is a dark realisation when one half of the country wakes up to just how little the other must think of it. Dancing, in this case, was equated with the loss of all right to bodily integrity and dignity, and the smears began to rain down. Here stood Pakistanis in the position that they most enjoy: standing in judgement; the woman’s clothes, her allegations, her dancing, her previously dyed hair, were all a problem, it was all permission to destroy her.
Asma Aziz’s future is unknown. Men arrested have a way of somehow being freed, on bail, on the basis of insufficient evidence (even videos aren’t enough to convict the mighty and the male), on the basis of nothing at all. The future of Pakistani women too seems uncertain here, making an argument for their right to the country’s streets, to their own physical integrity, all while smug men hang the noose of values around their necks. While it may be true that not all Pakistani men are so inclined, there are millions, many wearing the masks of education and erudition, who are, and who punctuate the persecution of women with their silence.
Pakistani women are not going to stand for this any longer. Too many of them are now in the workforce, their daily security and safety affected by misogyny, by lewd bosses and groping co-workers. Others going through the same abuses that their mothers and grandmothers suffered are turning to the internet, exposing and shaming the perpetrators of abuse. The vitriol in the backlash, the ferocity with which Asma Aziz and woman holding signs have been reviled, is evidence that things are changing, that women are organising — refusing to stand for the cover-ups and the silence. In small ways and big, in cities and villages, Pakistani women are shaking off the shackles of a culture that has for too long permitted their annihilation.
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.
Published in Dawn, April 3rd, 2019