Senate furore

January 20, 2020

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TO denounce ‘honour killings’ while at the same time defending the concepts in which they are rooted, is perverse, illogical and dangerous. But that is precisely what Senator Mohsin Aziz tried to do on Friday during a discussion on the annual report of the National Commission on Women when he said that “honour killings are a problem”, but honour and culture are important too. In other words, he proved himself an apologist for this vile practice. Senator Aziz went on to condemn the NGOs behind last year’s Aurat March — an event that has aroused much moral panic for its display of women’s refusal to abide by their ‘prescribed’ role and conform to society’s double standards. In fact, the senator disparaged the entire women’s rights movement in the country as being led by an elite class that in any case already enjoyed the rights they were supposedly agitating for. Fortunately, Senator Aziz’s reprehensible words met with a fiery response from the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate, Sherry Rehman, who denounced the view that cultural norms justify the oppression of women in any form. The upper house, she said, must adopt a bipartisan approach to unequivocally condemn the practice of honour killing. Senator Rehman also paid fulsome tribute to the women’s rights activists who, she pointed out, fought not for themselves but for those who did not have a voice to defend themselves against gender-based violence.

In a patriarchal society, culture is a convenient catch-all to justify keeping women confined to a limited, stereotypical role. Most distressing of all, the notion of honour within that cultural landscape demands that women pay the price with their lives so that men can ‘avenge’ any perceived ‘dishonour’ to the family name. This category of murder — often even resorted to as a ruse for achieving worldly objectives — is a tragic reality. In terms of legislation to protect women from regressive social mores and ensure their rights as equal citizens, Pakistan has come a long way, including enacting a law to deal specifically with honour killings. However, as Friday’s exchange illustrates, there is still much ground to cover where cultural attitudes are concerned. Progressive elements must continue to push back firmly. The prospect of female agency and autonomy, particularly with respect to the right to choose a life partner, threatens to upend the existing patriarchal norms of society. And patriarchy does not give up its privileges easily.

Published in Dawn, January 20th, 2020