After a twelve-hour workday, as I sat in the car to go home to my brand-new baby girls, news of the rape and murder of an 8-year-old girl in Kasur offered rekindled injury. As the radio jockey broke the news on national media — his tone apathetic, drone-like — my chauffeur who had driven me home for years, chose that moment to arbitrate.
“Truth be told Baji, she asked for it.”
At first, his words appeared cacophonous. I couldn’t bring myself to accept that a man I was deeply familiar with, a surrogate “member of our family”, wasn’t merely announcing such a verdict but in fact, appeared surprised, when I didn’t immediately buy it. I couldn’t bring myself to ask how or why the raped child had “asked for it” but he volunteered anyway.
“We export “kafir” culture and the results can be seen in these bushes and valleys.”
I was too staggered to interject.
“Fitted jeans, bright lipstick, girls roaming freely, destroying tradition. First tease, tempt, then complain. Young boys with active hormones, they’ll naturally respond violently.”
That night, as I put our daughters to bed, a grave fear stirred within me at the prospect that one day they might ride by themselves in the car with a man who believed rape victims provoked their own harrowing fate; that examples must be made of such “fast” girls. Whilst I felt guilty at so swiftly turning a human tragedy into narcissistic gripe, my immediate worry was personal.
“Dilnawaz, what would you have done if you were in that boy’s place?”
“I’d do exactly the same.”
“And what if it was your daughter he had hurt? How would you feel then?”
“I’d pray for a more severe punishment for her, proportionate to such haram behaviour.”
That evening, my driver’s uncensored chatter evoked fear, an unbridgeable deficit of trust between a longstanding employee and manager, but it had to be said; without being cognisant of it, he had imparted to me, an immortal life lesson: Purity is a lie. Hierarchies of purity an even greater myth. And the ode to purity a weapon to hold women back.
The fetish with purity isn’t modernity’s brainchild. Our obsession with a global purity logic has harnessed itself through assorted toolkits over the decades: gender, race, ethnicity, caste, class – those are the tip of the iceberg. Witch hunts in the 1800s, Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat to a white man on the bus, ISIS promising a global cleanse against the apocalypse, superpowers mounting daily threats of sealed borders and swelling walls, and most recently, the rekindling of the Hindutva revolution next door.
Closer home, since the partition of the subcontinent, self-appointed gatekeepers of purity have imposed upon the people, scales that they would have us believe can algorithmically calculate where you lie on the purity pyramid. Women, mothers, symbols of “The Motherland” — whose slightest deviance can dishonour the nation. The Global South curates a specific form of such feminist purism; the portrait of the ideal woman of colour proposes the myth of having it all: you can be a Fortune 500 CEO, as long as you’re a great mother!
When the #MeToo movement gained global momentum but failed to trickle down in Pakistan, I recalled my chauffeur’s words. Should I have fired him that night? Should I have told my husband? Would I allow my daughters to travel with him alone? Was I cultivating a rapist-in-the-making, ignoring a crime waiting to happen? But beyond our family, should we reevaluate our approach to feminism and the rebalancing of gender scales in Pakistan?
Maybe, although there are no cookie-cutter solutions. What we are expecting, though, is for the building to miraculously survive in the absence of groundwork and coalition-building. What does this really mean? Change has to begin bottom-up; advocacy can only yield outcomes if it is communicated in a vocabulary that makes sense to its recipients. By subscribing to gender norms created by the global north, we fail to offer context-specific responses and instead, alienate the majority of women who suffer. Sex education, inclusive dinner table conversations, school curriculums, religious diktat need to be introduced before the failure of the market for the girl-child occurs, not as a retroactive, post-failure fix.
Second, feminist efforts get distorted when packaged in demonising, anti-male rhetoric. Fierce, often constructive forces get consumed by resentment. Wounded attachments, umbrage that creates chaos and propels us to act, is often useful, even necessary, for it is in times of crisis that movements solidify. But when feminist hostility takes center stage – a vengeful end in itself - the outcome is rarely victorious. In Pakistan, specifically, this has resulted in the belief that feminists can only be women, and that too, women with a destructive agenda to besiege men. As such, we have rejected the potential to build coalitions by alienating an entire section of humanity.
The other fall-out of a skewed gender lens is the onset of feminist fatigue. When tragedies such as those of social media star, Qandeel Baloch’s murder emerge, rage escalates amidst virtual smokescreens, offers ephemeral fame to the victim and vanguards, but doesn’t have the masonry to hold. When #MeToo voices rise in the global south, they are viewed as prospects with nuisance-value: yet another frantic, male-bashing, public stunt to attain short-lived stardom. When queer women rally for human rights and workplace opportunities, they are labelled as deviant predators, a threat to our century’s old values tapestry.
A few years on, I realise that a brother murdering his sister over family honour and celebrating the victory is symptomatic of something more insidious: that the echo chamber we inhabit, fears the mixing of humanity, of the sexes in particular. Imagine the miracle of childbirth, of humanity, blending to create new life. Of equal maternity and paternity leave, so men and women share the burden of the second shift - housework — to simultaneously thrust their careers forward. Of social circles that celebrate stay-at-home dads. Of executive boardrooms with gender-agnostic compositions to bring the best minds together instead of recruiting women to fulfil diversity quotas. Where go-getter women and sensitive men don’t attract raised eyebrows. Imagine what might befall if humanity fuses to end violence, rape and abuse, if we begin to view the world in amalgamated hues where boys are permitted to cry and girls can nurture dreams. Not as a steeplechase to outrun and replace men, just to create another kind of power vortex.
The potential that lay in forging gender alliances made itself clear to me more potently post motherhood. Armed with this vital acknowledgement, my husband and I decided to adopt a different route to raise our daughters: to offer them an alternative weapon – an ode to profound impurity.
As our girls navigate a world that craves virtuous, unsullied objects and rejects moral dangers that signal pollution and shame, we hope they can cave into a life that celebrates profound impurity. To know that their value as humans doesn’t correspond to their sexual capital. That prospects of partnership will not be enhanced by keeping their “list” and sexual histories as short as possible. That they must not hand a cookie to someone who cherishes them for being “sealed packs” before marriage — as local virgins are commonly called.
That it is imperative that they become whistleblowers in the face of sexual violence, to unleash an unsilencing revolution. That they never feel compelled to hide sanitary napkins and conceal menstrual cycles in male company. That purity won’t be achieved by rejecting sexual engagement; it signals something dynamic, ignited, like Joan of Arc. That until they don’t own their narratives, no one else will. And that the potential held by profound impurity is the only possible redemption.
Read further: The enduring appeal of ‘khud khana garam karlo’
Our children occupy a more tangled world than ever before. As the fetish for purity gains momentum in every part of the globe, many women face greater risks from rape and domestic abuse than from malaria, cancer, war and traffic accidents collectively. In the face of such startling facts, the time to let go of X and Y, pinks and blues, Wonder Woman and Superman, has arrived. Those in positions of privilege and power, fear a coalition of humanity, a union of the sexes.
The sooner we shift this gender war into an invitation to collaborate – one that is based on radical kindness, compassion and coalition – the more likely it is that men and women will march as one, humanity will congregate to dance on sidewalks and bells will chime to ring in change – each, in its own way and jointly, signalling that the moment to act has arrived. That purity and our growing fetish for it — beyond the shadow of a doubt — is a lie.
This piece was longlisted for the Zeenat Haroon Rashid Writing Prize for Women.
Saba Karim Khan works at New York University’s Abu Dhabi campus and is the author of the forthcoming novel, Skyfall.
The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.