EVERY society has secrets, but some societies have more than others. Ours is such a society. Relationships are important, and to maintain them a lot of secrets have to be kept. Arranged marriages, care-taking obligations towards parents, surviving in homes with many siblings with many views that are easy to offend and that also offend. Added up, the careful arithmetic of relationships is no less than a tightrope, and to be a part of society most of us have to walk it, even if reluctantly.
This delicate equilibrium of a vast web of relationships has likely never faced an upheaval of the sort brought on by the coronavirus pandemic. Quarantine in close proximity to family members means less freedom to scurry away here or there, to talk to this one while at work or that one at a friend’s house. One bizarre set of events unfolded last week, when a woman, allegedly a wronged wife, stormed into the home of another woman (allegedly in a relationship with her husband) and proceeded to scream and threaten and maraud the place.
Women are expected to be open books, the details of their lives fodder to keep gossip machines going.
All of it was recorded on a mobile phone camera and thus, in an instant, available for all to see. In Pakistan, secrets are never revealed on a small scale anymore; they are literally released to everyone, so that one and all can snicker and smile and pretend to be outraged. When someone falls off the tightrope in a society rife with secrets, we all like to watch it all unfold.
The incident mentioned is probably just one example; the pandemic has likely taken a toll on many secret relationships. Among these are the secret wives of wealthy men, married without the permission of their first wives. Polygamy creates a whole host of problems, one of which is the condemnation of one or another of the wives to a clandestine existence. The strictures of the pandemic have meant that many polygamous husbands have been forced to live in close proximity to their ‘official’ wives. With proximity comes the possibility that the entire production falls apart — an intercepted telephone call, a text, restlessness; all can reveal the lies behind lives and cause the entire house of cards to crumble into a sad pile.
The uncertain nature of the pandemic is increasing the stress on the delicate equilibrium that keeps everyone happy and information limited to those who need it. In a country full of strictures, young love often requires the venue of college or university or school to flourish. With everything shut down and everyone in the family getting into each other’s business, these relationships can be throttled, killed before they have ever had the opportunity to flourish into something more. The collective agony of young people separated from their crushes seems to linger in the air everywhere. Thrown into close proximity with parents and subject to closer surveillance than usual, with lost independence and freedom, young people — women in particular — are suffering.
Mobile phones, social media and the internet have put the ordinary man or woman in contact with others whom they would never have encountered otherwise. Expectedly, they have become venues in which relationships, friendships and enmities of various sorts have flourished. The pandemic, with its uncertain parameters and the incipient fear of contagion that comes with it — one could, after all, fall sick and drop dead — should force everyone to consider the value of these relationships and their ability to maintain them.
With hundreds of thousands of Pakistanis refusing to pretend in front of spouses or parents or friends, intentionally jumping off the tightrope forced on everyone may free not only the person jumping off but so many others inspired by one act of bravado.
The primary ailment of a secret society is its refusal to allow anyone to have boundaries or zones of privacy. Women especially are expected to be open books, the details of their lives fodder to keep gossip machines going. The idea that an individual is entitled to keep certain information about themselves to themselves is anathema. It is an ultimate and hilarious irony that a society full of secrets requires everyone to pretend that they have no secrets at all.
No one needs to be told that the world and all of us are transforming at warp speed, pushed along both by technological advances and a global pandemic of unprecedented scale. Privacy is healthy, secrets not so much. Moments of transformation can be used to usher in a better system, a change in what we consider good and right and possible.
This requires admitting that we all have things about ourselves that we wish to keep to ourselves and this desire for privacy does not mean that we do not love or care for those we do not confess to. Privacy of course is not a legitimisation of the immoral, abuse, torment and other cruelties, which must be exposed so that the vulnerable can be helped and perpetrators held to account.
A society for secrets is no longer sustainable. Who knows how long we may have to spend time primarily in close proximity with immediate family members. This sort of life can be made far better, far more pleasant, when all family members recognise that we are all entitled to keep certain things to ourselves and that we are able to police our own actions through our individual conscience.
Without such an understanding, the cumulative pressure of a mobile phone in each person’s hand and a pandemic prowling though the streets will create social collapse on a scale we have not seen before. In a society with only secrets and no personal privacy, the bad and the ugly are always hidden and cannot be seen. This, however, does not mean that they cease to exist or to hurt and harass or to cause a slow and steady rot from the inside.
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.
Published in Dawn, June 3rd, 2020