So set in our ways

Updated 21 Oct 2020


The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.

I WANT to believe. I really, truly want to believe when the representative in Pakistan for the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime tweets his congratulations to the participants and stakeholders of yet another workshop to build consensus on gender-based violence. The content of the consensus is not mentioned but the discourse, which apparently took place in some local hotel or event centre over two days, was deemed “productive”.

Undoubtedly, with this workshop’s conclusion, a box was ticked somewhere in the programme monitoring of the labyrinthine UN reporting system. Like all the goodhearted bureaucrats of the world, someone probably wrote a report. The report was read by someone else and its presence discussed at a departmental meeting. All was as it should be as the bureaucratic machine of the massive UN complex kept chugging along, producing reports and briefs and more reports that would be developed into new programmes that would do the same old thing.

I don’t blame the UN for its well-meaning if ultimately useless workshop. And I am certain that UN officials had the very best and most sincere of intentions when they wrote tweets and attended the workshop. I am certain that the stakeholders and others who attended were similarly serious about reducing gender-based violence in Pakistan.

My frustration draws from the truth that the entire production, and others like it (and there are many), maintain the myth that success is measured not by the actual reduction in gender-based violence but by the fact that such workshops are conducted at all. The facilitated conversations, the free refreshments, etc are all supposed to be goods in themselves; the workshop does not actually have to be effective in solving the problem that gives rise to the need for it. It simply has to happen. And so it happened.

Programmes and workshops against gender-based violence are of no use in Pakistan.

The world body and the workshops that it conducts are not, of course, the root of the problem in Pakistan. That lies in the beliefs of Pakistanis themselves. Every day, millions of women sit down and consume hours of television dramas that normalise violence against women. The slaps and pushes that show up in their plots are not only narrative devices, they are a means of reiterating what the vast majority of Pakistanis believe, that a woman is property whose responsibility is transferred from her father to her husband. Husbands can and do demand that runaway wives be returned; fathers can insist that their daughters cannot marry without their permission. There is no room for love in any of these equations, there is only room for control, and everything in society promotes this belief.

All sorts of attempts have been made to change this. Muslim feminists have unravelled the argument in favour of wife-beating, saying many men have misinterpreted religious injunctions. Muslim female scholars who have looked into the matter argue against the view that the Muslim faith sanctions wife-beating.

But all that does not seem to matter to Pakistanis. They go on behaving and believing that a man can beat his wife, force her to have sexual relations (marital rape is not a crime at all), abuse her in other ways, humiliate her, treat her like an object and not like a human. Most Pakistani women assist the men in this project, with mothers-in-law gleeful and drooling at the prospect of their son clobbering the woman he has married, ensuring that his mother and not his wife remains at the top of the female hierarchy of the household.

These are the reasons why programmes and workshops against gender-based violence are of no use in Pakistan. Awareness has been raised for decades, everyone knows everything and no one sees any reason at all to change the way things are. The very idea of Pakistani masculinity is based on the very visible subjugation of women, where men who cannot ‘control’ the women in their family are seen as weak and effeminate.

The benevolent among men are in the habit of handing out some selection of approved activities; within these boundaries women are supposed to operate happily and without complaint. Even the increase in women working outside the home has not changed a thing. Most women must get ‘permission’ to work and be submissive when they get home at the end of the day, handing over their paychecks to and cooking food for the lord and master of the house, and tending to his children. Economic empowerment in this black hole is not empowerment at all.

Instead of holding workshops on gender violence against Pakistani women for stakeholders, the UN and other international bodies should hold workshops which have ordinary men discuss and develop consensus on how best to curb the spirit and squash the wishes of the women in their lives — wives and daughters and sisters. Such a workshop would reveal the real beast that roars in the heart of almost every Pakistani male, and whose healthy and continued life over decades and generations means that there is no possibility of any sort of improvement in the high rates of gender-based violence in the country.

The only value of workshops as they exist is to provide some economic opportunities to the local staff of bureaucratic agencies. Earnest and sincere, the staff has no option but to hide the truth and insist on the probability of success against a problem that Pakistanis do not consider a problem at all.

Perhaps something could be done to ensure continued employment for them. For all the rest of Pakistanis, life belongs to one of two categories separated by gender: the women constantly asking, begging, hoping for permission; and the men refusing, scolding and ignoring their appeals. In the time it takes to read this article, thousands of Pakistani women have made beseeching requests, and thousands of Pakistani men have delivered wordless and resounding slaps.

The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.

Published in Dawn, October 21st, 2020