GENDER-BASED violence (GBV) is the product of a bigoted society. Also known as gendered violence, it is the harm caused to individuals or groups as a result of normative or cultural perceptions of gender roles and power distribution between the genders. In Pakistan’s context, gender-based violence is primarily directed towards girls and women because of the patriarchal structure of society which defines the power distribution mentioned above.
Investigations of GBV cases expose the clear control of men over women in practically all spheres of life — social, moral, economic and political. A patrilineal society like Pakistan favours male lineage in terms of property, privilege and family name. In such a skewed, gendered distribution of power, men are expected to exercise complete control over women’s behaviour and socioeconomic roles. When women are perceived to be deviating from the standards set by men, they are subjected to violence as a ‘corrective’ measure. Most of the time, women’s deviation from the accepted norms is seen as an outrage and a rebellious response to male dominance and supremacy and consequently an affront to male ‘honour’. This concept of honour extends to all male members of a clan or family and ‘entitles’ men to rectify the aberrant behaviour of females, leading to several forms of gender-based violence, ranging from inflicting physical harm to murder.
To make matters worse, the patriarchal definition of a ‘good woman’ is accepted by women themselves — often to reduce pain, anxiety and tension and to adjust to unfavourable circumstances. In households, mostly older women become a part of this power distribution and propagate theories and advice such as exercising patience, taking violence as a norm, keeping quiet about abuse, obeying men unconditionally and remaining in a bad marriage rather than going for other options. These shared values about controlling women often result in even more physical harm than expected which can result in homicides. Even such extreme violence is internalised by women, and propagated, especially by older women, as ‘she got what she deserved’ and ‘she asked for it’ and ‘good women do not get beaten up’. Most girls and women take years to access the criminal justice system because of older women advising them to adapt and normalise violent male behaviour.
With such patriarchal power distribution, it is naive to expect that men in general, including men in the police, are above discriminatory practices. The challenges of the police in investigating GBV cases have many dimensions but cognitive dissonance — where people can hold two sets of beliefs without noticing the inherent contradiction between them — is the biggest stumbling block. It underlies the approach in investigating offences and interferes with the just application of the law, leading to gaps in the implementation of the latter when it comes to the protection of women.
Policemen have a gendered view of GBV.
During the investigation of GBV cases, frequent interactions with investigating officers reveal a dismal paradox: individually, they recognise the injustice to a woman but collectively stick to the shared code of power and control among men. As GBV is deeply embedded in society’s patriarchal system and is based on power distribution among males and females, men in the police also believe in the shared code. In cases of domestic violence, police officers mediate and often enforce ‘reconciliation’ on the grounds that women have no individual identity outside the domain of their male family members and are always recognised either by the name of their father or husband.
Similarly, investigations in ‘honour’ killing cases are generally kept pending till an out-of-court settlement is reached. This reprehensible practice is perceived as a family matter where social roles have been defined and the women are the property of men and subject to their approval for any social activity. Men are the custodians of their bodies and minds and exercise full control over their actions. It is an outrage to all men even if one woman is seen to deviate from prescribed behaviour because of the ‘bad’ impact she might have on all other women by exhibiting such ‘delinquency’. If punishment is meted out to the woman in the form of physical violence, it is the outcome of a shared norm and silent agreement among the men. These so-called correctional measures and penal systems devised by men are tacitly shared and accepted by the police and take precedence over the laws of the country.
Consistent efforts at gender sensitisation through curriculum and training in the last decade has enabled police to recognise the problem but a greater, more focused approach is needed to address the underlying cognitive dissonance in police practices. The police, as an implementing arm of state law, must stand on the side of vulnerable groups and strive to rise to exemplary levels of non-discrimination.
The writer is a police officer.
Published in Dawn, June 8th, 2021