“WHY didn’t you tell me there was danger? Why didn’t you warn me? Ladies know what to guard against because they read novels that tell them tricks; but I never had the chance of discovering this... ,” says an indignant Tess in Thomas Hardy’s 18th-century England. More furious at her own ignorance than the absurdity of perils that subjugate her, her rage resonates today.
In the wildfires of Pakistan, women are trained to dodge dangers. The dangers themselves are secondary to our ability to navigate them. We are fastidiously equipped — socially, culturally, physically — with tools to circumvent. Jump over ditches. Take U-turns. But what happens when the whole land burns? From the privacy of homes in the nation’s capital to surveilled public motorways, where do we find safe shores? We learn how to fly, perhaps.
Recent headlines have been agonising. We grieve for those we have lost and those we await to lose. We ask for the least: hold perpetrators accountable. And we recognise how this bare minimum exonerates a system that sanctions the heedless production of perpetrators: Zahir Jaffers, Shah Hussains, and countless others who don’t make headlines.
We don’t just have violent men. We have a violent system.
Philosophers have theorised that humans need to be bound by a social contract. This is not a fanciful expectation; it is meant to enforce values that fashion conscious humans. Certain institutions are specifically tasked with this ‘tarbiyah’: family, schools, media houses, amongst others. The term ‘structural violence’, coined by Johan Galtung, points to the role of such institutions and structures in framing the status of women. The “tranquil waters” are invisible (inequality, education, legal systems), but they restrict women from realising rights enshrined on paper, and enable the more visible acts of aggression that shatter us. So we don’t just have violent men in Pakistan. We have a violent system.
Young boys aren’t born into patriarchy; they are raised in ways to sustain and regenerate it. The process begins early on. From the Cambridge board to the local ones, textbooks preclude the mention of women. No dominant narrative includes women’s roles in creating, resisting and running the nation. Our knowledge of power is masculine. Our sense of heroism is masculine. Our national memory is masculine, unless of course women were raped, tossed and thrown. That’s all we remember. The journey to manhood is infused with constructs of power that permeate everything from media content to daily interchanges. Abusive lexis centres around the woman (maa, behen, beti). Leaders entice frustrated crowds by talking about slapping women. TV serials perpetuate stereotypes. Schools work like factories with little focus on any values. The most critical mass institutions raise men to be exactly the way they turn out. In elite spaces, the sense of entitlement is doubled. Count the perpetrators.
Read: Noor of our nation
Crimes against women are not simple aberrations of desire; they are entrenched through complex systems that fortify men in paradigms of power. This is not to homogenise the experiences of men in Pakistan. Not all men are violent but they have been reared in an ecosystem that empowers toxic masculinity — one that can manifest itself as and how it pleases. The emerging digital space can prompt men to unlearn and reflect on what they have internalised, especially as they connect with broader global discourses on allyship. Still, this burden to educate men out of their acquired, many times rigidly wilful, ignorance lies on women.
Domestic violence bills can’t contest these processes. They can’t resolve underlying issues of education, mental health, or opportunity, though they aim to deter the resulting, more apparent, acts of crime. While our legislative gains are heartening in this matter, they can’t work in a system that’s not designed to execute. Bills are passed on to people who either don’t know how to implement or just don’t want to (and they can get away with it). A dysfunctional governance structure engulfs the best of bills; devolution and evaluation of responsibilities is a different story.
A three-day gender sensitivity workshop can’t undo decades of mental programming. Talk, leave, and never follow up? Doesn’t work. A well-designed manual can’t enrich governance. A biometric system can’t ensure values-based instruction if there’s no genuine buy-in. It’s easy to garnish documents with revolutionary semantics. But our challenge is not to build arbitrary capacities; it is to redesign the system to change hearts and minds, to raise a better citizenry.
Generations have crusaded for women to raise their voice today. While ongoing conversations are limited to a small cluster, they are confronting entrenched mental models that pervade the populace. Our participation, and our defiance, in this process — no matter how seemingly futile — is our power. And we have to sustain it. In this no woman’s land, we have to make our space.
The writer is an education consultant.
Published in Dawn, July 31st, 2021