In a way, it makes sense that the past two months of case after case depicting women’s bodies being violated, butchered, then filmed and circulated for public consumption would culminate in a video of a woman being assaulted and passed around by, literally, hundreds of men on Independence Day at Azadi Flyover near Minar-i-Pakistan. There can be no more obvious metaphor for how depraved our society really is. It is hard to imagine a more powerful symbolic representation of how we have twisted the very meaning of ‘independence’ and ‘freedom’ to cater solely to one gender at the expense of another. There really is no other way to say it, we are in the midst of a gender apartheid.
The fact that Pakistani women are unsafe comes as no surprise to most women and the men who pretend to be shocked at the level of violence women are facing ought to ask themselves how they have managed to evade or ignore this realisation until now. Such willful blindness is the ultimate privilege that all men in our society enjoy — an ability to pretend that violence against women is not systemic, that it’s just a ‘few bad apples’ or that our ‘culture and values’ somehow guarantee women’s safety and our protection because it places the responsibility for both in the hands of the very gender that systemically attacks women — men. The sheer barrage of news reports and cases coming to light over the past months highlight the breadth and scale of violence that women face.
The attacks range from a viral video of two men beating their mother and sister with a helmet because the woman asked for her inheritance to the assault of a couple in a hotel room — the case in which Usman Mirza is the prime suspect and accused. From the case of Umar Khalid Memon who is accused of torturing his wife and killing her in Hyderabad to the case of Raza Ali, who is accused of shooting his wife and injuring his children in Peshawar and the now infamous incident of Zahir Jaffer, the primary suspect and accused in the murder of a woman on the premises of his home.
It is high time we begin naming, shaming and calling out abusers, rapists and murderers in these cases rather than burdening the victim even further. We desperately need to refocus how we frame violence when it is committed upon female bodies. The structural framing of ‘violence against women’ often tends to spotlight the victim of the violence rather than its perpetrator. It begs the question of what a woman did to ‘incite’ or ‘deserve’ violence and men in our society, from police officials and family members to media anchors and the prime minister himself, latch on to this as a template for victim blaming. Pakistan is by no means the only country where such violence happens, but it is one of the few countries where both society and the state apparatus, provides the perpetrators of violence against women with a plethora of safeguards and excuses. Whether one blames women’s clothing, women’s mobility, general lack of education, segregation, or the idea that men are incapable of controlling themselves (a consequence of them not being ‘robots’), it all amounts to the same thing. That women are in some way responsible for what happens to them. That women’s bodies are inherently a problem … for men.
Despite the multiple clarifications over various victim blaming comments targeting women that Prime Minister Imran Khan claims were repeatedly taken ‘out of context’, he still couldn’t resist tagging ‘however much a woman is provocative’ as a qualifier to his long-awaited condemnation of rapists. This implies that provocation is an inherent part of women’s existence, that our bodies carry it and that it is men’s job to ‘resist’ it. It implies a struggle on the part of all men when confronted with women’s bodies, in both public and private spaces, that they must overcome so that they don’t abuse us.
The very word ‘Aurat’ is derived from the Arabic word ‘awrah’ which is a direct inference to genitalia or nudity. The term entered Urdu through Persian where it still retained its original meaning of ‘private parts that needed to be covered’. Persian dictionaries also illustrate the word as ‘sharmgah’ or a ‘place of shame’. This etymology helps us understand the consistent objectification of women’s bodies and why the entirety of so-called ‘honour culture’ is constructed around policing them. ‘Honour’ culture is framed around the premise that only men have honour and only women can bring shame. Therefore, women are held responsible for causing men to lose their ‘honour’ and anything that men do to restore it is deemed acceptable, even desirable. The same logic applies to all the violence women face when men perceive that any punishment of women — whether it is accusing them of blasphemy for protesting at the Aurat March or killing them for rejecting a marriage proposal or trying to shoot a child in the head for wanting to go to school — is justified because men feel they have restored so-called lost ‘honour’.
Women’s bodies have always been under attack and the cases that now plague our news feeds on social media are in no way new. The marked difference is that the only way to garner enough public attention and mobilise enough outrage to push authorities into taking violence against women seriously has been for such violence to go viral online. As harmful as this often is for the victim, it is unfortunate that video evidence seems to be the only way to even convince most men that what we protest about at Aurat Marches and what they dismiss every day as ‘western propaganda used to malign Pakistan’ is, in fact, both real and deadly. Most, of course, are still not convinced.
For these men, it is the women marching and protesting about ‘Mera Jism, Meri Marzi’ that are the considered the real problem not the men who violate that jism. In a society where men have absolute ‘marzi’ over women’s ‘jism’, the loss of control that would occur if women had autonomy over their own bodies could upend this entire system predicated on male ownership over women’s bodies. This is why this slogan is so crucial for women’s emancipation — the very idea of women taking ownership over their own bodies wrests control away from men and that is what we must do. Because enough is enough! Men should not have the right to decide whether a woman is allowed to live, whether she can go to school, who she marries and when, whether she can drive or wear colorful clothes or laugh openly. Our existence and freedoms should not be dependent on whether the men in our lives, in our society or in our government ‘allow’ it.
As the video of the unfortunate woman being assaulted by scores of men on Independence Day circulated on social media the top trending hashtag in response was ‘Not All Men’. This tells us where men’s priorities lie even amid the evidence staring them in the face. Do all men assault, rape, trap and control women? Of course not. But all men could if they chose to and they would face no consequences for it.
As things stand, the choice of whatever happens to a woman’s body ultimately, always rests with a man. It should not. It must not.