A FRIEND reminded me on Sunday morning that our friendship has been going strong for 40 years. Not a mean feat for two single women who haven’t lived in the same continent for three decades and who are very different personalities. She is the brilliant academic who has more friends and social and political commitments than years in our age and I am the laid-back journalist/sub-editor whose friends can be counted on one’s fingertips. Un-camouflaged grey hair aplenty we do have in common, as well as schooling.
We both studied at Lahore Grammar School in the 1980s where we learnt about the Hudood Ordinances and Kathak dance from the intrepid women who were among the founders of WAF; we knew about women rights long before we understood them.
We spoke on Sunday about the death of Rubina Saigol (whom Saadia, my friend, was close to), and inevitably the conversation moved on to women in Pakistan and the recent, depressing events — the constant barrage of incidents of violence against women, especially the most recent one at the Minar-i-Pakistan. Had things ever been this bad, we wondered.
Sometimes, it does seem as if they cannot get worse. The present weeks, especially in the backdrop of what is happening in Afghanistan, are among those moments when it seems as if we have not progressed at all. In fact, this is what seems to be the mood.
Even in today’s polarised times, women-friendly laws can bring parties together in parliament.
But in such moments, I remember a recent comment made by another brilliant woman Nazish Brohi, on Dawn News, some weeks ago. Speaking of change, she had reminded the rest of us who were present of Samia Sarwar. In 1999, Samia was shot dead at AGHS Lahore by a man who had accompanied her mother there for a meeting with the daughter. Samia had left her husband (and her parents’ home afterwards) for she wanted a divorce and then remarriage. Her parents didn’t approve, to put it mildly.
But the matter didn’t end with the ‘honour killing’ at the legal aid office. A resolution condemning her murder was rejected by the Senate, except for four men — Iqbal Haider, Aitzaz Ahsan, Hussain Shah Rashdi of the PPP, and MQM’s Jamiluddin Aali. The rest opposed it; and the decision was not individual but made at the party level, for most.
Nazish Brohi reminded us of how far we have come since then; laws have since been passed against this ‘tradition’, supported by some of the very parties which blocked the resolution that day. Society, culture and politics have changed much since then, she said.
It’s been quite a few weeks since she said this but her words continue to resonate, especially when the news brings little hope, at present.
Even in today’s polarised times, it is usually progressive legislation including women-friendly laws, which can bring the parties together in parliament, the terrible decision of the PTI to send the domestic violence bill to the Council of Islamic Ideology notwithstanding. Indeed, I take heart in the fact that PTI and the opposition parties are constantly accusing each other of having plagiarised their draft bills where such legislation is concerned; this is one political bickering I can live with, rather than the one about who is more acceptable or unacceptable to the powers that be.
It wasn’t just the politicians then; two years before Samia’s death, three judges couldn’t even unanimously agree that a woman had the right to marry of her own will (one dissented) in the Saima Waheed case, when a young woman decided to marry without her parents’ permission and was taken to court by her father. The judgement let Saima Waheed be but it took till 2003 for the higher courts to finalise this right.
Can one say that we have come a long way, for by 2021, a court outlawed the two-finger test in rape cases, a decision which we could discuss and hail on talk shows. Would this have been possible in the 1990s, the decision or the discussion?
But none of this is meant to discount the growing cases of violence. Child abuse, domestic violence, rape, harassment (in public areas as well as more private ones), and brutal murders, each day brings more such news. For many, this is a sign of growing intolerance or radicalisation.
The answer may be a complex one, to be answered by those who study such phenomena. But can unqualified people such as myself venture to say this is linked to a rapidly changing society? As Saadia once explained, domestic violence increases when women begin to earn; for the empowerment it brings has to be resisted, violently.
Perhaps in a similar way, the increased violence, reported incidents and the vicious language used against women are a reaction of those who are invested in the status quo.
Female TikTok stars, women reporters, commentators on social media, politicians, and even the young women who want to shout about the harassment on the streets are challenging accepted social norms. An ordinary middle-class woman who is not an actor but who still wants to make public short videos of herself à la a film star; a young woman who is harassed on the streets and wants to fight back rather than keep quiet as we were told to do; the Twitter user who thinks she has the right to be as angry and as loud as the men on social media — each one of them offers a challenge to many who continue to believe that the past was better because the ‘weaker’ gender was told to accept injustice — cruelty, silently. Tradition and religion were used to justify their power.
As the incomparable Arif Hasan wrote in this paper on Sunday, “…the emergence of woman in public and professional life is the most important change that has taken place in Pakistani society”.
Perhaps this is also why Punjab appears the worst where violence against women is concerned, for the most urbanised province may be experiencing this conflict the most intensely. I don’t know if Saadia was convinced entirely by my half-baked thoughts though she did say she loved that I was not jaded! But then to live in Pakistan, one has to remember how far we have come, as well as the miles left to go.
The writer is a journalist.
Published in Dawn, August 31st, 2021