THIS year, just like every year, UN Women is commemorating 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence from Nov 25 to Dec 10. This annual observance is meant to focus renewed attention on the fact that women live in a world that has been made unsafe largely by men.
Naturally, the women that are at the forefront of global conflict face the direst circumstances. The UN has estimated that two-thirds of the casualties in Gaza are women and children. Those who have not died are facing tremendous emotional, mental and physical trauma. Many women have lost children or husbands and their testimonies are all over TikTok and other social media platforms.
Of the two million people displaced by the conflict, women are facing the most difficult circumstances because there is no clean water or sanitation available anywhere in the Gaza Strip because of Israel’s merciless siege and bombing campaign. It is inevitable that the women who survive the conflict will be the ones to bear most of the burden of salvaging what is left of their families amid the most traumatic of circumstances.
For the rest of the world’s women, things are not much better. According to a UN report, almost 89,000 women were killed last year. It said that 55 per cent “of all female homicides are committed by family members or intimate partners…”. It is quite likely that these statistics do not even capture the full number of femicides. The number is chilling because in the popular imagination few would think that the vast majority of young women who die in the Americas, which means North and South America, die at the hands of men they know and love. The tragedy of these statistics is that despite the dark reality they represent, most people living in societies in which these crimes occur do not pay much attention to them.
All cultures have the ability to stop excusing male behaviour and looking away from the suffering of women.
This is especially true of North America, and particularly the US. Being an affluent and white-majority country, most in America think that women have it better there than women in South Asia and the Middle East where they would be subjected to, for instance, ‘honour’ crimes committed by family members. The horrible murder of the young girl in Kohistan in Pakistan (this is, in fact, true of most cases of honour killing) is given big media coverage to underscore this point for the benefit of women living in the US. Focusing on the women ‘there’ allows the focus to be shifted from those who should be working harder to prevent intimate partner violence and provide better security for women.
This does not excuse men in places like Kohistan or anywhere else in Pakistan where women are killed on the basis of dodgy viral videos that purportedly go against the tribal code and curbs that conservative societies have decided to impose on women. The unspeakable tragedy of this most recent case is that, according to the police, the viral video contained a doctored image of the girl. The remote region and the tight-knit community means that it will quite likely be extremely difficult to establish whether tribal elders ordered the men, who are considered suspects in the murder, to carry out the horrible crime.
Activism around honour killings also needs to change its strategy in Pakistan. It is crucial to remember that the reason these crimes are called ‘honour crimes’, while those in the West are referred to as ‘intimate partner violence’, is a colonial mindset. It is the latter that suggests that femicides taking place in countries like Pakistan are endemic to the culture and are thus ‘honour crimes’.
This is in contrast to when crimes that are remarkably similar in both circumstances and frequency are committed in white and Western cultures. The term ‘intimate partner violence’ is a sterilised one that even neglects to mention that women have actually been killed. The point of such sterilisation is to underscore the point that when a crime takes place in, say, Vancouver or Washington state (where a man recently killed his wife, daughters and brother-in-law) or Alaska, which last year and several years before it, had the highest femicide rate among American states, these are not a cultural problem but rather represent an aberration. This is contrary to the reality that one of the top causes of death for women under 35 in the US is intimate partner violence. Just like honour killings enjoy a degree of community tolerance, so too does intimate partner violence as the money allocated to prevent such crimes in America decreases every year even as the cases rise.
The point of 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence this year should be to further a decolonised form of activism around feminism which focuses on the common thread that whether it is so-called honour or ego (which is inevitably behind intimate partner violence) it is male violence against women that is being excused.
All cultures, because they are controlled by men, are complicit in the deaths of women. Similarly, all cultures have the ability to stop excusing male behaviour and looking away from the suffering of women. These sorts of territorial divisions do no favours to women anywhere. Women living in Pakistan need to believe in the fact that their culture is perfectly capable of condemning all forms of violence against women and taking swift and fast action against murderous men.
It is time that the annual 16 days of gender activism is decolonised so that it is not sidetracked by colonial precepts that suggest that white and Western cultures are somehow more capable of being gender equal and committed to gender justice than the ‘savage’ cultures they colonised.
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.
Published in Dawn, December 6th, 2023