Ms Afifa Iqbal has a keen interest in identity politics, colonialism and post-colonial development. She is currently working as a Research Assistant at ITU while pursuing her postgraduate studies in Development, Technology and Policy. She is a Gold Medalist in Political Science from the University of Punjab.
“Abandon all hope ye who enter here”. Dante might as well have said it for women in Pakistan. Gender-based violence, be it sexual, psychological, or physical, cuts across every boundary of class, caste, region, and religion in Pakistan. It is, in fact, the defining feature of the lived experiences of the majority of women.
While it can be argued that indexes like Gender Parity Index are descriptive and do not capture every detail of women’s experiences, they can still provide policymakers with a general idea of the state of affairs.
Pakistan’s constant ranking as the worst or second worst in the Global Gender Gap Report should have been the clarion call for urgent action. However, the recent incident in which two men gang-raped a woman in one of the most prominent and supposedly safe parks in the country tells a somber story of criminal negligence and inaction.
That the rapists were then killed in a police encounter makes the matter even worse. If they were an unfortunate casualty, then, they died without facing the music, but if their demise was attributable to encounter killing, then it is a damning indictment of our justice system that has failed victims of gender-based violence time and again.
F9 Incident: The Tangible and the Intangible
Every act of gender-based violence has two components: the actual, tangible, and in-the-flesh act, and the intangible that stretches far and wide in the temporal plane. It is relatively easy (or one can argue less difficult) to identify the physical act of violence as compared to the intangible convictions and ideas that drive it.
There is agreement that two men raped a woman on the 2nd of February in Fatima Jinnah Park (otherwise known as F9 Park). It has also been established that the men used a gun to threaten and force the victim to comply, and further threatened to “invite” their friends to rape her if she did not stop resisting and screaming.
Everybody is also in agreement that after raping her, the perpetrators offered her 1000 rupees to stop her from reporting the crime and told her that she should not have been out in the park in the late hours. However, that’s where the agreements as well as the “facts” of the case end. Where the “facts” end, the reality of women’s lived experiences in this country begins.
The intangible beliefs—formed over centuries—that drive gender-based violence attempt to paint the incident as an unfortunate confluence of a few factors: the perfect victim, the perpetrators, and the opportunity to act out the criminal intentions. The repressive cultural practices and distorted religious notions about women’s social positioning, which have formed the collective memory and entitled attitude of most men towards women, are brushed off as inconsequential abstractions cooked up by western-funded feminists. That, of course, is hardly the case.
The belief that men are the grand patrons of women is one of the chief drivers of gender-based violence, particularly sexual violence. This belief stems from the notion that men occupy a superior social and intellectual position as compared to women leading to the sub-humanization of women. This belief also means that the only women considered worthy of ‘patronage and protection’ are those related to the man.
The behavior of the rapists personified this belief. To them, the woman was not human enough, as reflected in their degrading actions. She also was not related to them so they could violate her without having it on their conscience, and they were also patronizing towards her in stating that she should not be out at that late hour.
The warped notion of respectability is another belief that perpetuates gender-based violence. Day in and day out, women in professional settings and domestic spaces, are reminded of their good fortune for being born in the East, where men are still ‘ghairatmand’ and know how to show respect to women. What is left out of these reminders is that men do not show ‘unconditional’ respect to women. Rather, they only respect women who embody a certain notion of ‘sharafat’: shalwar-kameez clad with dupatta aesthetically draped on their heads, minimal make-up, and confined within the four walls of their homes.
For working women, the notion of ‘sharafat’ dictates that they should not work late or stay out after Maghreb. The woman in the F9 incident defied these diktats and dared go for a stroll in the park at night and that too with a male colleague. This pushed her out of the respectability bracket for the rapists as well as the ensuing public opinion. To put it bluntly, what happened to her was wrong, but she was asking for it by staying out late.
What Sojourner Truth said in 1851 still rings true for Pakistani women in 2023:
“That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man – when I could get it – and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman?”
Rethinking Public Spaces for Women’s Safety
Every now and then, high-profile cases of gender-based violence lead to a plethora of op-eds, editorials, and talk shows focused on pushing for top-down reforms to curb the ever-increasing incidents of gender-based violence. There are protests and calls for urgent action as well. However, nothing substantial ever comes out of such efforts.
To pacify public outrage, cosmetic measures are implemented without addressing the deep-seated issues gnawing away at the humanity of women. The top-down approach to implementing reforms and carving out a space for women is not going to work. The substantial changes instrumental in changing the social positioning of women have to be brought up from the grass-roots level.
The manner in which gender-based violence, particularly incidents of sexual violence like rape, is talked about needs to change. It goes without saying that the mainstream media must stop sensationalizing such crimes. However, discussions about these incidents at dining tables, in drawing rooms, and around coffee must also be different. The use of passive voice to describe such incidents shifts the focus onto the victims, while the perpetrators conveniently fade into the background in public memory. As a result, these incidents remain forever associated with the victims, haunting them for the rest of their lives.
There needs to be a shift in the public discourse around these incidents. The intentional use of imperatives does not entail that the change has to happen overnight and all of a sudden, it entails that it has to start now. The self-righteous and entitled attitude of most men is partly a product of the higher value assigned to their actions and decisions at home, which then extends into the public sphere.
Many men feel entitled to women’s reproductive labor at home and productive labor in the workplace. In the words of Mary Wollstonecraft; “Who made man the exclusive judge, if woman partakes with him the gift of reason? In this style, argue tyrants of every denomination, from the weak king to the weak father of a family; they are all eager to crush reason; yet always assert that they usurp its throne only to be useful.”
Finally, women’s “right to the city” must be acknowledged and promoted. Women not only have a right to access public spaces but also to shape and create those spaces according to their needs and desires. ‘Girls at Dhabas’ was a wonderful initiative and so was the reclamation of F-9 Park by protestors in the wake of the F-9 incident.
“The right to the city is like a cry and a demand…cannot be conceived of as a simple visiting right… It can only be formulated as a transformed and renewed right to urban life…”
The women of Pakistan have lived in fear for decades, fearing for their lives, livelihoods, and survival. This fear stems from social structures that have elevated men to a position where they feel entitled to perpetrate acts of gender-based violence with impunity. This needs to end, but change must come from the grassroots level. Trickle-down change, like trickle-down economics, is not going to work.
If you want to submit your articles and/or research papers, please check the Submissions page.
The views and opinions expressed in this article/paper are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Paradigm Shift.