More than in most countries, women are brutally oppressed and exploited in Pakistan. They are oppressed by men because they are considered much less than their equals. They are exploited because they are either not paid for the work they do at home or paid a great deal less than men for the same sort of professional work.
But the burden of fifty million women isn’t confined to social and economic discrimination alone. Of a more menacing and immediate proportion than their daily toil and sweat is the crass violence in their lives.
This brutality against women takes many bizarre forms in this country which are far removed from the ethos of any civilised society. To focus on only the most vicious of these, there is this flourishing business of trading in poor women who have desperately trudged hundreds of miles from Bangladesh or Bihar to find a home for their families here; then there is the gruesome ‘fact’ of ‘stove-deaths’ — hundreds of young women are murdered or pushed to committee suicide every month by disgruntled in-laws or incensed husbands and their ‘cases’ are callously abandoned in police files marked ‘Accidents’; the most base incidents are those in which women, forced to bear the brunt of societal tensions, are stripped, paraded in the streets and gang-raped in front of kith and kin. In all cases, the police is either a silent spectator or willing accomplice of those who perpetrate such dastardly acts.
But it still comes as a shock when the highest police officer of the province can coolly remark that perhaps the brutalised victims were asking for trouble — a despicable line of argument no less villainous than the lawless rationale for ‘police encounters’.
Women’s organisations, though they are too few to be terribly effective, are absolutely right in demanding an unqualified apology from the Punjab Inspector-General of Police. Sadly, however, it appears that the gentleman (sic) in question has complied with orders from above rather than affected a change in heart or attitude by seeming to backtrack.
There is also talk of establishing some sort of a cell in the Crimes Branch of the Punjab Police Department to monitor such crimes against women. We are informed that this cell will comprise officers of the police and members of various women’s organisations. We should be thankful for small mercies — at least the police has been forced to acknowledge that there is indeed a serious problem which needs to be addressed. Nor should cynics be allowed to shrug this development away by arguing that not much will come if it. To identify a crime means being able to publicise it and the press has always responded by pressurising the police to do something about it. This is a small step for society but a big one for millions of helpless women who have no one to plead their agonies.
It is perfectly understandable why Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has been in a reckless hurry to pass the 12th amendment to the constitution. A deteriorating ‘law and order’ situation — dacoities, kidnappings and terrorism — spells trouble for the longevity of his regime and his pet project of privatisation. But there is little, if anything, by way of any serious government resolve to combat increasing incidents of crime and violence against women in this country.
We are opposed to special courts with special laws which undermine due process. We are also opposed to the death penalty, much less public executions and hangings.We do not believe widespread crime can simply be deterred by harsh punishments and a more powerful police force. A more fruitful approach might be to strengthen civil society by making the social contract between the rulers and the ruled, between men and women, more credible.
One aspect of the social contract is to emancipate the lives of women in this country. The state should encourage women to work, to be educated, independent, assertive, creative and self-reliant. Once they are on the road to economic and political equality with men, some of the more blatant forms of violence against women will not be sustainable. Women will be better able to stand up and fight for their rights rather than remain a cowering half of humanity.
Unfortunately, this government is a prisoner to the most hypocritical, illiterate, sectarian and backward elements in our political spectrum who are determined to drag everyone — men and women — into the dark ages. Even as he promises to deliver us the new century, the prime minister opportunistically cowtows to all their absurd and reactionary demands in the name of ‘Islamisation’.
We commit violence not merely against women when we reduce them to the level of primitive beings but against all of humanity. How one half of Pakistan dies everyday should be of greater concern to us than how the other half manages to survive.