Men’s violence against women in Pakistan: will the narrative ever change?
Lina Idrees reflects on the recent spotlighted cases of gender-based violence in Pakistan and its enduring narrative which has preserved a culture of impunity.
TW: sexual violence, rape
Over the last few weeks, protests erupted in Pakistan with individuals demanding justice for the recent murders of Noor Mukadam, Saima Ali, and Quratulain. In a country where femicide is as widespread as it is devastatingly commonplace, another string of women’s names turned into hashtags on my Twitter and Instagram feeds came as no surprise. Men’s violence against women is not only terribly normalised but its enduring narrative pushed by the torchbearers of our country has preserved a culture of impunity.
Men’s violence against women is not only terribly normalised but its enduring narrative pushed by the torchbearers of our country has preserved a culture of impunity.
Prime Minister Imran Khan blamed ‘obscenity’ and the lack of ‘pardah’ (veiling) for the rise of sexual violence in Pakistan during a Q&A with the public earlier this year. He recently attempted to clarify these statements by asserting the victim is never to blame, but the head of government continued to link sexual violence to ‘temptation’. Maintaining that it is the duty of women to reduce temptation is not only false, it is detrimental as it upholds the notion that women are culpable and men who commit acts of sexual violence are simply acting on their impulses.
How and why has this culture of impunity become the norm for us in Pakistan?
“The epidemic of sexual crimes and violence against women in Pakistan is a silent epidemic. No one sees it. No one is talking about it.”Tahira Abdullah
In response to the high-profile gang-rape case of Mukhtaran Mai in 2002, former President Pervez Musharraf called rape in Pakistan a ‘money-making concern’ and told the Washington Post that rape was a ‘curse’ that was ‘everywhere in the world’. Almost two decades later our Prime Minister used the same words when asked about the rise in sex crimes in Pakistan. He referred to the issue as some of the ‘odd cases’ which happen ‘everywhere in the world’. Although our leaders do condemn the horrifying reality of the immeasurable cases of gendered violence, it is simply not enough. They consequently ignore the institutional problems in Pakistan which have bred systems that enable men to commit acts of violence against women with impunity. This cannot be the standard for the leaders of a country where over 1,000 women are murdered in the name of ‘honour’ each year.
Although our leaders do condemn the horrifying reality of the immeasurable cases of gendered violence, it is simply not enough.
I recently watched Dr. Jackson Katz’s viral Ted Talk about language within the current discourse of gender-based violence and was absolutely blown away by his candid speech. What started off as a simple grammatical error translated into an entire ‘paradigm shift’ – one which urgently needs to be addressed. How we talk about violence against women – even in a grammatical sense – is critical to bringing males into discussions of gender-based violence. In a conversation with Jameela Jamil, Dr. Katz explains that language structures thought and people understand the world through their interpretation and narration of the world. What he eloquently puts forward is that the current way in which we talk about the subject of gender-based violence is keeping us in an unproductive framework – one which leaves males out of the conversation entirely.
Males are absent from our language in the way we discuss and therefore think about the nature of gendered violence. What Dr. Katz puts forward is that it is impossible to allude to accountability if the language we use is passive because the ‘perpetrators’ are almost never implicated and therefore almost never held accountable.
In a similar vein, our leaders use words that deflect blame and responsibility of perpetrators which inevitably extends to political and state institutions. It is manifested in the mindset that believes the knee-jerk response of capital punishment is an appropriate form of ‘justice’ for heinous sex crimes. The language used by authorities in response to victims of sexual assault contributes to the stigma of reporting cases of rape and sexual assault due to fear of retribution and shame. The language used by members of our government like Imran Khan and members of our police force like Umer Sheikh has the effect of maintaining a harmful narrative of sexual and gender-based violence which has preserved a culture of impunity and continues to legitimise systems that enable perpetrators.
Until we achieve a shift in this narrative we must continue to support movements like the Aurat March whose organisers and participants are a symbol of resistance and represent a change in Pakistan’s social paradigm. NGOs like War Against Rape whose members hold workshops with stakeholders in the criminal justice system to educate them on the special needs of survivors of sexual and gender-based violence. Artists like Misha Japanwala whose work serves as a strong and necessary reminder of women’s bodily autonomy and addresses issues such as domestic violence and honour killings in Pakistan. Lawyers like Tahera Hasan, whose boundless work includes providing women with appropriate healthcare and enables communities through various medical camps in order to make informed decisions regarding health, family planning, and childbirth.
Revolutionary change in Pakistan requires the modification of government policies, laws, and education systems. To the same extent, it requires a change in mindset to instigate institutional change across Pakistan’s political, legal, and social landscape.
Revolutionary change in Pakistan requires the modification of government policies, laws, and education systems. To the same extent, it requires a change in mindset to instigate institutional change across Pakistan’s political, legal, and social landscape. A change in the way our leaders respond to cases of sexual and gender-based violence may shift the narrative from complete indifference and acceptability towards one which prioritises reform and reimagines justice to make a positive impact on the lives of women in Pakistan.