July issue 2016

By | Speaker's Corner | Published 8 months ago

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A strange old status quo exists in Pakistan, where men, spurred by decades of patriarchy and misogyny in a male-dominated, male-centred, male-oriented society, feel that they are well within their rights to verbally, or even physically, shoot down female opinions that violate their fragile sense of manhood. This vicious cycle has roots stretching as far back as documented or imaged history goes, and its latest manifestation in Pakistan has been nothing short of ugly.

On June 10, 2016, Marvi Sirmed, a rights activist, Senator Hafiz Hamdullah of Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F), Barrister Masroor Shah, law expert, and Fayyaz Ul Hassan Chohan of the PTI were invited on a talk show by a leading channel to speak on the usurpation of women’s rights and the rising tide of honour killings. In his opening remarks, Chohan remarked that the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) chairman, JUI-F’s Muhammad Khan Sherani, was silent and passive on the issue, albeit in a manner that was inflammatory, insinuating that Sherani was in a deep slumber induced by bhang. Sirmed said she agreed that the Council had been passive, but before she could elaborate, Hamdullah interjected. The ensuing argument was vicious, insalivated, and disgraceful. The senator repeatedly stated that he would not allow her to speak, while Sirmed shot back in defiance. Sirmed further claims that the senator tried to physically assault her, and threatened to disrobe her and her mother. The former of these claims has been corroborated by the third guest on the show.

The publicly-leaked video clips show both sides getting hysterical – and ultimately, unreasonable. But it is important to understand where they crucially differ. Hamdullah is a sitting Senator, a member of the far right-wing religious party, JUI-F. Sirmed is a rights activist, and has worked with various organisations over the course of her career, including the United Nations Development Programme. The former enjoys immense clout both by virtue of his position as a legislator, and as the flag-bearer of a religious ideology that fuels and influences a range of social behaviours and patterns in the country. The latter is known as a liberal and enjoys prestige as a vocal female member of society. The former is often lambasted by the left for his religious beliefs and ideology, and the latter for her liberal agenda. The former feels entitled by virtue of being a man. The latter is `disadvantaged’ by virtue of being a woman. And therein lies the critical difference. A defiant woman has to fend off an aggressive, misogynist, who does not expect a fight.

The range of invectives hurled by the ‘honourable’ Senator reveals deep-seated detestation of the elevation of women into anything more than submissive, docile housewives. “You are behaving like a husband,” he said. “You should behave like a woman.” The Senator, it seems, got a first-hand lesson on how women will behave when confronted with oppression and overt patriarchy. This abuse turned abhorrent, according to Sirmed, with vile profanities spewing from the Senator, resulting in a guest and several staffers escorting him out of the studio.

The right wing was quick to find a way to demonise Sirmed, and people on social media posted picture collages calling both Sirmed and Hamdullah extremists, albeit of different persuasions. Sirmed herself registered a First Information Report (FIR) with the local police in Islamabad, over verbal abuse and attempted physical assault (sections 506 and 354 of the PPC). Two days later, the Senator had to obtain pre-arrest bail to avoid being put behind bars. The South Asian Free Media Association (SAFMA) filed a petition against the senator, requesting the Senate to form an inquiry committee, and the JUI-F head Maulana Fazl-ur-Rehman to take notice. Parliamentarian Shireen Mazari also raised the issue on the floor of the house, having been recently been subjected to ridicule and mockery herself in the National Assembly by none other than the Federal Minister for Water, Power and Defence, Khawaja Asif. I had a lot of trouble getting in touch with Sirmed. It turns out she has had to change her phone number and shut down the previous SIM card as she has been receiving despicable texts and profanity-laced phone calls – some even from Saudi Arabia – since the incident.

Misogyny is ubiquitous in Pakistan. Sitting lawmakers have called the live burial of females in Balochistan on charges of immoral conduct a “matter of tradition.” The head of the CII has stated that husbands can beat their wives. Over a thousand women were killed in 2015 in the name of honour. And the killings continue unabated in 2016.

Sirmed’s struggle is a primal one. Women in Pakistan have had to endure male dominance and patriarchy for generations, while male privilege has been accumulated, hoarded and passed on as a prized possession.

The most significant development came four days after this shameful incident. On June 14, 2016, in a surprising move the CII announced that honour killings were ‘un-Islamic and against the law of land.’ This would have been a laudable statement, had it not resulted from the following three factors.

First, a national controversy erupted from the CII’s passivity on the issue, one that resulted in the verbal and alleged physical assault on Sirmed. The CII thus had their hand forced by the Senator’s turpitude. Second, just two weeks earlier, the CII had presented the ‘Model Women’s Protection Bill’ that allowed for husbands beating wives, and proposed segregation of genders in schools, hospitals and offices. And finally, two days before the incident, opposition Senator, Farhatullah Babar, had called for the abolishment of the CII, labeling it “dangerously irrelevant” and “medieval nonsense at public expense.” Naturally, the CII felt compelled to generate some goodwill and win support by stating the blatantly obvious.

Such half-baked measures will not root out ingrained notions of male superiority and eminence. How does one convince generations of dominant males that bigotry, chauvinism and prejudice are, in fact, undesirable elements in a tolerant, diverse, and prosperous society? There are no easy answers, and this is a long, arduous fight. And we need a lot of many activists like Marvi Sirmed and parliamentarians like Farhatullah Babar to walk the talk.