Is violence against women now an accepted norm?

“A man with the help of his grandfather axed to death his mother, sister and their lover in Kot Mangu, some 50kms from [Gujrat], on Thursday evening … with repeated blows of axes.”  (Dawn, 22nd October 2004) The murder of Saima Sarwar, daughter of a prominent industrialist in the North-West Frontier Province, in her lawyer’s Lahore office “passed like a swift wind, leaving the perpetrators untouched and guiltless of a grisly crime.  A precedent had been set by the state, judiciary and civil society that ‘honour killings’ would continue to remain above the law, human rights and religion.”  (Newsline, June 2003, p 83) Saima’s family felt her disobedience in seeking to divorce her abusive husband was a threat to their honour. 

Violence perpetrated against a woman in Pakistan begins from her birth where in some tribal areas it is received with greetings such as “‘Khuday day sharam parda o satee’ (May God preserve your honour), ‘Sart toray mashay’ (May you never lose your veil or purdah) and ‘Naik bukhta day shee’ (May she grow up to be pious).” (Newsline, June 2003, p78) The slapping of a woman is not considered to be an act of violence, and many women are themselves groomed to believe they deserve violence inflicted on them.

Domestic violence is largely hidden and deemed to be a private matter that does not belong in the courts. Many women do not understand that violence is a crime and are often subject to brutalisation not only by their husbands but also in-laws in the extended family. In a 1998 study on violence against women aimed at understanding the magnitude of violence against women and its dynamics “thirty percent of rural women and 17 percent of urban women, i.e. one fifth of the respondents, reported physical abuse by their husbands.” (Rashida Patel, Woman versus Man, p 115) The counter argument is often that Islam allows a husband to beat his wife.

Cases of women being burnt by stoves or acid are regularly reported in the press. Victims are left grotesquely disfigured with injuries covering more than 30 percent of their bodies and often as much as 60, 70 and 90 percent. “The nature of [stove burn] injuries, the position of the victim in the family (she is usually a daughter-in-law, or a daughter to be married), and the frequency with which these ‘accidents’ occur provide circumstantial evidence of a grim pattern; that these women are burnt not by accident, but are victims of deliberate murder.” (Madadgaar’s Press Release, 24 January 2002 ‘223 women died due to burn injuries during the year 2001)

Many victims of rape cannot find redress for their grievance through the judicial system.  In fact, the victim becomes the criminal under the Zina Ordinance. Failure to produce 4 male witnesses to the criminal act of rape the woman finds herself charge with adultery and imprisoned. Her admission of rape constitutes an admission of adultery. Women who seek the help of the law often find themselves victims of violence perpetrated by the custodians of the law. Reported cases of custodial rape have led the Government to issue a number of directives regarding the arrest of women, but practically little seems to have changed.

The eleven years between 1977 and 1988 are considered some of darkest for women in Pakistan’s history. Under the rule of General Zia-ul-Haq “women were systematically attacked through discriminatory legislation, an unsympathetic judiciary and a brutally prejudiced executive.” (Herald, January 2002, p 130 ‘In their own right’) The women’s movement in Pakistan rallied, agitating openly against the state-sponsored brutalisation of women under this regime. They took to the streets, vigorously opposing the legalisation of violence against women. The core issues that sparked the rebellion against General Zia and led to mass agitation remain very much the same today, however it appears the struggle for women’s rights has been diluted and lost its focus.

Violent acts being perpetrated against women in Pakistan have roots in cultural norms, extreme patriarchal formations in society, socio-economic strictures, religious ideologies, laws that allow such violence to be perpetuated, and a state that is hostage to fundamentalist philosophies and ideologies. Violence has been increasing, despite a growth in the number of women’s NGOs seeking to work at a grassroots level to instigate real change. 

Identity: Women are not schizophrenic

Women have multiple identities, raising the question as to when these different identities are articulated. The family is where definitions of gender are most immediately experienced, identity defined in part in the tasks she is assigned. Society and state articulate her gender within a framework of cultural symbolism, as the bearer of cultural authenticity. Farida Shaheed argues this is particularly so in Muslims states which have lacked a coherent ideology concerning their independence. Men rely on Islam and therefore require women as the markers of their cultural identity. The legacy of colonial domination has been a crisis of identity that has trapped women in struggles over culture.

Identity has a material shape embodying beliefs and behavioural patterns that order society. As identity is translated into tangible norms and customs, pre-existing social structures and power relations are pivotal in determining social customs and religions practices. Whereas it can be argued identity is a means of autonomous self-expression its manipulation is a means of control. Manderson and Bennett say “hegemonic constructions of gender are pivotal in the formation of women’s and men’s social identities, their personal subjectivities, their status and the power dynamics of female/male relations.” (Bennet and Manderson, 2003:11) Social control is exercised through notions of what is respectable and what is not. As repositories of their family honour it is family interpretations of religious and social values that are central determinants for the lives of women.

The inter-relationship of religion, class, law and society forms multiple layers of identity for a Muslim woman within an Islamic framework. Culture, customs, religion and law define the space available for self-definition and are the strands woven into formation of identity. Within this framework there are two levels at which gender identity is experienced and defined, the public arena of political discourse and the personal everyday existence. Gender and the position of women becomes politicised where religious, cultural, ethnic and national identity are under pressure.

A woman’s actions, her self-affirmation and desire for change must be negotiated within these boundaries.

Facing Culture and Religion – the case of Samia Sarwar

The broad-daylight, cold-blooded murder, in April 1999, of Samia Sarwar by her family in the office and presence of her lawyer Hina Jilani, a leading human right’s lawyer and activist and UN Special Representative to the Secretary General on Human Rights Defenders, shocked and stunned many in Pakistan. That her family would so boldly shoot her dead was seen as indicative of their belief that they would not face prosecution or even condemnation for the deed. There was a storm of protest with human rights activists storming the Civil Secretariat the following day demanding justice.

But the country was divided. In a Special Bulletin, ‘The Dark Side of Honour’, by Shirkat Gah (part of the international network ‘Women Living Under Muslim Law’) Rabia Ali writes that members of the Senate refused to pass a resolution condemning the murder, arguing that honour killings were part of their ‘cultural traditions’ (Ali, 2001). The NWFP Chamber of Commerce and religious organizations added their voice, declaring her killing ‘in keeping with tribal laws’ (Ali, 2001). The Ulema went so far as to declare Asma Jehangir, one of Pakistan’s leading human rights lawyers and a founding member of the Women’s Action Forum (WAF), and Hina Jilani infidels deserving to be killed because they were misleading Pakistan’s women and contributing to the country’s bad image abroad. Public support for the honour killing was said to be overwhelming in the NWFP because it was deemed to be in accordance with tradition and therefore not a crime.

Government inaction on honour killings was publicly exposed by this event. Honour killings were placed firmly on the public agenda and women’s organizations and activists were able to publicly engage on the issue. It was a local flashpoint with international ramifications. The Centre for Islamic and Middle Eastern Law at SOAS and the International Centre for Legal Protection of Human Rights convened a conference in November 1999 to look at the question of honour killings. In the summary report produced from this ‘Roundtable on strategies to address ‘crimes of honour’’ they state explicitly that “the project was initiated in response to the murders of Samia Sarwar in Pakistan and Rukhsana Naz in the UK in early 1999 and the explicit articulation of an ‘honour’-based defence by the alleged perpetrators in each case.” (Welchman, 2000)

WAF, Shirkat Gah and other human rights bodies issued press releases condemning the murder and calling for action. Asma Jehangir filed an FIR (First Incident Report) and demanded a Government enquiry into 300 cases of honour killings for the previous year. There was no response. Women were confronted with the realities of cultural norms given religious weight in condoning crimes against them. In October 2004 the government rejected legislation introduced into parliament by Sherry Rehman, an opposition MNA, seeking to articulate clearly the criminal nature of honour killings. Kashmala Tariq, an MNA belonging the then ruling party, put up a private members bill in March 2005 seeking to prevent those accused of honour killings from winning impunity through the provision of diyat, or blood money, but this too was dismissed by the National Assembly. Culture and tradition are not willing to give up their right to sanctioned violence against women.

The process of negotiation is fraught with difficulties but the Samia Sarwar incident showed how culture and religion, when they become intertwined, are a toxic mix for women.