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. 

Women’s rights at the intersection of politics and religion

In a fascinating book called Women in Place Nazanin Shahrokhni[1] has done a wonderful exploration of what happens when women’s rights are caught at the intersection of politics and religion. In this ethnographic study of women’s spaces in Iran, buses, parks and a football stadium, she highlights the pulls and pushes women rights face in the changing relationship between politics and religion. Her study goes further though, it demonstrates the agentic power of women when their rights are caught in these crosswinds.

Whereas the leaders of the Iranian revolution sought to control women by excluding them to private spaces, they were forced to renegotiate what that meant when economic, social and political pressures demanded these spaces be reconfigured. The language of control changed from that of religious and moral necessity to the state as protector and provider. Whatever the language, control of women through boundary making underpinned it all.

At the same time women were able to use that language to blur the edges of these constructued boundaries and call for greater freedoms. Places of contestation at this intersection of politics and religion became sites of negotiation and change.

Could we say that these spaces of contestation become liminal spaces for women’s renegotiating place, identity and belonging?

Expanding educational, work, leisure and economic opportunities along with shifts in political, social and economic imperatives continually rupture constructions of gender and rights. They bring new insights into the liminality of the space at the intersection of politics and religion that is inhabited by women, throwing open, albeit semi-controlled, spaces for transition and change.

Richard Rohr has described liminality as ‘where we are betwixt and between the familiar and the completely unknown. There alone is our old world left behind, while we are not yet sure of the new existence. That’s a good space where genuine newness can begin…[2]

In a changing world, where economic and political pressures, globalisation, social change, education and technology are creating ever-changing waves of pressure women’s rights can appear to be blown away and lost in the midst of it all. Where we can see these intersections and contestations as liminal spaces, we see women’s agency rewriting their future in the shadows of these power tussles.


[1] Shahrokni, Nazanin. Women in Place: The Politics of Gender Segregation in Iran, University of California Press, Oakland, 2020.

[2] Quoted in https://inaliminalspace.org/about-us/what-is-a-liminal-space/. Accessed 25.01.2022

Are human rights Western?

When cultural traditions come under pressure women appear to face greater demands to be the bearers of ‘cultural authenticity’.  While discourses of feminism and Human Rights can become wedges of opportunity for women to raise demands and negotiate for change in gender relations, women’s organizations and activists embracing them are open to charges of succumbing to the seductions of the West and its cultural imperialism.

Many Muslim women activists seek some kind of accommodation with religious belief because of its critical role in local culture.  Shaheen Sardar Ali, in her book ‘Gender and Human Rights in Islam and International Law: Equal before Allah, Unequal before Men?’ articulates a perspective for understanding the rights of Muslim women within Islamic tradition.  She locates Muslim women within the “concentric rings of religion, class, law, and society that form the multiple layers of her identity and encompass her from the moment she is born”[1].

In such a culture, where feminism and cultural authenticity are deemed mutually exclusive categories, what framework can women’s activists and organizations use to negotiate for change? There is a need to search for a more culturally authentic genealogy of women’s right.

Western human rights discourse emphasises an individual construct of self that does not resonate in many Muslim countries where the construct of selfhood is relational and specific connections with others privileges access to rights. Talal Asad, in his work on human rights, argues that the language of human rights that is based on notions of redemptive emancipation is not only unhelpful, but provides a frame for its use for imperialistic purposes[2].

A culture with a relational notion of national identity and a relational notion of rights requires an alternate approach to ethical dilemmas. The feminist ‘ethic of care’ complements ethical theories that extol justice and autonomy as the ultimate goal.  It informs a moral endeavour to ‘alleviate the real and recognizable trouble in the world’ through interpersonal connections.   Rather than demanding rights and rules for all, it champions avoidance of harm for all, advocating responsibility in relationship.  It celebrates difference, contrasting the inherent demand for universalism within the impersonal justice and autonomy models.

Given the ongoing challenge to addressing gender violence, is it time to consider a new narrative of human rights?


[1] Sardar Ali, S. (2000). Gender and Human Rights in Islam and International Law: Equal Before Allah, Unequal Before Men. The Hague: Kluwer Law International. p. 89

[2] Asad, T. (2000). What Do Human Rights Do?  An Anthropological Enquiry. Theory and Event, 4(4).

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.