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Beyond tokenisms

Publication Date : 12-10-2012


The gruesome attack on Malala Yousufzai earlier this week has once and for all put to rest the myth that the Swat valley has exorcised its Taliban ghosts.

Military operations such as those which ostensibly cleansed the region of militancy typically represent an attempt to sweep the real problem under the carpet. And so it was in Swat, at least for the rest of us; only the people of the valley know exactly how much has changed in the "post-Taliban" era.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it took an attack on a somewhat high-profile personality for us to be reminded that we have a long way to go before we can claim definitive victory in the social, economic and ideological battles that must be waged against the twin evils of obscurantism and the delusional military establishment.

Yet it is not enough to be awoken from our stupor by short-sighted media coverage every once so often. We need to pay much more attention to the banal facts of daily life.

Ours is a patriarchal society par excellence. It is true that gender is a defining faultline in every part of the world but it would be collective self-deception of the worst kind to deny that we have succeeded in pushing women and girls to the absolute brink.

And it is not only in war-torn Swat or other staging grounds of the so-called "war on terror" that the situation is grim. Across class and ethnic divides, girls are taught from a young age to cater to the needs and requirements of men in the family, including their own siblings.

It is not only mothers, for instance, that feed their husbands and sons before thinking about filling their own stomachs; young girls will almost always defer to the real or perceived nutritional needs of their brothers and content themselves with what is left over.

While statistics on girls’ education have improved slightly over the years, educated boys remain the clear priority for most Pakistani families.

Those young women who do go on to study at the tertiary level are still mostly confined to stereotypically "feminine" professions, whereas an alarmingly large number — or their parents — link their acquisition of a degree to better marriage prospects.

Indeed many girls live out their lives simply waiting to be moved on from their father’s household to that of their husband’s.

And how many of those who do abide by "proper" marital norms are treated like human beings by their new families? It is impossible to say given the taboo associated with women leaving abusive marriages and returning to the families of their birth.

As a general rule, men take for granted many of the basic freedoms which women and girls crave.

It is, for example, impossible for a woman to walk down a crowded street anonymously, without concern for what she is wearing, how she is wearing it, her body language, and so on.

At best she will have to survive innumerable stares and at worst she will be subjected to verbal and even physical abuse.

All told, religious militancy of the kind that has taken root in this society over the past couple of decades is a problem yes, but only part of a much bigger one.

The issue is not Islam, or any specific "tradition" per se. It is an inherited social legacy that is multi-dimensional and from which none of us are exempt.

Pakistanis with a liberal bent of mind are prone to thinking of themselves as somehow more enlightened — including in relation to the question of gender — than the ordinary person on the street.

The reality is that exclusion and oppression along gender lines are so deeply-rooted that almost all of us, girls and women included, tend to overlook their most banal manifestations.

This does not mean that horrific episodes such as the shooting of Malala Yousufzai should not be highlighted, condemned and protested against.

But at this juncture it is worth being reminded that the case for the original Swat military operation in the summer of 2009 was in part made following the surfacing of an amateur recording of a girl being beaten by Taliban as punishment for "immoral" behaviour.

I do not want to get into the debate of whether or not the eviction of almost two million people from the valley was necessary — I simply want to flag that more than three years later, girls and women in Swat are still vulnerable to random violence, that structures of oppression remain intact, and that we are still doing little about the real problem and only reacting to specific incidents that come to the fore.

I want to add — perhaps controversially — that the discourse on gender amongst progressives is, like the discourse on many other such social and political matters, coloured by a very clear class bias.

Violence against women and girls is a daily occurrence in Pakistani society, but the overwhelming majority of such cases go unreported, which is to say that they are virtually unnoticed. In this sense there is little to distinguish the affluent from the poorer segments of society.

However, when it comes to the everyday experiences of women, there is a clear difference between the rich and poor insofar as women and girls hailing from well-to-do backgrounds are typically afforded much greater social and economic space to live their lives in relatively less suffocating environments.

Thus the discourse on gender — which is framed mostly by the relatively well-to-do — is characterised by a certain insensitivity to class and the specific concerns of women and girls "from below".

Having said this, we can all agree that the social, economic and political positions of women and girls in this society constitute a blot on our collective conscience.

While the NGO "revolution" of the past few decades has enhanced awareness of gender, emancipation of women and girls is impossible in the absence of a political organisation that is wholly committed to gender equality in all spheres of life.

If nothing else we need to put together coherent analyses of the myriad dimensions of gender exclusion and oppression. That is if we want to go beyond the rhetoric of "empowerment" and actually empower women and girls to transform the everyday conditions of their existence.

The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.


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