Pakistani society is entrenched in patriarchal customs; this fact is hardly new. Traditionalists may argue that the laws of nature and religion ordain men to preside over worldly matters, notwithstanding the fact that the evidence employed to back their specious theory is obsolete and largely anecdotal. An idea frequently espoused by conservative ideologues is that the patriarchy is benign, and seeks to protect women. Yet the stark truth is that women are most endangered in this patriarchal society. In such a society as Pakistan, male entitlement homogenizes with violence to create an unholy trinity of terror, intimidation and violence- one that actively threatens, harms and debases women. So ubiquitous is misogyny in Pakistan, that it may be considered a defining characteristic of the nation's social heritage. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that not only is domestic violence condoned, it is also supported as a remedial measure against perceived 'disobedience'. It seems as if Pakistani society desires to deliberately silence those affected by these wanton displays of cruelty and to trivialize their plights.
'A Private Matter'
Society absolves itself of any semblance of responsibility by popularizing the view that domestic violence is a private matter, one between the wife and husband alone. As per this view, outsiders are bound by duty to 'mind their own businesses'. Such an attitude seems laughably cynical- Pakistani society is notoriously nosy and judgmental. A woman's 'questionable' morals are discussed in social circles with lurid pleasure, and the same society proceeds to pass judgement on her character without pausing for breath. Therefore, a lackadaisical approach to physical violence reeks of privilege, and more importantly, can be construed as a joint effort to protect the male perpetrator. The sad reality is that women cannot afford society's indifference. Physical violence is a direct antecedent to injury, mental turmoil, and in many cases, death. A notable example wherein Pakistani society's ugly face was displayed to the entire world is that of Fatima Sohail. Married to actor Mohsin Abbas Haider, Sohail was brutally beaten up by her husband upon confronting him after learning of his philandering ways (Staff, 2019). Keyboard warriors were quick to condemn her for 'tarnishing' her family's 'honour' by 'washing her dirty laundry' in public, while maintaining a conspicuous silence when it came to her husband's cruelty.
Blaming the victim
Patriarchal societies rarely take a woman's word at face value. There is always room for error, there are always lingering doubts when the victim is a woman, and her oppressor, a man. It often appears as if Pakistani society goes out of its way to pin the blame for a woman's affliction on the woman herself. There exists a plethora of ways in which society demeans women who take a stand for themselves. They are branded liars, craving attention. If the veracity of their accounts is unanimously established, all sorts of absurd explanations are conjured so as rationalize the perpetrator's behaviour. The woman must have driven him to the edge. How else must you deal with nagging shrews like her? She dresses immodestly. She had it coming! In other instances, men choose to ignore the wrongdoings of members of their own gender by claiming that men too, are victims of domestic violence, and that media chooses to ignore them. It is indeed true, that men face domestic violence. But the truth of the matter is that the proportion of male victims is minuscule compared to that of female victims. Secondly, to bring up male victims when the topic for discussion is violence against women, seems like a disingenuous attempt to deflect blame, especially when the same victims are perennially neglected. It has been theorized that all men benefit from the preservation of the status quo- women are kept in their 'places', while men who refrain from violence are rewarded for basic acts of decency.
Pakistani men often use Islam as a crutch to condone the inexcusable behavior that women are dealt with. In 2016, the Council of Islamic Ideology, Pakistan, a religious body that is granted the right to veto any bill it deems 'un-Islamic', passed a series of incongruous rulings, one of which allowed men to 'lightly' beat their wives if they feared 'disobedience' from them (Khan, 2016). It was an especially cruel precedent, and one that would allow men to brutalize women at whim. After all, there are no ways to determine what 'light' beatings entailed. Some suggested that beatings are light upto the point where bones are broken. It is only when women are physically maimed, that men realise that their retributions were disproportionately severe. There are no provisions made to women without shattered bones, who were coerced into tolerating physical pain, intimidation and trauma. In 2017, a bill proposed in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa assembly sought to exempt men from the Domestic Violence Act of 2016 by allowing them to abuse their spouses and children as a 'corrective measure' (Shah, 2017). These actors in our society who hide behind religion fail to understand that their understanding is based on misinterpretation and errant reasoning and that the religion that they apparently follow actually promotes kindness and peace, not violence and abuse.
Justice dispensed in the form of slaps: how television condones domestic abuse
A unique phenomenon witnessed on television is as follows: a woman's wrongdoings catch up to her in the form of a spouse who hits her, repeatedly. A daughter who commits the grave sin of marrying a man of her own choice is made to repent for the 'dishonor' she brings to her family after her husband hits her on the flimsiest of pretexts (Tum Ho Wajaah (You Are The Reason), 2020). The scheming vixen responsible for breaking apart a happy couple is punished by the slaps of the man she 'stole' (Rabba Mainun Maaf Kareen (Forgive Me, O Lord), 2020). A materialistic woman fabricates abuse allegations against her meek husband (Jhooti (Liar), 2020). Television dramas repeatedly makes excuses for violence against female characters by insinuating that they deserved the abuse. This is highly irresponsible and dangerous in a nation afflicted with the endemic of domestic violence.
How will the future play out?
There are a number of non-governmental organizations that help women seeking extrication from abuse. The Digital Rights Foundation, led by the inimitable Nighat Dad, has a hotline where women can register their complaints and receive assistance. Female shelters exist; however, they may be in derelict conditions, and the NGO sector can work towards improving their conditions. A desperate need of the times is a change in mindsets- a true interpretation of Islamic teachings must be promulgated through the media and independent educational institutions, which promote peace and kindness within the society. We need progressive TV shows, not regressive ones- women who are hit by their husbands should be shown leaving them promptly, and healthy, compatible relationships should be depicted. As of today, Pakistan 'boasts' of some truly horrifying statistics: it is the sixth worst country in the world for women (Yusuf, 2020), 72% of women face abuse from their spouses, and every second woman is beaten up by her husband (Ilyas, 2016). The Covid19 pandemic has worsened the situations for women suffering from domestic abuse, as due to lockdown measures, they are now holed up with their abusers. Change is necessary and urgent.
Ilyas, F. (2016, November 6). ‘Every second woman suffers domestic violence in Pakistan’. From Dawn.com: https://www.dawn.com/news/1294475
Jhooti (Liar) (2020). [Motion Picture].
Khan, R. (2016, May 26). ‘Lightly beating’ wife permissible, says CII’s proposed women protection bill. From https://www.dawn.com/news/1260803
Rabba Mainun Maaf Kareen (Forgive Me, O Lord) (2020). [Motion Picture].
Shah, S. Q. (2017, August 17). 'Corrective measures' in domestic violence bill worry rights activists. From Dawn.com: https://www.dawn.com/news/1352059
Staff, I. (2019, July 22). Mohsin Abbas Haider accused of domestic abuse by wife Fatema. From Dawn.com: https://images.dawn.com/news/1183316
Tum Ho Wajaah (You Are The Reason) (2020). [Motion Picture].
Yusuf, H. (2020, July 13). Domestic abuse. From Dawn.com: https://www.dawn.com/news/1568713/domestic-abuse