The fight against the slowly dying culture is going to be long and nasty
The first recorded challenge to the patriarchal mores in Punjab came from Waris Shah’s Heer a little less than three hundred years back
There is no end to dishonourable activities of multifarious types taking place in this country. These are witnessed sullenly by all and sundry. Honour however instantly becomes an issue when a woman marries against the wishes of her family or challenges the norms set by a narrow-minded patriarchal society to govern her bahaviour. She is accused of soiling the reputation of the family and going against the cultural traditions. Mullahs are in the forefront of the offensive against her.
This has happened for centuries and continues to take place today. There is however a rising consciousness now that things cannot go on as before. More people are raising their voice against honour killings.
The first recorded challenge to the patriarchal mores in Punjab came from Waris Shah’s Heer a little less than three hundred years back.
Heer was strongly reprimanded by her mother for compromising the honour of the great Sial tribe by befrieding a lowly cowherd of unknown lineage. When Heer insisted on continuing to meet Ranjha, the chaak or servant, the village mullah was summoned as the final arbiter. He is described by Waris Shah as “jhaghryan di pand” or the Pandora’s Box. Heer stood firm insisting on having the unconditional ownership of her body. What happened later is still sung in Waris Shah’s moving verse all over Punjab and beyond.
Heer had challenged the social norms which restrict a woman to her parent’s or spouse’s home from where she must not step out. Her duty is to produce children and look after them. The married woman is the property of her husband. Violation of the mores is punished by the family. Brothers or parents have killed women for violating the so called ‘honour’ of the family.
Heer was not the only woman in Punjab to reject the laws formulated by a male dominated society to stop a woman from taking decisions about her personal life. Sohni was another. She decided one day to cross the mighty Chenab on her earthenware pitcher, in the absence of a boat, to keep her tryst with Maheenwal. The great Sufi poet Shah Lateef who highlighted Sohni’s fearless struggle for the achievement of her ideal has immortalised her in moving poetry.
That folk poetry celebrating these rebellious women continues to be sung all over Punjab and Sindh indicates an acceptance of the woman’s right over her body by a considerable section of society that included Sufis.
The bulk of the Muslim community comes from societies with a deep imprint of tribal or feudal culture. This explains why patriarchal values prevail in sections of the community throughout the world. They carry the mindset when they migrate to Europe or North America and indulge in honour killing.
In Pakistan tribal-cum-feudal customs have been strengthened by the influence of the Hindu caste system which lies behind increasing incidents of honour killing in India. Some of the baradaris in Pakistan consider themselves superior and discourage marriage outside their social pigeonhole.
What has strengthened the patriarchal hold in Pakistani society are the political exigencies of the ruling elite, both military and civilian. Lacking popular support military generals have sought the support of the backward and undemocratic sections of society including the Pirs and the clergy who are the traditional supporters of patriarchal mores. Ayub Khan sought the support of Pir of Dewal Sharif.
Ziaul Haq not only aligned himself with mullahs but introduced strict penalties to woo the culturally backward sections of society. Among other ignominies he introduced anti-women laws in the name of Islam.
Musharraf helped the JUI-F and Jamaat-e-Islami form government in NWFP. The military ruler gave vent to his male chauvinism in an interview with the Washington Post in 2005. Responding to a question regarding the increase in rapes in Pakistan Musharraf said, “You must understand the environment in Pakistan. This has become a money-making concern. A lot of people say if you want to go abroad and get a visa for Canada or citizenship and be a millionaire, get yourself raped.”
Elected governments have fared no better. Both the PPP and PML-N courted JUI-F despite its anti-women stance. PPP appointed Mohamad Khan Shirani, a well-known misogynist, as the chairman of the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) as a concession to the party. After coming to power in 2013, Nawaz Sharif extended Shirani’s tenure because the PML-N leader also needed the support of the mullahs.
The way women are increasingly breaking the suffocating hold of the outmoded customs and mores and trying to outflank the self appointed guardians of morality gives one confidence that in coming decades the patriarchal mores would be replaced by a more human sensibility.
Those challenging the outmoded and extremist thinking occasionally tend to go to another extreme which is quite natural. Veena Malik, Mathira and Qideel Baloch are the examples.
There are courageous women of another category who have challenged the shameless and the honourless men who had disgraced them. Their tormentors from the so called elite had expected that the women would bear the insult in silence.
Mukhtar Mai who was gang raped in 2002 on the orders of a village panchayat stood up to challenge her tormentors. She dragged them to the courts. Kainat Soomro, the young rape victim in Sindh too could not be silenced by her powerful tormentors.
Another category of courageous women like Asma Jahangir, Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy, Sabin Mahmud and Perween Rahman have stood up against injustice, the latter two becoming martyrs in the struggle.
Yet another group of women exposed through personal example the mullah’s narrative of a woman being no good beyond performing domestic chores on account of perceived mental and physical inferiority to man. They proved that a woman could be as good in both spheres as men.
Samina Baig climbed Mount Everest; Ayesha Farooq became Pakistan’s first war-ready female fighter pilot and Shamahad Akhtar became the State Bank Governor.
And who can forget the grit and resolve shown by the Baloch women who traversed 2,000km on foot across the country in 2014 to bring to attention the issue of the missing Baloch?
Attempts are afoot to change the laws on honour killing and rape. Former Senator Sughra Imam who had initially piloted the two laws is candid about their effectivity. “No law will eradicate a crime entirely but the law should be a deterrent. Laws are supposed to guide better behaviour, not allow destructive behaviour to continue with impunity.”
Despite the heroic struggle and sacrifice by numerous women, patriarchal mores remain deeply entrenched in a fairly large section of society. They have been imbibed even by some of the women. The fight against the slowly dying culture is going to be long and nasty.
There are many who otherwise look reasonable. Rub the surface a little and you find a male chauvinist. Shahid Afridi would hate for his wife or daughter to play cricket because for him, it is a manly sport.
In an interview recently, Afridi was asked about what he thought about the under 19 women’s cricket trials held in Karachi. The cricketer revealed his patriarchal stripes. “Our women,” he said, “were better kept in the kitchen, cooking up meals for their men.”