No-woman’s land

Posted on May 17, 2009 by


By Syed Moazzam Hai
DAWN – Sunday, 17 May, 2009


On an oppressive August afternoon, I was chattering away with a farmer while trudging through a rice crop to a humble dera nestled quietly under the calm shadows of a cluster of trees at the far end of the fields. I was in Sheikhupura area for my research on agricultural products. “Do you know one of the reasons for an enmity to begin is one man staring at another?” suddenly the farmer confided to me. “Why?” I asked. “It makes a man feel awkward,” he told me and I agreed.

Then I realised that I, that farmer and millions of other men like us never think how awkward millions of women everyday feel at being stared at by everyone from teenage street urchins to senile senior office executives. “Thank God I’m not born a woman in this country,” I have overheard myself and numerous others heaving a sigh of smug relief quite a few times in our lives. And it makes practical sense in a country where a single step out of the four walls of the house turns a woman into a justified target for incessant ogling — an offence in civilised society and a commonplace triviality in a geography where women are buried alive as a way of custom, sprinkled with acid as a mode of teaching a lesson, maimed, chopped and slaughtered on pretext as grave as delay in serving meals to their demi-god.

Yet ogling reflects a collective mindset sliding zealously on a slippery path of moral deterioration that got steeper since the days of General Zia’s martial law when the concept of hypocrite piety grew in form and substance in all possible directions.
A great religion that commands and expects its followers to fulfil the rights of the Almighty and fellow humans with utmost care and caution was deliberately confined to flaunting ritualism. Those were the days when more emphasis was on performing rituals and the significance of human rights was generously marginalised from an integral part of religious teachings to near extinction.

Thus it’s only to be expected that we will hear a prayer leader preaching the faithful to be respectful to women in his Friday prayer sermon as many times as we will see a full moon on 30th of February. And thus it’s also consequential that we will be outnumbered outstandingly by the faithful who believe a woman out of her home is justified to be disrespected. The degree and intensity of that belief varies from shooting a widow seeking livelihood for her children in our northern war zones to ogling and teasing of women going to work on the streets of our supposed mega cosmopolitans.

I once asked a bearded, capped rickshawwala the reason for nearly a dozen deluxe-size back view mirrors in the few square foot clamorous contraption. They were clearly meant to keep a keen eye on female passengers but he wouldn’t admit it. Nobody accepts their fault and this includes the awe-inspiring sacrosanct set of august ladies who grace their perennial thrones in assemblies and ministries with their sublime presence riding high on the eternal power and pelf of their male relations. They would be seen with monotonous frequency condescending to pose for photographs while cutting ribbons at NGOs’ offices, beauty parlours, giving away petty cheques to helpless women who won’t even have bank accounts, trumpeting shallow claims and rootless promises in hollow press conferences, but they would never accept their long-lasting shortcoming in adding veritable value to the lives of ordinary women in this country. Exceptions are there, though exceptionally rare.

According to Aurat Foundation’s report, “Situation of violence against women in Pakistan”, 7,733 cases of violence against women were reported in the print media all over Pakistan during the year 2008. Figures on violence against women are the tip of the ice berg as the prevalent socio-cultural-traditional setup in the country ensures that an unknown number of cases remain unreported at any formal level and also because violence against women is not limited to physical form only. It extends to social, psychological, cultural sufferings too. From the shabby minibuses of Karachi where women are teased and harassed as a daily routine to burned girls’ schools in the Northern Areas, it’s a collective mindset that needs to be reformed.

Pursuance, reward, punishment and awareness education could induce a gradual change of mind. An independent, active and impartial judicial system remains the fundamental human need as we are yet to witness influential culprits served with due justice; a vigilant media that pursues an offence to its justified end rather than ditching the victims halfway to justice is essential; a police force enjoying constitutional protection for tenure and posting against influence by influentials of all sorts is crucial. Introduction of civic studies for clergy in accordance with religious teachings as a basic awareness programme on social responsibilities and behaviour is overdue, because Islam as we know is committed to equal rights of humans so no land can be a no-woman’s land.