Broken conscience: the Pakistani woman

Published in The Express Tribune – cover art by Abrar Ahmed

It’s not stoning to death. Not exactly, if we’re to follow the police’s line. A woman wasn’t stoned to death in broad daylight, by a mob of blood relations. She was beaten to death with bricks.

In a sick society, the means of mutilation is all that’s in dispute. There are 10 different versions of this story, but what’s common in all of them is that a pregnant woman was murdered in the daytime, and a crowd gathered to watch.

This is what falling apart at the seams sounds like.

There’s the other sounds too: the candlelight vigil with the same six or seven brave souls we call civil society. The fury from women’s rights groups. The silence of the right, so quick to condemn everything from Bosnia to Burma. The executive snoring and stirring, then snoring again.

And the inevitable editorials asking ‘how could this happen?’, or alternatively ‘what happened to us?’

Nothing, if we were to concern ourselves with the truth. Soul-searching tends to fall by the wayside when one considers the relevant police officer’s answer: ‘It is a routine murder case like other murder cases, and has to be seen in the context of Pakistani society.’ In the context of Pakistani society, he said.

The truth is, he’s absolutely right. If society is a set of norms, this set of norms is bent on breaking its women, then debasing them after the fact.

Take the state, which supposedly holds the system together. Number of women in positions of real influence: not any, unless they’re wives or daughters (score 1 for the Pakistan People’s Party). Expect underpasses to outweigh women’s rights four more years.

We then move to the fruit of governance: policy. Here, the apathy of the government gives way to the obsession of its high priests. The Council of Islamic Ideology (C.I.I.) can advise the centre on anything from cleanliness drives to interest-free banking — but this crew of cavemen has eyes for little other than ladies.

The C.I.I. holds forth on all matters womanly, from deeming D.N.A. evidence inadmissible in rape cases to permitting child marriage. For a country deep in darkness, these men are meant to spread the light.

But that doesn’t begin to touch on the justice system, which is why we’re here in the first place. Those numbed by Farzana Parveen’s public execution were once as stunned by the case of Safia Bibi, a blind girl raped by her employer and his son, bearing a child that would die in hospital. She was still in physical shock when the police lodged a case of fornication against her.

A judge called Chaudhry Muhammad Aslam held Safia’s testimony inadmissible. He sentenced a blind 20-year-old girl to three years in prison and 15 lashes on the grounds that there wasn’t evidence she complained early enough. Horror followed, and the Federal Shariat Court dove in to acquit Safia. Her rapists walk free today.

This should have been the watershed; when even the Pakistani male would realise this country was becoming no place for the girls he was raising. He didn’t, and we now desperately look to Farzana Parveen as the possible turning point.

A family of ghairatmand men conspired to murder a 25-year-old woman and her unborn child, and people stopped to stare. Five years from now, it’ll be another dirty F.I.R. with byzantine twists and dead relatives — one of the millions that litter our thaanas.

Murder will remain privatised: a crime against the individual, where forgiveness is transacted for blood money. The kind that allowed Farzana’s husband to strangle his first wife, and the kind that will allow his in-laws to have murdered his second. With laws like these, justice is a joke.

And yet neither the law nor the state is the tragedy in all this. We are. Because it was already clear that the social health and betterment of Pakistan’s women — this country’s one lifeline — isn’t on the agenda. But what’s clearer is how averse this land is becoming to such an agenda if it ever were.

Pakistan’s founding was led by a woman, a polity that elected a woman as prime minister twice, and a society driven more by its mothers than its sons. Yet that same society, through years and years of tolerating what was done to its women, has brought us to this: a place that creates a Farzana Parveen every day.

We didn’t see it when Iqbal Haider tabled a bill against honour killings, and just four parliamentarians pledged support.

We didn’t see it when General Musharraf — who otherwise pushed through the Women’s Protection Bill to his credit — said, ‘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.’

And we didn’t see it when Jamshed Dasti, our own romantic Robin Hood, called the Mukhtaran Mai case ‘a conspiracy against Islam’, and held her rapists’ acquittals to have wiped the ‘dhabba’ from Muzaffargarh. With hometown heroes like Dasti, Muzaffargarh may need all the cleaning up it can get.

But though we see nothing, we speak the opposite: acid victims are prostitutes. Rape victims are black marks. Murdering your child is killing for honour. Even burying your daughter alive can pass for ‘centuries-old tradition’, according to Israrullah Zehri, a man who makes our laws.

What’s frustrating is that solutions are everywhere: remaking murder a crime against the state, reforming the evidence collection system that allowed Mukhtaran Mai’s assailants to go free, repealing a host of malicious laws, and perhaps actually telling our children that generations are judged by the way they treat their women.

As for the depraved among us, France’s ‘non-assistance à personne en danger‘ sounds the right remedy. The French law criminalises deliberately failing to assist a person in danger, which is exactly what Farzana Parveen’s onlookers were: criminals.

Yes, solutions abound. The problem is where to start. Because in a land like this, even honour can mean a deep and enduring shame.

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