Nazneen Sheikh is the author of six novels and a memoir, Moon over Marrakech.
Pakistan is a curious nation. Perhaps it is in the same category as Nigeria, which had to hear the clamour of an outraged world community before it sought assistance to hunt for missing schoolgirls. As shockwaves ripple through the international media and Twitter goes viral over the public assassination of a three-month pregnant young woman, by stoning, neither Pakistan’s government nor its ever-battling political leaders utter any public response. They do not even declare a manhunt for any member of the family who hurled a rock at the lady!
‘Honour killings’ is the great and fabricated phrase which zig-zags through the nation. Murder covered with the slickness of culture which the rest of the world is too stupid to understand. This happened in the same town in Lahore where a Mughal Emperor buried a courtesan alive for having dared to love a royal prince. That was in the sixteenth century – and yet on a May morning in 2014 bystanders either watched or filmed this stoning without leaping to assistance. Who are these people and why are they viewed as citizens of the world?
The status of women in Pakistan is relatively unchanged even though images of selected professional or rural women are promoted from time to time. Misogyny is the tradition in Pakistan. It is amplified when patriarchy is jolted. The issue is control and monetary greed.
Women are in fact sold in marriage; their cumbersome dowries become a bargaining chip. Romantic love is of no consequence whatsoever, and is denounced as the product of depraved Judeo-Christian world. Ironically, matchless lovers are celebrated in Pakistani verse and literature. Theatre and film thrill audiences with the rumblings of an enraged father. This is the father who cannot be disobeyed as he has a culturally-sanctioned ability to mete draconian punishment to a wayward daughter.
Thus is the conspiracy of the misogyny cover-up kept well entrenched in social behaviour. Meanwhile there is much strutting about of Pakistan being a nuclear-armed power dedicated to economic development and the empowerment of citizens through education, affordable housing and health care. Pakistan is the land of multiple mirages. Seen from a cultivated distance many things glimmer, yet close scrutiny reveals a shockingly primitive land where not much has happened in its 67 years of existence.
Dysfuntional families abound elsewhere in the world. Children murder their parents. Adults maim and kill children. Yet the response to these heinous crimes is quite universal: Great sorrow and the immediate resolve to apprehend the criminal. In other countries, one does not need an outside agency to prick a conscience, and there is no hiding behind the deceptive veil of culture.
Pakistan is a country where Taliban terrorists have flourished for about ten years. It is also a country where journalists have been killed in alarming numbers. Currently, it has the potential to endanger the world through the export of the Polio virus. Are human-rights violations being scrutinized vigorously by the developed economies before they send an unending stream of foreign aid to countries like Pakistan? Turning a blind eye at the horror of death by stoning makes everyone outside Pakistan complicit in the act.
Why have the women of Pakistan in every walk of life not marched through the streets of their towns and villages in solidarity with the murdered 25-year-old pregnant woman? Do they require permission from the men of their families who are their fathers, husbands and brothers? Are the flags on government buildings lowered in mourning for this deed? Do the myriad television stations and the 190 million strong who sit glued to their sets relive this horror so it brings about collective shame?
Images of women in the political arena show a smattering of well-shrouded, head-covered stolid matrons who display great alacrity at bargaining with their fruit and vegetable vendors. Many boast of always whipping male shopkeepers into submission. Is this shower of canny female strength not there for a murdered sister?
The flourishing aid-agency business in Pakistan could do well to conduct nationwide lessons in the prevention of misogyny. In the past twenty years the images of female schoolchildren have changed in Pakistan. that their little faces now peer out of headcoverings bears irrefutable evidence that outmoded and ill-conceived standards of patriarchy are now the order of the day.
The culture of Pakistan is a hodgepodge of provincial ethnicity and is by no means a spiritual edict. The quest for women’s personal freedom must not be allowed to be strangled by patriarchy. If the women of Pakistan cannot remove the shackles of confinement, then they only have to ask for assistance from the international community of women.