Pakistanis live in two different realities; one reality is for the privileged, which in Pakistan's context would be able bodied, Muslim, Sunni, Punjabi, upper class, cisgender and straight men and the other reality is for women and minorities. Thus, the Pakistan that is experienced by men, especially those who are privileged across religious, ethnic, sexual and gender orientation, is very different from the Pakistan that is experienced by women and minorities. One Pakistan is taught to take up space in the world, to be an active member of society through political engagement, economic, and educational opportunities, is provided social capital and support, and ample room to make mistakes. And then there is another Pakistan that women and minorities experience which is a different reality altogether.
Violence against women has seen a marked increase in Pakistan which ranks as the fourth worst country in gender parity, according to the World Economic Forum's Global Gender Gap Index. Pakistan has one of the lowest rates in health and survival, economic opportunities and educational attainment for women. This inequality has worsened under Covid-19 lockdown, further increasing the incidence of violence against women. Around 11 rape cases are reported daily with a conviction rate as low as 0.3%. Yet, this public health issue captures national attention only when a brutalization occurs and tends to vanish quickly from discourse.
As cases of femicide and sexual assault of women and young girls come up, women experience it as a real, deeply personal and felt experience that can happen to them at any time. Most often, these instances trigger memories of previous sexual, emotional, and physical abuse. Women also share a collective state of loss of freedom, hypervigilance and fear, and constant trauma. This is exponentially worse when one also belongs to another oppressed minority group. Men, on the other hand, do not for the most part experience emotional distress and hypervigilance on the same level given that it is rarely a personally felt or feared experience. This is the disconnect where a lot of the discourse between men and women fails, with men predominantly going back to their daily lives after the shock of a case wears off and women experience an ongoing cycle of lack of safety and hypervigilance.
Less than a year ago, Pakistanis were outraged by the infamous motorway incident and this month we witnessed outrage as multiple women and girls' lives have turned into hashtags of brutality one after the other. In particular, only 41% cases of rape are reported to the police, thus, most cases of violence against women do not appear on the radar of societal awareness. With every case that receives attention, women often go through a toxic cycle of feeling outraged, helpless, and experience a retriggering of their personal and societal trauma. They eventually find some level of disconnect from it and go back to relying on their resilience, living in an unsafe and patriarchal society until another case emerges and the cycle repeats. While this cycle is ongoing, women experience gender-based violence in their daily lives, across educational institutions, workplaces, in public transport, at home, and countless other places.
These daily instances are considered a part of women's daily life where hypervigilance and being on guard is a normalized way of living. Women and minorities in Pakistan are not granted the basic safety, comfort and justice they require, yet there is a tendency to not report of abuse to protect family honor, stigma, internalized misogyny, victim-blaming, and lack of overall support at an individual, community, and policy level.
Outcry for justice is an appropriate response to the violence but it is not a sustainable response especially given the desensitization, exhaustion, and the large disconnect between men and women in our society when it comes to women's safety. The onus of violence falls on women as well as the burden of having to educate others on this topic. Therefore, it is important to address this as 'male perpetrated violence', with very little accountability and engagement from men, for meaningful change to occur.
Sustainable responses can only come with enforceable policies that make gender equality a priority. It is critical for policies to target violence in the home for women and children and violence across different institutions such as in schools and universities. To incorporate adequate and fair sentencing and engage faith leaders and trusted men in the community to address the power disparities between men and women. Engaging boys and men in the discourse is crucial for fostering ongoing conversation that can mobilize communities. It is also necessary for policy makers to regulate therapeutic and victim support services while promoting gender responsive guidelines for law enforcement and physicians to respond adequately to victims, and provide appropriate referral services.
It is also not enough to simply address this violence after it has occured but it is crucial to incorporate strategies that promote women's economic empowerment and elevate women's social standing in society such as gender responsive budgeting across different sectors to make gender equality a priority in fiscal planning. Tackling this violence at a policy level may, overtime, help address the gender power differences and trickle down to fostering safe disclosure, increased reporting without the fear of retaliation and stigma, and equal relationships with fair distribution of responsibilities and financial access. These policies can help nurture healthy masculinity where men, women, and transgender individuals feel safe to disclose their experiences of abuse without the threat of stigma or ridicule and are provided the protection they need.
Women mourn a sense of shared loss with each other and share their fears of reentering society after a heinous crime but they are often met with lack of support by men wanting to debate the validity of feminism that argues the right of women to exist safely and be an active and equitable member of society. They are given mixed messages of 'not all men' yet are told to stay indoors and cover up due to a lack of safety (from men). They are under surveillance for their dress, their language, their behavior, their choices, their outrage and yet, blamed if they are assaulted or harassed. They are also made to feel grateful and rationalize their own experiences of abuse that at least they are alive and it could have been worse. This culture of intergenerational misogyny and patriarchy results in this ongoing toxic cycle that women and minorities of Pakistan find themselves stuck in; experiencing constant trauma and feeling unprotected inside and outside their homes. Thus, sustainable policy level responses that encompass the safety and protection of both women and children, engage men in discourse, and add special protections for vulnerable groups are imperative to tackle violence against women and until that happens, safety and justice will be a moving goal post for women in Pakistan.
(The writer specializes in gender-based violence and child protection issues in low middle income countries and humanitarian contexts, holds a dual Masters degree from George Washington University and New York University, and has worked with organisations such as the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO, UK), United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), Rape, Abuse, Incest National Network (RAINN), and International Rescue Committee (IRC))
Copyright Business Recorder, 2021