- Pakistan is patriarchal. Unabashedly. Male dominance is unquestioned. So is male entitlement.
- Even in families that pride themselves on being non-discriminatory in their treatment of their male and female children, the binaries of the do’s and the don’ts of the two genders are underscored in bold letters. The third gender is invisible in a patriarchal world.
Tina Turner, Christina Aguilera, Halle Barry, Madonna, Mariah Carey, Rihanna, Charlize Theron, Pamela Anderson, Whitney Houston, Diane Lane, Reese Witherspoon, Kerry Washington, Katy Perry, Robin Givens, Rati Agnihotri, Zeenat Aman, and Tehmina Durrani.
What do all these very famous, some internationally, some regionally, women have in common, other than their uncommon brilliance, larger-than-life personalities, massive talent, and enviable physical beauty?
All these magnificent women were victims of domestic/spousal/relationship physical violence and abuse.
All of them left their abusive relationships, turning their unhappy, chaotic lives into beautiful, inspirational stories of reshaping their lives as the survivors of the worst. They became the icons of what could be.
Not all women are that fortunate. Millions of women are not. Some are not strong enough to leave their abusive husbands and partners. Some of them live with their abusers until the abuse ends for some reason. Some of them walk away from their abusive relationships. Some of them find strength within themselves to tell their stories of incredible bravery, superhuman patience, endless resilience. Many of them vanish without telling their stories. It is not that they don’t have a story. It is because they are silenced.
They are killed. Or they are driven to kill themselves.
This world of ours resounds with their unheard wails, their muffled pleas, their soundless screams. They are all around us. They are our sisters. They are our friends. Some are names we hear. Some are faces we recognise. Their mascaraed lashes shade their unshed tears. Their despair is etched in their smiles. Their carefully dressed bodies are in premature decay, in a clumsy attempt to hide their wounds. Their careful words cover their jagged breaths. Their rational minds do a macabre tango with the memory of the latest beating, the last verbal assault, the newest attack on their character, their habits. Their lips are shaded in dark hues to hide the bruise of the slap that left a deep mark on the left side of their face. Their eyes are kohled in their pain.
They walk among us like ghosts. Most of us pretend they only exist in stories that don’t touch us. We remain fearful of them haunting our idyllic notions of marriage, relationships, love that is forever, romance that nourishes our weakest bits. We downplay their tragedies to overcompensate our personal fears. We avoid eye contact with them, fearful they might break into smithereens the dream of our ideal relationship. As they live amidst us, carefully holding together the pieces of their broken hearts and shattered bodies, their destroyed dreams and fractured ribs, their damaged souls and black eyes, their traumatised minds and bruised legs, we console ourselves with clichés, in hushed whispers. That things are not as bad as they are.
Only that they are. Worse than what is perceptible, audible, conveyed, shared, discussed, lamented. Those who suffer in silence are often silenced forever. Their stories are buried with them. If it wasn’t for the brave few who speak up, even if it is to a very few people very close to them, or those courageous ones who unable to trust their loved ones share their pain on social media in the world of technology that is invasive and inclusive, cruel and empathetic, judgemental and sincere, expansive and cosy, in equal measures, most of the stories of domestic abuse would remain what they are: a taboo. Forbidden. Private. Not to be talked about.
Pakistan is patriarchal. Unabashedly. Male dominance is unquestioned. So is male entitlement. Even in families that pride themselves on being non-discriminatory in their treatment of their male and female children, the binaries of the do’s and the don’ts of the two genders are underscored in bold letters. The third gender is invisible in a patriarchal world.
Rules are made to protect the beloved daughter from harm, to keep her chastity, her purity, her perfection unblemished, un-creased, in a closet of impeccably stacked morality. Different yardsticks are applied in different families of varied sensibilities, financial standing, and societal clout, or lack thereof.
Religion, that teaches equality of genders in all the ways that matter, becomes a tool to mould a female child into a model woman, suitable for marriage and raising a family. Cultural ethos is the metaphorical whip to teach a female child what to do, how to behave, what to bear, how to adapt, what to change. Familial emotions come into play to convince a female child to make a promise not to let anyone be privy to her real self. It starts at home. It is based on rules made by the men of the family. It is taken forward by the female members of the family. It starts when a female child is born. It ends when that female is dead.
Fear of patriarchal punishment is the disciplinary stick in almost every Pakistani household. I’ll tell-your-father is the common threat. The warning your-brother-will-break-your-legs-if-you-meet-that-boy hovers over young females like an unhinged drone. Ever present is the imminence of a physical punishment for “crossing of a line.” A constant inculcation of lessons of “good behaviour”, indispensable to a happy life, are a childhood staple. Log-kya-kahenge is a mandatory good girl tutorial.
The prevalence of subliminal, and even blatant acceptance, of violence against women in films and TV dramas is acting as systemic desensitisation towards the very real issue of domestic abuse. Violence is blind, but in a patriarchal society, even violence convolutes, mostly, into a gender-based show of strength.
“Honour” of almost every family in Pakistan, even in 2020, is umbilically tied to a woman’s body, her character, her “goodness.”
Despite assumptions that much has changed, loud proclamations that women rights are human rights, brave slogans that women are equal to men, progressive laws that vow to improve women’s lives, and inspirational posts on social media celebrating how far women have come, suddenly, an incredibly painful event jolts your newfound confidence, pushing you into a corner where you want to hide and whimper. Or scream. Or punch a wall. Nothing has changed.
On June 1 was the news of the murder of the eight-year-old Zahra. She was, allegedly, beaten for freeing two parrots. She was beaten so mercilessly she died a few hours later. The entire month of June little Zahra’s lifeless face haunted me.
In June the hashtag was “Justice for Zohra Shah.” Pakistan’s media thought that Zahra was Zohra.
On July 8, the news of another Zahra’s death shook Pakistan’s social media. Sadaf Zahra Naqvi, a lovely, bright woman with her whole life ahead of her, mother of a beautiful one-year-old baby girl, and wife of Ali Salman Alvi, a man known to countless Twitter users of Pakistan, “died” on June 29. The husband announced she had committed suicide. Her family suspected murder.
Without Alvi’s knowledge, reportedly, a post-mortem was conducted, confirming their worst fears. Sadaf’s sister found her hanging from the fan in her room. Her face and body had marks of violence on her. A suicide note was also found. The details of the post-mortem report are still unknown. Alvi is in police custody.
No one would have known what happened to Sadaf if her friend had not tweeted a thread about her married life and her alleged murder. For nine days, the news of the death of a woman was kept on mute. On Twitter where even a politically incorrect word becomes a huge deal, no one knew that a woman had died. Murdered. Killed. I’m waiting for someone to uncover the mystery of this unusual silence.
The life of the one-year-old baby girl, before even the enunciation of Mama and Baba, is turned upside down. Her mother is dead. Her father is the alleged killer of her mother. The sheer enormity of this tragedy is devastating. And heart breaking.
Not much changes on Pakistani Twitter.
In July the hashtag is “Justice for Zahra.”
The thread posted by Sadaf’s friend unravels a horrifying story – of a bad marriage, a cheating spouse, a patient wife, a painful miscarriage, the birth of a baby girl, constant lies, infidelity, betrayal, blackmailing and extortion of money from various women, Alvi’s fake identities, Alvi’s repeated violence on Sadaf, Alvi’s womanising, and Sadaf’s endless patience for the sake of maintaining the façade of a complete family for her little girl.
On Sadaf Zahra Naqvi’s twitter timeline, her pinned tweet is a thread. It is on domestic violence. It is dated January 7, 2020.
Was it addressed to Alvi? Was anyone able to decode the personalness of that 11-tweet thread?
The details of the indescribable tragedy of Sadaf’s alleged murder are imprecise, at the moment.
The outrage is predictable, understandable.
What will happen?
Nothing will change as long there is a familial, societal, cinematic and dramatic glorification of the “right” kind of woman. As long as mothers, in various tones, in different languages, in diverse scenarios, perpetuate the importance of “proper” behaviour, not many homes will be safe for females. Two other words are taught to, arguably, every female in Pakistan: compromise and sacrifice.
This is no way an incitement to break away from accepted norms. Neither is it an endorsement of any kind of disruption of religious boundaries. What I write is what I have experienced, observed, heard stories of, seen all around me. My belief is simple. It all starts at home. It starts with the mother. It is created by patriarchal ethos. It is propagated by maternal sensibilities.
The basic, the most important step for the creation of a violence-free world is to raise male children as good, decent, kind human beings. Teach your boys what to do, not your girls what not to do. The rest will be simple. Good, decent, kind human beings do not harm anyone–human or animal.
That overhauling of systemic rot in male attitudes is long term. The short term is achievable, even if it is in tiny ways. Tiny things, en masse, have the power to create a collective ripple to undo centuries of misguided patriarchy and inherent misogyny. It is not easy to walk out of a bad marriage. Parents find it traumatic, for myriad familial and societal pressures, to see their daughters ending a marriage. Despite religious and legal sanctioning, and its grudging acceptability, divorce is still commonly considered a social stigma.
When a woman opens up about physical abuse, parents react the way they should. They tell her to pack her things and come back to her first home. They console her, they give her strength. Sometimes, her parents and that of her husband, state that she “asked for it”. She “deserved” what happened to her. When she is found blameless, lectures, from the woman’s family and her in-laws, are given to the violent husband. Promises are made. The woman is convinced to return to her husband. Many women return without any parental pressure for the sake of their children. Broken families are considered incomplete families.
A number of women return to an abusive, a cheating, a lying husband, because of the deep feelings they have for him for having known him for a long time. Countless women do it to keep the idea of a home intact. In numerous immaculate homes, in middle class neat bungalows, in derelict little houses of the poor, there is a woman stuck in a dead-end marriage because of her financial dependence on her husband.
There is also a large number of women who forgive their men each time they find them lying or cheating, or when they are violent with them. Trivialisation of the spousal bad is commonplace. Stuck in a violent relationship, many women fear the idea of “alone-ness” of a divorce. The Stockholm syndrome-isation in an abusive relationship is a recurrent motif in today’s world of overdependence on bonds that defy simple explanations.
Suffering in Silence
Lifelong conditioning to maintain silence, to not create a scene, to not “dishonour” the family, and to not let anyone into their “private” matters are neatly placed in the playbook of a good, strong, home-making woman. Physical, verbal or emotional abuse is not a private matter. Listen to your daughter, your sister, when she opens up about the painful parts of her apparently immaculate life. Don’t shush her agony with a sub-theek-ho-jayega trope. Learn to read her words when she texts you or posts cryptic despair.
In certain scenarios, women also enable violence against women. It is a lamentable but a very real fact.
The worst swear words in Pakistan are threats of acts of sexual violence to mothers, sisters and daughters of the person being abused.
The debate is not about the “badness” of men. Happy marriages are not a hallmark card, they are as much a reality as the abusive ones. A good man is not a dream. He is around us in the unchanging love of amazing fathers, wonderful brothers, beautiful sons. He is the childhood friend who is always there, a cousin who is a phone call away, an acquaintance who is a great help in time of need, a complete stranger who surprises you with his kindness, a colleague who helps without being asked, an elder who gives brilliant advice, a teenaged nephew who makes you smile with his goofiness.
All the good in the world is not an antidote for pain inflicted on anyone who is in any position of weakness – physically, materially, in a societal hierarchy. A violence-free world would be attainable when men stop “being men.” When men and women, united, say: enough.
As long as there is even ONE woman facing domestic abuse, if there is even one woman dying because her husband or partner pushed her to death or killed her, there is redundancy in any celebration of female equality. One dead woman is a symbol of all that is wrong, all that is inhuman, all that is so horrific it makes all good things lose their sheen. Not for a day, not for a month, not for a year, but for as long as justice evades that dead woman.
One more dead woman is not a mere statistic in the data of violence against women. One more dead woman is an indelible stain on the very soul of a society.
There is one question, and that is the only one that matters today: will Sadaf Zahra Naqvi get justice?
Justice for Sadaf will be justice for every girl or woman who is a survivor or a victim of domestic abuse. Justice for Sadaf will be relevant when every female is safe with her husband, her partner. Justice for Sadaf will be celebrated when divorce is no longer a stigma in a relationship stuck in a cul-de-sac. Justice for Sadaf will matter when the life of a woman is more important than her marriage. Justice for Sadaf will be a reality when a family’s honour is disassociated from a woman’s marital success or failure.
Justice for Sadaf will be the truth when even a man’s one slap, one kick, one punch, one push, one across-the-room dragging, one fistful of her hair in his clasp is considered a moral, a social and a legal crime.
Where is that justice?