Dismantling the Citadel of Patriarchy

Women’s marches are portrayed as an issue of existential threat in the name of obscenity and vulgarity, writes Farhatullah Babar

Dismantling the Citadel of Patriarchy
On March 8, International Working Women’s Day, women’s organisations from across Pakistan will once again take to the roads demanding their rights as equal citizens and ending all forms of discrimination against them. Inherent in their protest march is a call to change the patriarchal mind set that has militated against their empowerment.

Women have been doing this every year and the march this year should also be no exception. However, it is not so.

As soon as thousands of jubilant Afghan Taliban fighters gathered in Laghman, eastern Afghanistan, to celebrate what they called ‘defeat of the US’ and triumph of Islam, misogynists and right wingers in Pakistan also warned women to desist from the march or else their baton wielding (danda bardar) troopers will stop them. Why? Like Taliban, they also see women on the roads as ‘fahashi’ (obscenity and vulgarity) which must not be allowed. “If the government fails to stop the march, our workers will do it themselves,” the leader of a religio-political party warned.

Succumbing to these threats, some elements in the Punjab tried to prevent the women from marching in Lahore. The government in Peshawar, instead of saying that it will not allow anyone to take law into their hands, sent a ‘security advisory’ to Maulana Fazalur Rehman. It said that in view of threat to his life from militants, he was best advised to remain indoors and take security measures. The Sindh government, however, acknowledging the right to assembly and peaceful protests of citizens, has said that it will not allow any unlawful disruption of women march.

That women in Pakistan have been discriminated against is not in the doubt. They have been victims of honour killings, rape, economic disempowerment and disenfranchisement; more than 12 million women are not registered as voters and stand disenfranchised.

In the absence of any law recognising joint or partial ownership of property and income in the relationship of marriage, the vulnerability of women is further heightened.

In a highly readable Op-ed on March 2, Sulema Jahangir has very ably documented how several Muslim countries have recognised women’s non-financial contributions to a marriage to make the relationship less unequal but not in Pakistan. The commission set up by Benazir Bhutto under Justice Aslam Nasir Zahid in early 1990s also recognised the need for addressing issues in inequality in partnership in a married relationship, she says.

According to the World Economic Forum’s latest report on gender gap published recently, Pakistan is the third worst country in terms of gender equality, just ahead of Iraq and Yemen, among the 153 countries surveyed. Over the years, Pakistan’s ranking in the index has been slipping. From a ranking of 112 sometime back, it has hit the lowest in 2020 in all areas of women empowerment, according to the report.

Women in domestic service and in agricultural fields are neither accounted for as organised labour, nor given equal and fair wages in violation of the ILO Convention which Pakistan has signed.

Women are victims of domestic violence. Worst still, this violence was sought to be institutionalised when about two years ago, the Council of Islamic Ideology decreed that beating of women by husbands to chastise them was permissible.

Honour killings and rape have continued despite recent legislation. During General Ziaul Haq’s dictatorship, rape victims failing to produce four witnesses were jailed for adultery. A blind woman was actually ordered to be stoned to death for adultery, an order that mercifully was not carried out. He even sacked a chief of the federal shariat court when he ruled against ‘rajam’ (stoning to death) for adultery and changed the law. General Musharraf dismissed international outcry against rape saying that women NGOs exaggerated rape stories to seek foreign funding.

The patriarchal mind set is deep rooted indeed. Nobel laureate Malala Yousufzai has been ridiculed. Not long ago, the government banned public launching of her book in Peshawar. Similarly, a planned women’s bicycle rally in Peshawar was banned and a local government in Mardan ordered school girls to wear abayas.

The women of Pakistan have said no to all this. They have vowed to raise their voice on March 8 come what may. They want to demolish the patriarchy’s citadel and this is at the root of the turmoil.

Women’s march is portrayed as an issue of existential threat in the name of obscenity and vulgarity. It is feared that the collective voices of women may demolish patriarchy’s citadel.

The resistance to the upcoming march must be challenged and fought at all available forums. Sensationalising some slogans raised at the march last year should not be allowed to deflect from the real issues of women empowerment. The Aurat March is a genuine platform for the collective airing of grievances by women.

If resistance to the women’s march is not challenged, the patriarchal narrative will be further entrenched and internalised. That must not be allowed. Women have a democratic right to challenge the overbearing patriarchy.

There was a time when the clergy resisted even simple registration of divorces as against religion because it fettered in a small way man’s right to divorce and banish women from homes. Since then, women have made some small gains. A retreat will only embolden reactionary forces to seek a reversal of those small gains through huge sacrifices and resistance.

A religious cum political party has announced to launch a 20-day campaign to celebrate the International Working Women’s Day on March 8 as a day of ‘Muslim Women’s Dignity.’ It is within its right to do so. Why threaten other women’s organisations who wish to celebrate it as a day for every woman, not only Muslim women, to challenge misogynist mind set, seek an end to discrimination and dismantle the patriarchy’s citadel?

The writer is a former senator