IT was the Saturday after the tragedy when women came out to protest in Karachi. Some days earlier, in the early hours of Wednesday, Sept 9, a young woman was driving on the segment of the motorway that connects Lahore to Sialkot. At around 1:30 am, the woman’s car ran out of fuel. She called the police for help, but before help could arrive, her rapists did. They broke the windows of her car, dragged her and her children out of the car, and raped her.
The women who stood outside Karachi Press Club came to protest the mentality and the society that permits such crimes to occur. The hours after the news of the motorway attack emerged provided ample evidence of this mentality. Television figures and clerics, all men and all united in their hatred of women, took to whatever medium they could to malign the woman who had endured the grotesque attack.
One of them, the right-wing nationalist Zaid Hamid, took to Twitter, saying: “A friend came to me and said that his car is stolen … I asked him, didn’t you lock it? He said, no I forgot … I said, how on earth you can forget to lock your car when so many cars are being stolen daily? It’s your fault too … Is this called victim-blaming??”
The tweet is but one example of the kind of thinking that blames women for the depraved actions of sex-crazed Pakistani men. It is unsurprising that the ones gathered at the protest did not even need loudspeakers to have their grievances heard. In a society where men think women are cars, or some other sort of property to be locked up to be safe, women must scream out. All kinds of women did, in protests in several cities of the country, on that day.
The fight before them, the fight against a mentality, a culture in which men feel entitled to violate women, is going to be an arduous one.
Beyond the immediate event, the protest touches on some deep and endemic problems in Pakistani society. First is the inability to deal with the fact that women also have a right to public spaces and furthermore to be safe in public spaces. Second, the diversity of women at the protest — some in Western clothes, others in shalwar kameez and dupattas, yet others in full niqab, rich and poor and middle class — illustrates the large range of women fed up of being victimised, harassed and raped just because they are in public space.
Gone are the days when working women were an anomaly; working at banks and fast-food restaurants and at schools and universities; women are now a fixture in public space. What has not changed is the mentality of the Pakistani male. As the quote from Hamid reveals, women are presumed to have no individuality or even personhood but to be the equivalent of cars that can be locked up. It is no surprise, then, that men, seeing ‘unlocked cars’, feel free to rape and commit acts of utter and complete sexual perversion.
Meanwhile, other rallies in Karachi took place over the same weekend. The aerial shots of a huge gathering of supporters of certain extremist groups showed a massive crowd extending as far as the lens could capture.
If the women’s rally sought to demand protection for half of the country’s population, these rallies targeted the Shia community over controversial remarks. The numbers of people and the speeches were intended to intimidate and to frighten and to make a show of force.
The story of the patriarchal mindset is this: there are Pakistanis who want all women in public space to be legitimately subjected to violence. And because that violence alone is not enough to sate the appetite for domination they must vent their rage on other groups that they see as targets.
There is a perversity behind all this that feels unique to the subcontinent, the dark development of deviance in the minds of men that eventually plays out on the country’s streets.
The desire for domination in whatever form evolves from the same fount of depravity; one makes itself known on the bodies of women and the other in calls for blood.
The cure for these ills, these deep-seated pathologies of misogyny and misanthropy, are not simply punishments of individuals but a recognition that, in their heads at least, a vast number of Pakistani males are capable of violence against women. The hesitation to do the worst, the most depraved act, is in their view a lack of opportunity. When the coast is clear, they ravage and rape mothers before the eyes of small children.
There is hope in what the women did when they came out in Karachi and other cities this Saturday. Events like the Aurat March have done the crucial work of normalising the idea of visible and vocal protest, and created networks through which women can be mobilised quickly.
But the fight before them, the fight against a mentality, a culture in which men feel entitled to violate women, where women are compared to cars that can be bought and sold and locked and unlocked, is going to be an arduous one in a culture that is deeply entrenched in patriarchy.
The women who are protesting, who are refusing to let the issue die down, who are forcing men to confront what they do to women — what they want to do to women — are going to win. Those seeking violent domination — in any form — will lose. The way of domination and violence, however indomitable it may seem at this moment, is the way of the past; the way of gender solidarity, of growing women’s voices, is the way of the future.
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.
Published in Dawn, September 16th, 2020