Now or never: Are women to live, or perish forever ? | By Talha Ali Khawaja

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Now or never: Are women to live, or perish forever ?


WHAT is to be said about a country that is ranked among the most dangerous countries for women, where violence against women is so common that it has almost been normalized in our conscience whenever a new story emerges.

But how far does an incident have to go to shake a nation that has normalized violence? The answer may lie in the beheaded corpse of one Noor Muqaddam.

This is an event so traumatizing that it has sent shockwaves across the country and put almost any decent human being worried about his community into despair and misery.

The event in question is a gruesome murder of a young woman in Islamabad by Zahir Jaffer, scion of the influential Jaffer family business.

I find myself precluded of going into all the gory and violent details, because everyone has already been traumatized enough.

Instead, this article will discuss societal attitude towards the incident, violence to women in general, and what legal troubles women face in our rotten system.

Every year around the month of March, a new wave of misogyny and toxic masculinity shows its face to oppose the Aurat March wielding the sword of “preservation of our culture” and “protection of our Islamic values”.

But when a culture normalizes violence, rape, harassment and victim blaming, is such a culture worth preserving? It is this very culture that has led to a bright young woman being beheaded by a man who considered himself to be above the law based on his wealth and privilege.

I cannot be the only person to have heard the incident and had flashbacks of human heads and corpses hanging at the “khooni chowk” (bloody square) in Swat valley engulfed in a reign of terror under the Taliban.

It was indeed a dark period for the nation, and we all lived in fear. But what is even more terrifying than that is the fact that Zahir Jaffer is not the Taliban.

He is not some fringe element in North of Pakistan or in the mountains of Kandahar who can comfortably be excluded from the grand scheme of things and be considered an exception to the normal and decent functioning of our civil society.

He belonged to an extremely affluent family, received top quality education from the best private schools of the country, owned a US passport, and here is the irony of it all: gave counselling and lectures in leading schools across the country! The logical conclusion of this is a grim realization that, in reality, the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan has won.

It has successfully radicalized our society in their image to the extent that even supposedly progressive and educated members of society also consider beheading another human being as an appropriate course of action.

On the legal side of things, many men will be quick to suggest women to be “brave” and report their abusers to the law if they are true. In fairness, the claim is not completely erroneous.

Due process is a fundamental requirement in a just society. However, our legal system is nothing less than torture for women. The need for reform is paramount. In the capital city, Islamabad, there is only one Women Police Station where they may report any such abuse.

But the ironic part is that the investigation is then carried out by the same [often male] Investigation Officer, who not only is also investigating cases for murders, narcotics, terrorism, but is also more likely than not to hold patriarchal biases.

This is just the beginning of the woes for women. Once investigation is completed, the victim must also appear in small, congested and overcrowded court rooms to give testimony and statements where the privacy and modesty of the victim is devastated completely.

It is not hard to imagine an already abused female victim dreading at the thought of appearing in these congested courtrooms alongside murderers, drug dealers and terrorists. This opens up the victim to further abuse and harassment in an already misogynist and patriarchal social set-up.

We fancy ourselves as an “Islamic society”, but is that really the case when the privacy and modesty of women is actually insulted in the deplorable state of our court premises?

It is evident that a myriad of reforms is necessary to make our societies livable for our women. Law being my area of expertise, I believe there are several ways in which we may improve.

Legislation could be adopted to make arrangements for reporting of offences to be done at Union Council levels where specific bodies for this purpose exist and which may consist of women.

This will save the trouble and fear of going to police stations where your First Information Report (FIR) will almost never be registered unless you have a strong backing, and will especially be of benefit to women in rural areas who do not have access to these offices.

Similarly, to avoid breaches of privacy, blemishes to modesty and harassment on court premises, there may be female police officials that record statements of the victim and/or witnesses and the courts then consider that as admissible evidence in court.

Alternatively, if the state takes violence against women seriously (which it shows no sign of at the moment), it could create special courts to deal with harassment and violence against women, that is purpose built and where staff and judges are specifically trained and sensitized to the issues that women face.

This is important because expecting women to have their issues dealt on the same premises where murderers and drug dealers rotate regularly is against the sanctity of women. Interestingly, this is not some unorthodox or bizarre solution. There is precedent for it.

For example, we have a separate Anti-Terrorism Courts to deal with cases of terrorism. Similarly, the Accountability Courts under the National Accountability Bureau have a separate identity of their own.

Thus, the precedent exists, what is needed is political will to see violence against women as a genuine threat to the human security of Pakistan and its social order, in much the same way that terrorism and corruption are.

Considering that the belief that “clothes lead to rape” mentality comes from the highest office in the country, this seems unlikely any time soon.

Almost nine decades ago, Chaudhry Rehmat Ali galvanized Muslims of India into action and gave the political will to establish a social order for the protection of Muslims that culminated into the state of Pakistan.

The pamphlet he wrote read “Now or Never: Are We to Live or Perish Forever?” This state faces a similar dilemma today: do we create a society based on the rule of law and justice where everyone’s, but especially women’s, full participation in society and safety is ensured (guaranteed as a ‘principle of policy’ under article 36 of the Constitution); or do we create a society reminiscent of Swat under the TTP and inaugurate a Khooni Chowk in every city? It is now or never!

—The writer is a Advocate, based in Islamabad.

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