The social farce-By Ayesha Siddiqa

ALTHOUGH Pakistan’s attention seems completely diverted towards the upcoming presidential elections, there are other equally important things happening in the country such as the burying alive of two women.

The words of Baloch Senator Israrullah Zehri has angered a lot of people. The politician believes that such acts cannot be condemned as they are part of the local tradition of not allowing women the freedom of selecting their partners without the consent of their parents or guardians. Those trying to challenge authority, hence, must be punished according to tribal norms.

The feminists, in particular, view it as an issue of women’s rights. However, this problem is a subset of the larger issue of the lack of social and political development and the gradual militarisation of society. It should be viewed in this context.

While analysing the issue, let us differentiate between reality and the response to it. The social reality is what was expressed by the Baloch senator, according to whom honour killing is part of the local culture and traditions. His statement angered many but I would prefer Zehri over others of his kind — like one particularly prominent, foreign-educated and seemingly liberal female politician who many years ago made a similar claim during a private conversation. I was perturbed how she hid her feudal character under the garb of western sophistication. Such elements are difficult to catch and protest against.

Over the years, especially during the past couple of decades, society has become more militarised which means that what is defended as local culture is actually a greater distortion of religion and local traditions to enhance the power of individuals. The power play that we see in the country amongst politicians on a larger scale is actually an extension of a similar game that is played at the micro level in society. Women get punished as well as men because they don’t have a similar power status. This is the norm of a feudal, tribal and militarised society.

Surely, Mr Zehri did not know any better. He, like many others of his kind, has only seen the exercise of naked power. The senator was only trying to defend what he sees as a symbol of power that is his ultimate goal and that of others strutting about in the corridors of power. Balochistan is not alone in this. Such savage acts are presented as custom in other parts of the country as well. Recently, when I expressed my concern to a Sindhi journalist regarding the opening up of new madressahs in interior Sindh as a means to influence the Sufi traditions of the region, his response was that what was a matter of greater concern were incidents of honour killing — all defended in the name of tradition.

Can honour killing stop without debating the structure of society and without wanting to change it? The answer is in the negative. Protests against individual acts of violence will certainly provide relief to a few but will not root out the problem. The religious clerics led by the feudal/tribal leaders (or the other way around) will keep arguing that women have fewer rights than men. But their claims and counter-claims are all a farce until people begin to address the issue of restructuring the culture which is the basis of such crimes.

And one has to be realistic in understanding two critical points. First, feudalism and tribalism do exist in the country. For those, who believe that feudalism is no more in this country, the answer is that the institution has morphed into newer shapes. It might have ended from the perspective of the mode of production, but its socio-cultural forms exist. In fact, the institution has deepened its roots.

Second, the militarisation of society has influenced the process of morphing so that individuals, groups or institutions who represent the non-feudal class behave like them as well. For instance, there is no real difference between Senator Zehri and Pervez Musharraf who not too long ago had claimed that women get raped to get Canadian visas. The underlying sentiment is similar — gender rights or human rights are not possible because it challenges the power of those at the top who will then choose to treat issues of rights as cursory and one to be ignored and brushed aside as minor problems, even non-existent matters.

Let’s be very clear that such acts of brutality have nothing to do with religion or morality, otherwise such brutal rules would be applied elsewhere too. I am reminded of a tragic incident in a village in south Punjab where a young girl, who had sought shelter at a shrine after running away from her stepmother, was gang-raped. Ultimately, she was imprisoned on charges of adultery because the culprits had greater access to the local pir who was a member of parliament as well. The victim did not represent his constituency while the culprits did. The power structure was clearly tilted against her and so was the local standard of morality.

Interestingly, similar norms were not applied to some of the female members of the pir’s family known for morally dubious practices. Even the orthodox mullahs of that area have never ventured to punish the immorality mentioned above or issue fatwas. In fact, moral turpitude is a reality in all closed spaces. Peep inside any closed household, especially those that claim to be the spiritual saviours of the people, and there will be a number of stories, the protagonists of which go unpunished due to their higher social background.

The social system says that money and power determine whether or not one is punished for an act of immorality. These two aforementioned attributes make it convenient for many to hide their sins and escape honour killing or jail sentences. More important, the menfolk of such families are not even expected to hide their immoral acts. In many cases, being a mullah or a pir is sufficient licence for anything otherwise condemnable.

So, while we agree that Mr Zehri has correctly projected honour killing as a local tradition, could we also ask him to see the circumstances in which such practices are born? Burying men or women alive or killing them for honour is not about religion or tribal morality but about the ability of some individuals to exercise naked power.

The question is that is it social imbalance that Zehri and others like him were elected to defend or will he see the real purpose of his and others political existence? Furthermore, closed spaces and unequal power will always breed moral corruption. The current power structures have to be broken if morality is to be restored to our socio-political space.

The writer is an independent strategic and political analyst.

Source: Daily Dawn, 5/9/2008

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