Unmourned and unmissed —Rafia Zakaria

The numbers of female deaths is daunting: a total of 857 women have lost their lives due to violence this year and of these 225 were killed in crimes of honour

Additional Police Surgeon Dr Zulfiqar Siyal told a forum held by Aurat Foundation (AF) last week that more than a hundred women are raped every twenty-four hours in Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city and financial hub. Even more disturbing, only 0.5 percent of rapes, according to Dr Siyal, are actually reported to law enforcement authorities.The pandemic of violence against women in Pakistan is hardly restricted to Karachi. According to AF’s latest quarterly report, crimes of violence against women are at an all-time high in Pakistan. 1705 cases of violence against women were reported between April 1 and June 30 this year (as data is compiled from newspaper reports, this excludes the high number of unreported cases). 491 of these 1705 women died as a result of the violence, mostly at the hands of their husbands or other close relatives. 135 of these deaths were described as honour killings while the rest were characterised as murder. Over 356 women were abducted from their homes.

According to AF, the report signifies a rapid increase in the number of crimes against women compared to even the last quarter, January to March 2008. In that quarter, 1321 cases were reported in newspapers from around the country. Cumulatively, the numbers of female deaths is daunting: a total of 857 women have lost their lives due to violence this year and of these 225 were killed in crimes of honour.

If Dr Siyal’s suggestion that the number of reported crimes reflect only 0.05 percent of the actual number of crimes taking place is true, then the actual number of crimes can be approximated at 6,052,000 cases of violence against women just this year in Pakistan!

Despite the alarming number, little is being done on a social, governmental or economic level to address this problem. The social taboos against reporting crimes against women have in fact insured an obstinate state of denial in which most Pakistanis (including women) stubbornly defend statements like “there is no rape in Pakistan”, or that the women raped are at fault themselves, or worse still, prostitutes.

It is therefore unsurprising that statements defending honour killings have made their way into Pakistani legislatures, where tribal chiefs and political scions can get away with defending in the name of tradition crimes as grotesque as live burials.

At their core, however, the denial and failure to take crimes against women seriously or to prosecute honour killings as crimes against the state reflect an internalised misogyny prevalent in Pakistan. One encounters it even among well educated policymakers. A milder example of the blatant sexism pervading even Pakistan’s top leadership is President Zardari’s now infamous compliment to Sarah Palin, the US Republican party nominee for vice-president.

The denunciation of feminism as a western fad limited to the politically correct and intellectually inferior is a recurrent position even among the educated elite. The refrain is familiar: with growing insurgencies, skyrocketing poverty and dilapidated infrastructure, who has the time or energy to give an ear to namby pamby “women’s” issues?

The statistics quoted above reflect another reality. Political parties from the religious right have used these statistics to argue that women should be confined to the domestic sphere, out of public life. The prevalence of crimes of violence against women is cited by the Tehreek-e Taliban and in support of their extremist version of Islam — one that requires women to remain indoors and hence “protected” from the likelihood of being victimised.

In a perversion of the argument for women’s emancipation — part of which is that the laws safeguarding women must be enforced — the victims themselves are held responsible and their freedom curtailed under the pretext of saving them from being persecuted. This argument is fallacious for two reasons.

Firstly, the report published by Aurat Foundation clearly shows that the prime perpetrators of crimes against women are their own family members. Of the reported cases, nearly ninety percent were crimes committed by husbands, fathers and brothers — all people who would continue to have access to these women regardless of whether they were relegated to their homes.

Second, and related to this, the often close kinship between the perpetrators of these crimes and the affected women suggests that increasingly women are at best second or third class citizens in society. Powerless men, victimised by growing poverty, increasing joblessness and skyrocketing inflation, turn to the most easily available targets to vent their anger. In Pakistan these are women. It seems that cruelty against women has no consequences and therefore has become an easy outlet for the anger of Pakistani men.

No doubt that these are harsh words, but then so are the figures reported. As insecurity grows, and crimes against women continue to rise, most Pakistani women are forced to come up with their own recipes for dealing with a society that is essentially misogynistic. Some may take respite in the hijab and niqab as means of physical protection. Others, often from wealthier homes, turn to denial and rationalisation, convincing themselves that if they aren’t raped or harassed then nobody else is either.

In the meantime, the eight hundred women that have died this year alone remain unmourned and unmissed in Pakistan.

Rafia Zakaria is an attorney living in the United States where she teaches courses on Constitutional Law and Political Philosophy. She can be contacted at rafia.zakaria@gmail.com



Source: Daily Times, 27/9/2008

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