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The helpless, the powerless!

Huzaima Bukhari

“We all hit moments when we feel helpless. The test is how we react to that feeling. We can either learn from it and move forward or let it drag us down”―Travis Bradberry

Ms. B is an educated lady, comes from a high class, rich and sophisticated family that played a pivotal role in Pakistan’s politics, gets married to a wealthy feudal, leads an enviable life in the best locality of the city until…..the fairytale takes a bizarre turn and that too at that point in life when a person is gearing to come to terms with old age and hoping to spend the remaining time in relative peace. Such are the venomous tentacles of our feudal system that twines around women in a way which leave them defenceless, penniless and totally vulnerable to apathetic men in powerful positions who, through their selfish approach are only capable of guarding their own interests, indifferent to norms of justice or fair play.

Ms. B is desperately pursuing cases filed by her worse half who wants to kick her out of his life and deprive her of her own property after many decades of companionship just because he desires to take on another woman. Disgusted by the feudal mentality of the judiciary including members of legal fraternity, she is fighting her own cases despite having no background of law. Her dilemma—being a woman well into her 60s, everyone she comes across either wants to take advantage of her situation or tries to persuade her to surrender to her husband’s irrational demands. She, however, has the determination to continue her battle on all fronts even though she has been confined to her room with no one to attend on her or cook her meals. Such is the might and maliciousness of the so-called feudal elite!

Women, irrespective of their social status, have consistently been victims of feudal authoritarianism as evident by the number of cases recorded in Pakistan in addition to the innumerable ones which get hushed up beneath heaps of false moralities. Proceedings in the courts are also subjected to laws especially conceived with the idea of imposing feudal supremacy and definitely with the aim of demonizing the female victim, turning the crime against her even when she is innocent. As reported by the media, 51,241 cases of violence against women were filed between January 2011 and June 2017 but the accused were convicted by courts in only 2.5% cases. One does not have to be a feudal lord to inflict harm on women. Feudalism is a mental state where even the impoverished consider their wives, daughters and sisters as personal property to do with them whatever they please, even if it implies killing them for ‘honour’.

In a recent case reported by S. Khan of  Deutsche Welle (DW) on 23.09.2019, Shazia, a 40 years old mother of six was brutally injured and her nose cut off by her husband who, on hearsay accused her of illicit relations with a stranger although she kept pleading otherwise. He fled the scene leaving his bleeding wife at the mercy of neighbours who took her to the hospital for treatment. The police failed to find the absconder who, in the meantime managed to get bail before arrest from a court that seemed too willing to heed to his request rather than get him behind bars. The woman, who took refuge with her parents, cannot bear to live with a person who has ruined her life. She is bent upon getting him convicted but is also fearful of her father-in-law, a retired police official who could influence the authorities. Her husband is pressurizing her to withdraw the case against him but she is adamant that she will not allow her perpetrator to roam around freely.

It is interesting to observe how disfigurement of a woman’s face by a man signifies another patriarchal ideology which relates to not so much as a man’s authority over her, but his own position among his male counterparts for whom control over their family is more important to their masculinity. Since a woman’s face is closely related to her sexuality, marring it as punishment is something that gives men a sense of pride and achievement. This also explains the many cases of acid attacks or mutilating ears, nose and shaving of the head. The son of a renowned politician and feudal lord was also involved in such an attack, strengthening the argument that this system must be disbanded if justice is the prime objective of this country.

The famous case of Mukhtaran Mai that came as a shock to the whole world, made her a renowned celebrity and women’s rights activist is another example of feudal mindset wherein our courts acquitted the men involved in the heinous crime of gang raping a woman on the behest of the village ‘panchayat’ (council of elders) seventeen years after an anti-terrorist court awarded death penalty to six out of fourteen identified by Mai, four, sentenced for rape while two were awarded capital punishment for being part of the village council. According to Mai, “It’s a systemic problem.” She explains, “Women police stations and other facilities are set up in cities while the majority of the violence takes place in villages. In rural areas, feudal landlords call the shots; the administration and police are subservient to these feudal chieftains who view women as commodities. So how can justice be delivered in such cases?”

The Punjab Protection of Women Against Violence Act, 2016 was enacted by PML(N) that was met with much resentment when the Bill was introduced. A furor was raised by many religious groups claiming that this law would increase divorce rates and destroy the country’s traditional family system. Male chauvinists thought it was offensive to men to force them to wear a GPS Tracker as proposed in the bill. So here too, the typical mindset appears to be dominant that seeks to keep women disempowered because of their illogical fear that any attempt to endow them with rights would culminate in promotion of obscenity.

Not that the earlier governments have been insensitive towards the plight of women but they failed in enforcing laws because these functions are mostly in the hands of male officials and police who consider such acts as “family problems” that need to be settled without public intervention. In other words, these are not seen as crimes.

Women’s rights activists strongly advocate against patriarchal attitudes, principally on account of the existing feudal culture prevalent in the country. The least any government could do was disempower the mighty landlords, who have been playing havoc with the destiny of their modern serfs and more damagingly with their own womenfolk. Inheriting unaccountable wealth without the slightest effort is the main reason for their arrogance and peculiar thinking that permeates within the minds of their followers who in turn impose it on their own kin. Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of India, successfully broke the princely states to establish an equitable playing field for anyone who had the talent. No wonder that a tea boy is now leading (good or bad) India but we in Pakistan are still juggling in dynastic politics.

Suggestions from various women’s forums include increase of representation in the legislature, economy and government but this can happen only when women are provided better opportunity to gain education and utilize their capabilities in practical ways. For the government right now the most convenient way to put things on the back burner is to impose restrictions on women rather than implementing the law in letter and spirit. When women collect on the streets to demand their rights, all that is required is a group of religious clerics to declare them as immoral and a handful of media spokesmen to snub their efforts


The writer, lawyer and author, is an Adjunct Faculty at Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS)

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