Time Out of Joint
While growing up, I thought ‘mod’ was an Urdu word that meant disreputable women. I didn’t figure out that it was an abbreviation for ‘modern’ till much later. It explains the moral panic around women though.
Women and through them, the home, were the last bastion against modernity. Initially ushered in through colonialism, in people’s experience, with mass schooling came mass arrests; with long-distance roads came long-distance weapons; with premium on rationality came the dismissal of tradition. Liberating laws were in tandem with obstructive bureaucracies, the consolidated state simultaneous with decimated lifestyles.
A solution was needed that allowed benefiting from colonial engagement while also keeping cultural purity and personal identity intact. So men would wear pants, speak English and seek employment and representation, while the women would study religion and morality inside the home and raise children inculcating in them the value of traditions. This vein continues. Global economic, political and material integration will not subsume us as long as women as transmitters of identity are kept uncontaminated.
But now the inner sanctum has been breached. More women are studying and working outside homes and making marriage choices than ever before. Fertility rates are declining and the age of marriage has been moved forward. They have entered gender-bender fields from corporations to parliament, from sports to driving trucks. Laws have been introduced that regulate the private domain such as prohibiting anti-women customs, addressing domestic violence, allowing divorce and dismissing the consent of guardians. The state is extending social protection to the poorest of women and offering incentives for their economic participation.
And there’s the blowback. Not only is ‘customary’ violence like ‘honour’ killings increasing, but emerging forms are breaking with the past patterns of confining violence against women to the privacy of ‘chaar divaari’. Gang rapes, public stripping and parading, circulating videos of coercive pornography are not just bodily violations but have an important function of broadcasting public warnings. For others, the velocity of social change is signalling the ‘qayamat’ they believe can be stalled by calcifying women in status quo.
The hostility to human rights as a framework is the aftershock of a seismic change. The moral compass has upended. The move from the collective as a unit to the notion of individuals was nothing less than an inversion of the earth’s poles that apparently happens every couple of millennia.
The collectivities, the tribe, the caste, the ethnicity, the biradari, the village, the family, were all sustained by a political economy that made joint livelihoods and identities necessary. Even now, across rural Pakistan I find women unable to use the singular ‘I’; it is always ‘us’ and ‘we’. They don’t conceptually differentiate between personal and family interests. It is in this context that honour killings, forced marriages, use of women in conflict mediation (swara) and child labour occur, where the detriment of the individual is to the benefit of the group. ‘We’ masks the injustices that the ‘I’ uncovers.
Some things that indicate the old authentic pre-modern are new — the hijab for instance. Other things that look new, hence modern, are old conventions — women in leadership positions for instance.
In the search for authenticity, a sort of neo-archaeology of the indigenous, a hybrid reality is created. South African visa regulations required me to get written permission from my husband allowing me to travel alone. They said it was in keeping with the local culture. I argued that no authority in Pakistan had ever asked for this. It turned out that it was about minimising honour crimes asylum claims.
Women across Pakistan, meanwhile, continue to face an old ultimatum: they can either claim citizenship of the state or membership of the community. Appealing to the former means expulsion from the latter. Once you go to the police or courts or shelters, there is no going back into the family fold. Until recently, the reverse was also true: women within the fold of their communities were out of bounds for the state. But the gendered premise of citizenship is changing.
As the state was contested, it did not have the social legitimacy to assert monopoly over violence. So instead, it ‘democratised’ violence by creating enclaves of impunity: the state had the right to use violence in the public sphere and men had the right to use it in the private sphere. As the state gains acceptance and consolidates its monopoly on violence, it has started to challenge men’s impunity in the private sphere. This changes the terms of the social contract itself. This is why there is such a strong reaction to domestic violence laws.
Women’s lives are both, indicators of change and its collateral damage. The violence they face is in the public’s knowledge but mostly beyond public consciousness. But change happens anyway, whether willed or not. So where does that leave me?
A woman in a remote village on the border of Sindh and Balochistan was trying to understand what I did as I explained my research and advocacy work. Her ancestors were the traditional mourners of the Talpur rulers, women who were paid to wail about death and misfortune, communicate suffering and provide collective catharsis.
She rolled her beedi and had her eureka moment. “You do the same thing,” she said while smirking, “You’re the new generation rudaali.” I laughed. Then I agreed.
The writer is a researcher and consultant in the social sector.
This story was originally published by Dawn, Pakistan