In our societal constructs, women and girls are marginalized from the day they are born. They are type-casted as temporary residents, hence, a moveable property/object within the custody of their natal homes.
The custody is transferable to a marital home, and preferably not returnable. This deprives them their constitutional right to life, consent and decisions about their life-based choices. The tag of being moveable property/object makes them an economic burden that needs to be kept safe i.e. chaste; and not worth investment (from education to health) as Return On Investment (ROI) is for the marital household.
While making the transfer, it is expected that women are returnable to natal home, preferably on expiry.
A girl’s family ringfences her life – physical to emotional – to keep control over her rights and entitlement as an equal human and citizen. Families take cue from a range of societal attitudes, norms and practices that are disadvantageous to a woman or a girl, yet are sanctified under socio-cultural or religious frames of reference to take control of her life.
The first ring of discrimination is based on her gender. It type-casts her looks, choice of colors, toys, food, nutrition and a certain way of conduct which are carried over her lifetime. Being moveable property, the second ring is imposed around her safety i.e. chastity, and her access to education, health and wellbeing is not prioritized. The third ring is set to usurp consent, voice and agency of a woman especially with regards to employment and marriage.
Women are 49 percent of the population of Pakistan. They face many types of violence in their lifetimes, which include physical, emotional and sexual. The Pakistan Demography And Health Survey (PDHS 2017-2018) recorded it as early as age 15 for 28 percent women. There are no children-focused surveys to document the same for ages 15 and under.
As many as 18 percent adolescent girls are pushed into child marriage, having very little education and from low-income quintile. Interestingly, despite being fragile and vulnerable, they are bestowed to carry the huge burden of ‘family honor’ on their shoulders throughout their lives and from their birth homes to their marital homes. The honor is dishonored through violence towards them under one pretext or the other. They become barter to settle family and clan-based feuds.
Digital violence is the newest form. Family honor remains as undefined as national security.
But women of Pakistan are rising like a phoenix. They are capturing online and offline public spaces, which is not settling well with many insecure men. What hurts them most is women in leadership positions. Women in Pakistan have shattered many socio-political and socio-cultural typecasts, despite a complex landscape of vulnerability, marginalization and discrimination. Women having a voice, opinion and particularly a political opinion, are most dangerous species. A woman in a leadership position, especially if she is a political leader, is a terrifying prospect for men who are gatekeepers of the road to women’s empowerment.
Benazir Bhutto is an unmatched political icon. She has had her own share of bullying and body shaming; yet each aspiring female politician wants to emulate the way she covered her head. Hina Rabbani Khar demonstrated her political acumen while being Minster for Economic Affairs to Foreign Affairs. Yet, it was her looks, demure dressing, birkin handbag, husky voice and pearls that would get reported before her political views. Same was and is the case for Sherry Rehman and Shireen Mazari, among others, whose strong political stances which infuriates men and all they can respond with is criticism or bullying.
From 2002 onwards a substantial number of women have joined the parliament and the provincial assemblies. Performance of women in the parliament has been much better than men from attendance to raising issues of public interest. Yet since the oath taking day in 2002 all news bulletins and newspapers could focus on was what were they wearing – in terms of clothing brands, shoes and sunglasses. They were and are being objectified for their fashion sense by focusing on cost and brands of their bags to shades to watches to dresses than their political work. On the other hand, men wearing equally expensive and branded clothing, watches or shades are seldom discussed.
This points to not only the societal hypocrisy and dual standards but how media enables the gatekeepers of women socio-political empowerment to be vile and toxic. Digital mediums and social media have heightened it. One would hardly see a female politician as a panelist in top rated political shows; except those designated as party’s information secretary and/or spokesperson. The debate on poverty, food insecurity, health, climate, disaster, rule of law etc. would hardly focus – forget integrating – women’s perspective, despite the fact that it has an established differential impact. Unpaid work by women in care economy, informal sector and multi-tasking is hardly a prime-time topic. Online abuse, harassment and misogyny knows no bound. Political trolls hound women having political affiliation and/or opinion. The sexual abuses and abusive hashtags are most common for any opinionated woman and more so for women in politics.