Defeated, degraded and disgraced, 15 of the original 276 Chibok girls, abducted by Boko Haram militants from their school dormitories two years ago, have resurfaced in a ‘proof of life’ video, a fitting example of how the world has failed not just them but women all over the strife strewn world. Clammy handed gestures professing a neutered agenda to “bring back our girls” gave us the perfect social media manifesto, our one-click likes digital pats on the back for doing our part in this tragic event. Most of the Chibok children – for that is what these girls were – have reportedly been sold off as sex slaves, forcefully married off to their captors or murdered in what is fast becoming the dogma for a new world: putting women back ‘in their place’.
All over the Muslim world, the constant catchphrase is “woman”. Piety, preservation and prayer begin and end with her. Laws are enforced to clothe and conceal her, and ritualistic ‘honour’ is used to free her but only from living. The barbarity by which this ‘code’ is implemented stretches from Syria to Nigeria, Afghanistan to Indonesia, and boomerangs like a thunderclap right here to Pakistan where women swim through the oil spill of their aspirations every day only to be sucked right back to the starting line.
Like a poisoned heirloom we carry around our necks, our monocratic men of morals have held us down time and time again, hoping to reverse the limited breakthroughs women have made in Pakistan. Recently, in a much applauded and valued move, the government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif introduced the Protection of Women Against Violence Bill in Punjab, the country’s most well-to-do province, aimed at shielding our vulnerable millions from the rage and restraint perpetrated against them by the long arm of patriarchy, the violence and violation regularly employed to exploit what is essentially a very weakened one half of the population. The act made domestic violence, abuse and harassment punishable crimes, the consequences of which were harsh and timely: speedy justice, tracking bracelets for repeat offenders, 24-hour hotline services, shelters for battered women, female officers at hand to speedily register cases of assault and prison terms without the possibility of leniency. It actually did seem as though women were going to catch a clean break in Pakistan.
True to form, our bearded bastions of the faithful, our feckless Council of Islamic Ideology (CII), our various shades of religious parties and lone lamenters of female headway raised their hands in outrage, disbelief and most unforgivingly, resolve. They kicked, screamed, registered their veto and delivered us our deathblow: the law, they said, was un islamic. Good luck reasoning with that kind of logic in a country whose code is now contrived by the nuisance value of these preachers. Women would be westernised, they said. They would become promiscuous, they said. They would overturn family values, they said. They would become free, they feared but in the silence of their own culpability. The government capitulated and it became the same old mating season, a back and forth, back and forth exercise between what the government was willing to concede and what the pulpit was willing to allow, which will never be much. Women here have gotten used to the scraps custom-made to suit their fragile moralities.
Regulating the female body in the Muslim world has always been simple: it’s acceptable either on its back or in its grave. Any third option is refutable, any gesture towards growth is moot and any law passed to counter the cleric is given the failsafe dismissal of being anti-Islam. Protests are called, tyres are burnt, agendas are hijacked and the home is listed as being off the cards, violence perpetrated therein called a ‘private matter’ not to be resolved in the open. What could have been a more colourful constitution for the rights of women in Pakistan is again being rendered monochrome and ambitionless, four-walled in by the champions of patriarchy.
That’s because only dejected fatigue on the parts of governments and campaigners, women and their sympathisers can allow for men in countries like this one to continue with their moral cleansing: rape, honour killings (there are more than 1,000 reported – the real number is estimated as being staggeringly more – cases of women killed annually for some slight in their ‘honour’ in Pakistan alone) tribal justice systems that hold women and their bodies as booty, abuse, control and fierce oppression.
One never hears of the CII or other religious bodies raising a ruckus when children are abused, when young girls are married off before their 16th birthdays; in fact, they sponsor such acts, terming DNA evidence in rape cases as being anti-Islam and puberty struck girls as plump fodder for the penetration of matrimony. Now how could laws passed in favour of women and girls forgoing the ‘pleasure’ of exploitation by older men allow for these antiquated notions of what is acceptable to the palate of the orthodox and animalistic?
When girls go to school they shun early marriage and forced enslavement, when they become economic agents they gain financial independence and close the door on primitive drivel, and when they expect punishment for those who hurt them, they are saying “no”. From Boko Haram to the CII, from Islamic State to the Taliban and from governments that surrender to the will of the sanctimonious to the common man on the street, that is a very real and very dangerous precedent to set.