A few weeks ago leading Pakistani actress Meesha Shafi accused popular singer and songwriter Ali Zafar of sexual harassment, in what is thought to be the first #MeToo moment in conservative Pakistan. Shafi made the allegations on Twitter, writing that there were “some issues that are very difficult to speak about as a woman, especially sexual harassment.”
The allegations have caused a stir on Pakistani social media as the society is deeply patriarchal. Pakistani-based writer and novelist Bina Shah explains what it means to be a woman in Pakistan.
I think a lot about the position of Pakistani women in our country today. I’m delighted every time a Pakistani women does something noteworthy — the first female diplomat posted to Saudi Arabia, for example, is a Pakistani woman called Fouzia Fayyaz. Similarly, I’m dismayed when something terrible happens to a Pakistani woman just because of her gender. For example, the death of Asma Yacoub, a young Christian woman, who was murdered by a Muslim friend of the family because she rejected his marriage proposal. He doused her in acid and she died days later, in agony.
This yo-yo between highs and lows, the concurrent celebration and annihilation of the Pakistani woman, makes me think about our status as citizens of this nation. Where are we today? Any nearer to equality, respect, dignity? No, no nearer, and this is why:
People in Pakistan seem to think there are two types of women: virtuous women, and whores. Nothing bad ever happens to the former, everything bad happens to the latter, and it’s always their fault.
Who is a virtuous woman? A woman who never disobeys. Never questions men’s authority over her (which they conveniently call “God’s will”, using Islam as a convenient cover-up for their sexism and injustice). Aligns herself with men in power, calls out the bad whores. A woman who keeps herself in her place, because she’s so good.
Who is a whore? A woman who refuses to listen to male authority. A woman who wants to work after she’s married, study as long as she wants, move around in society with ease and comfort and safety. A woman who doesn’t accept inferior treatment. This is a whore in Pakistan.
Our attitude to women’s rights in Pakistan: Women must stay in a box. Men will decide how big the box must be. It can be a little box or a big box, depending on your class, culture, position in society, but women must never get out of that box, or immorality will ensue.
And what do they mean by immorality? That women will no longer be in (their) control. That the slaves will escape. That the balance of power will shift. And chaos will ensue. They will have to adjust to a world where no longer are 50% of the population obedient to them.
The sexual harassment case of Ali Zafar, where Meesha Shafi and other women have called him out for sexually harassing them, has brought out a firestorm of controversy, with support for both parties generally falling along gender lines – women supporting the victims, men supporting the accused. But there are some women who are attacking the victims, saying they’re doing this for media attention, or money (echoing what the men are saying).
So we need to talk about the myth that the greatest enemies of women are women. They are not. The greatest enemy of women is patriarchy, which divides women and pits them against one another for the favor and attention of men.
Patriarchy divides women into “good” women and “bad” women, “virtuous” women and “whores”. Then it rewards the former and punishes the latter. It tells the fatal lie that only women fall into these categories, but men’s immorality is only part of his nature, and must be excused.
Patriarchy places all the burden of goodness on women, who are responsible for keeping men in place by not tempting them into immorality. It assigns points to those women who are “good”. It calls for the destruction of those women who are “bad”.
Patriarchy is responsible for honor killing, acid attacks, slut-shaming, reduced sentences for rapists, reduced jail terms for those who murder women. Patriarchy assigns monetary value to women’s bodies, and for the idea that all women are whores, if you only know their price. Patriarchy deems that you can snuff out a woman’s life if you decide she’s no longer of value to you (disobedient, immoral, used goods)
In short, Pakistan will never prosper as a nation as long as we hold on to this mindset. And the only box where women will truly be free to be themselves will be their graves.
Mark my words.
This article originally appeared on Feministani By Bina Shah