Pakistani authors challenging patriarchal conditions respond to recent femicide cases

Hafsa Lodi speaks to the Pakistani authors who are challenging patriarchal conditions and responses to the nation’s recent femicide cases

Women's rights activists place candles and flowers beside posters with the pictures of Noor Mukadam, who was recently brutally beheaded by her childhood friend. The killing of Mukadam in an upscale neighborhood of Pakistan's capital has shone a spotlight on the relentless violence against women in the country. AP Photo
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#JusticeforNoor was trending last week on Twitter in Pakistan, after Noor Mukadam, 27, was stabbed and beheaded in an upscale district of Islamabad. The week prior, #JusticeforQuratulain had been the top hashtag after the mother of four was tortured to death by her husband in Hyderabad. And earlier this month, it was #JusticeforSaima, who was shot dead after her husband opened fire on her and her children in Peshawar.

“Every week we have a new hashtag trending – each new bone-chilling story temporarily sparks nationwide fury until we move on to the next major headline with no actionable results for improvement,” British-Pakistani author Hira Ali tells The National. “These are only the ones we know about, but not every victim has a 'media mouthpiece' to amplify her voice and garner support.”

Last week, Ali’s second book, Her Allies: A Practical Toolkit to Help Men Lead Through Advocacy, which urges men to champion gender equality through meaningful actions, was published by London's Neem Tree Press. Her book launch was hosted by the British Transport Police, and featured a keynote speech by Ziauddin Yousafzai, Malala Yousafzai’s father.

Ali lived in Karachi and Dubai before relocating to London, and recognises that her book release is timely amid the alarming number of femicide cases in Pakistan. “I am grateful that my book is being considered topical and important, but to be honest, the reason why it's topical makes me uncomfortable,” she says. “The tragic incidents that trigger and necessitate the need for such books are very depressing because it shouldn't take women to be abducted, beheaded, murdered and brutally raped for us to get a wake-up call and start having such conversations.”

These crimes against women have occurred just as a new domestic violence bill that would impose strict punishments to perpetrators of domestic violence has been proposed in Pakistan. It is currently facing resistance from the country’s Council of Islamic Ideology, which serves to advise policymakers on whether or not proposed laws are “repugnant” to the faith.

Following Mukadam’s murder, Fatima Bhutto, author of six books including The Runaways, wrote on Twitter: “The domestic violence bill should be passed immediately and without a moment's delay. A council of true Islamic ideology would have no objection to preventing violence towards women and punishing those who inflict harm on them.”

Proponents of the new bill emphasise that protecting and ensuring the safety of women is a theme that’s ingrained in the egalitarian message of Islam. “We have had parties opposing the domestic violence bill using religion as an excuse when in reality our Prophet [Mohammed] himself was the greatest defender of women's rights, and a legendary example of compassion, gentleness and kindness,” explains Ali.

Mira Sethi, Pakistani actress and author of Are You Enjoying, which released in April, says that Pakistani women are reeling from the trauma of these horrific recent cases. “The domestic violence bill provided a faint glimmer of hope, but the prime minister quashed any such hope by referring the bill to a council of 12 unelected men – a body that in the past has said that men can ‘lightly beat’ their wives, will now vet a domestic abuse bill. This is the irony of modern-day Pakistan,” she tells The National.

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan came under fire recently for stating that rape cases are high in the nation because women wear “very few clothes”, perpetuating a culture that justifies gendered violence on the basis of a woman’s clothing. He was also criticised for failing to make any public comment after news broke of Mukadam’s murder, instead using social media to promote a tree plantation drive.

“Pakistani women are angry, exhausted and at the mercy of a State that continues to look away,” says Sethi.

Details about the three recent cases, including statements from those close to the victims, as well as updates from the police and courts, are being discussed and debated on platforms such as Twitter and Instagram. Some social media users are victim-blaming the women who lost their lives to the men that they knew and trusted. They are reprimanding women for visiting male friends unchaperoned and warning fathers about the dangers of giving their daughters too much freedom. Others have said the gendered violence cases against wives are private, marital matters.

Ali says such patriarchal responses are prevalent not only in Pakistan but across the globe – even in the UK, where British woman Sarah Everard was murdered by a policeman earlier this year. “The truth is, victim-blaming is a global pandemic; misogyny is not limited to any faith or culture but is a universal challenge,” she says.

“It's the 21st century and we are still arguing and debating on whether or not men have the inherent right to abuse women,” continues Ali, who believes that the allyship of men is critical in redressing deeply rooted misogynistic mindsets. “Although rape and murders are at the extreme end of the gender violence spectrum, they do not happen in isolation. They all begin with an attitude – attitudes and perceptions that we have of women, which shape and mould our society and culture.”

Gender-based violence in Pakistan is often provoked by warped notions of “honour”, wherein male family members might murder a female because she disobeyed them, thereby challenging their patriarchal standing and family reputation. The State of Human Rights in Pakistan reported 430 cases of “honour killings” in 2020, however author Awais Khan says the real number is likely much higher. His second book, No Honour, releases globally on Thursday, August 19, and although it’s a work of fiction, Khan says that it was inspired by “all-too-common, real-life events in Pakistan”.

“The fact that honour killings are taking place in this day and age is utterly horrifying. It’s a criminal practice that goes on unchecked, and I felt it was important to write a story that showed how unsafe a place Pakistan still is for women,” he tells The National.

While Khan is aware that by exposing these issues he is susceptible to backlash, he believes it is his duty to shine a light on them through his work, nonetheless. “Pakistan is steeped in toxic patriarchy, and if writers won’t share such stories and attempt to rectify these social attitudes, then who will? You need only open the newspaper to see the horror that is inflicted by men on women in Pakistan every single day,” he says.

“I believe that men actively need to use whatever influence they have to make this country a safer place for women. They need to do more, and they can start by speaking up against gendered violence.”

Updated: July 31, 2021, 4:27 AM