By Najma Sadeque
Published in DAWN – November 26, 2007
SOME years ago, a woman undergoing life imprisonment in Sukkur jail for murdering her husband — something she readily confessed to — said poignantly: “I don’t know why he beat me. He didn’t have to because I always obeyed him. I wouldn’t dare otherwise. He could have just asked without violence, and I would have done the same and more.”
She echoed many women who continue to voice similar sentiments, when they have the opportunity or courage to do so, to social workers and doctors. Why men are unnecessarily violent remains an even greater mystery to women than why most men tend to be violent which is assumed to be inherent. But part of the reason is obvious: many men are violent because they know they can get away with it.
As in this prisoner’s case, the woman’s husband beat her almost daily so that her face or some part of her body was always lacerated or swollen. Yet, like most other poor women, she was not welcome to return to her parental home and she had nowhere else to turn to.
He had already fractured each limb at least once, and one day he tied her to the charpoy and then sat and slept on it all night, pressing his full weight on her extremities. Her piercing screams failed to draw the neighbours — it was ‘none of their business’ — until she fell unconscious. Permanently deformed, she decided she would take no more.
When her wounds finally healed, she poisoned him to death. It is easy to understand why she feels at peace in prison and has no desire for freedom.
Violence against women has always been viewed as a strictly social problem, even by some of the most well-intentioned activists and scholars. Some appeal to the better side of the male nature, others exhort men to exhibit the behaviour that religion expects of them — essentially asking for consideration and compassion rather than protection and penalty against violence as a human right.
This is not necessarily because women automatically accept second place or are unaware of their rights. This approach has been used as a strategy. Aware of the unlikelihood of achieving guarantees against violence overnight, women turn to a long-term plan and ask for less in the hope that they’ll make some headway over the years before asking for a little bit more until finally all their rights are realised even if it takes decades. Better late than never. Even the UN has adopted this strategy. It has been organising women’s international regional conferences at three- to five-year intervals.
All this suits male-dominated societies and governments that emerge from the mindset of entrenched hierarchies. It gives them reason to do as little as possible for women. It allows for many double standards — confinement, restrictions on mobility, lower wages, no genuine participation or representation in unions or politics or ministries, caps to promotion, denial of leadership, and so on.
While some countries have indeed raced ahead, many governments of formerly colonised ‘developing’ countries still prefer to keep women confined to their traditional role or allow ‘progress’ at a snail’s pace only, and are not expected to see genuine results for half a century or more. Conferences and special days are even observed by cynical governments to best effect.
It is only in recent years that some have started to come out more into the open about the economic and political objectives of violence or its threat to women’s progress. One has only to trace the linkages among women’s subservience, power hierarchies, global wealth monopolies and militarisation. Some have begun to think in terms of getting freedom from domestic and workplace violence to be guaranteed under the constitution of their country.
Long, compulsory jail sentences could prove to be a deterrent. That seems unlikely in many, especially Muslim, countries; also because men would be likely to demand the same guarantees against their oppressors, whoever.
Ever since governments came round to accepting the concept of nations respecting the culture of others, without defining any parameters, it became even easier for many wayward countries to retain bad habits on untenable religious or cultural grounds. An organised effort to mount an international campaign regarding the issue to pressure governments began in 1991, when the first Women’s Global Leadership Institute sponsored by the Centre for Women’s Global Leadership in the US came up with the ‘16 Days of Activism against Gender Violence’. It has been painstakingly slow work, but since 1991 more than 2,000 organisations from over 150 countries have participated.
The occasion has been made 16 days long not only to enable a sustained spotlight while giving women sufficient continuous time for lobbying and awareness-raising activities, but also to encompass several other related occasions — Nov 25 (International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women); Nov 29 (International Women Human Rights Defenders Day); Dec 1 (World AIDS Day); Dec 6 (the Canadian National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence against Women, commemorated after a young man shot 14 women engineering students in 1989 at a Montreal polytechnic before killing himself); and Dec 10 (International Human Rights Day). A few Pakistani women’s NGOs first joined up with the ‘16 Days of Activism against Gender Violence’ in 2003. Violence against women is universal but Pakistan has its own brand too, such as ‘honour-killing’ which actually saw resurgence under authoritarian rule. This year more groups are expected to join up despite the distractions of the emergency.
Nor does the occasion depend on seminars and workshops alone. A key feature of ‘16 days’ is website information and ideas, Internet exchanges and discussions that take place which anyone can join and share with those groups that are not computer-literate or have no access. The theme is the same everywhere: gender-based violence is a human rights issue at the local, national, regional and international levels. The common denominator, violence against women, is a violation of human rights. If it is not acceptable against men, it is not acceptable against women either.