By Rafia Zakaria
March 04, 2020
A VIRUS is ravaging the world. Borders are closed, flights have been cancelled and plans thwarted. A huge economic downturn is expected. Closer to home in Karachi, a reported toxic gas leak has taken the lives of over a dozen people (and maybe more). Crimes are going unpunished, the innocent being harassed while the guilty roam free and unfettered. The poor are crushed and the wealthy are indolent.
None of that, however, is the concern of a large section of Pakistani men. Their concern is the Aurat March, which in daring to take place is assaulting the sense of superiority that they have taken for granted since forever. In recent weeks, these fervent opponents of Aurat March have made it their business to spread falsehoods about the marches that are supposed to take place all over the country on March 8, 2020. Sometimes their attacks are digital: a feral weaponisation of Twitter and Facebook with doctored photos of obscene signs and slogans that never were. In other cases they have taken to the streets. One man standing outside a mall in Karachi, no doubt inspired by the denunciations issued by one or another religious leader, declared his opposition by holding up a sign that said: “Men are the protectors of women.” Self-righteous as ever, he forgot to address what happens if a woman wants to protect herself.
On a TV programme, one of these men, his ego puffed to capacity, listed his gripes and grievances. Some were hurled at women in general and others shot particularly at the audacious women (how dare they) organising Aurat March. A columnist himself, this man, who was particularly adept at his pretence as an imagined underdog, objected to the march by alleging that it was ‘lewd’. Loud and peeved, and performing the usual rehearsed remonstrations of being interrupted (by a woman no less), he insisted that the event discriminated against him as a man and thus all men. Having a march for women was, in his view, an attempt to exclude the suddenly powerless Pakistani man.
Let’s stop here, because the stupidity of the statement, many iterations and variations of which every Pakistani woman has heard, requires taking apart. Discrimination and its cousin exclusion happen when someone with power uses that power to treat people differently. So, for instance, Pakistani men have colluded to ensure that men but not women have the right to unilaterally divorce their spouses. This is an act of discrimination because men in Pakistan have more power than women (otherwise such a legal reality could not exist in the first place). It is discriminatory because power is being used to treat people differently.
Discrimination and exclusion depend on the power that a group, in this case men, have in society. Pakistani women, who cannot walk down the street without being harassed and who face inordinate amounts of violence at home, do not have power. Since they do not have power as a group, it is utterly ridiculous and incorrect to allege that they are ‘discriminating’ against men or excluding them from Aurat March or anything else. The collective organisation of the powerless is not a repetition of the sins of the powerful; it is an attempt to reverse their cruelties.
Then there is the self-righteous charge of ‘lewd’ placards. The one that was at issue in the TV show was ‘my body, my choice’. Even the allegation is damning; so filthy and degenerate is the typical Pakistani male mind that this simple statement that women like men have the right to bodily autonomy is considered inadmissible in the public arena. As writer Bina Shah aptly said, such is the situation of women’s rights in Pakistan that men can relieve themselves in public, in full view and with no regard for others, but it is the woman reclaiming ownership of her own body who is considered ‘lewd’. What a terrible shame.
The situation for women is dire in such a sordid place. Haters of Aurat March — with their salacious remarks, venal insults and made-up charges — are all evidence of why such a march is needed. Every year, the hatred unleashed on women who dare to organise for one paltry day out of 365 reveals just how easily Pakistani men feel threatened. The discomfort faced by supposedly educated and enlightened men when they are confronted by a group of women demanding their rights is evidence that the enemy of Pakistani woman is not only the illiterate or ignorant man, but also the allegedly liberal, the ‘woke’ and the cool.
Aurat March is important because Pakistani men refuse to accept that Pakistani women are equal citizens. They want to assert their own superiority at work, in the streets, in parks, in schools and so on. Their discomfort with a woman claiming equality granted by law has meant that women are admissible and tolerable only when they are highlighting and supporting male superiority. Marching, making themselves visible in public, claiming the basic right to be in that public space, pokes and prods at their delicate egos, the frail sense of self that has been coddled on regular tributes to their inherent superiority and entitlement to decide who does what and where and when.
Pakistani men do not like Pakistani women in the streets. Let me revise this: Pakistani men do not like Pakistani women in the streets when they do not have the permission of Pakistani men. The idea that women will forget their ‘place’ in society is such a threat that it turns even the supposedly ‘nice’ man into a demon spewing filth about women.
The Aurat March will take place. Frivolous petitions in court, sly retorts on television shows or sleazy analogies on social media will not stop it. In insisting on their right to be visible, to write what they want on their placards, to participate in something that is for them and by them, Pakistani women will show Pakistani men that it is too late to stop them, that the harassment and abuse borne by their mothers and grandmothers and great grandmothers will not be tolerated by them. The world is changing, times are changing, Pakistani women are rising and no number of filthy minded, ego-driven men lobbing hate-filled threats can stop the tide of marching women that is coming in.
Rafia Zakaria is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.
Original Headline: A note to men
Source: The Dawn, Pakistan