By Tasneem Z Faridi
18 May, 2012
Western-trained scholars are already talking about the 'third wave' of feminism. But in Pakistan, women's sexuality is still held responsible for rape and other forms of sexual abuse. Tasneem Z Faridi looks at the 'facts and figures' cited by religious scholars in Pakistan and elsewhere to undermine the women's movement
While the Unites States, United Kingdom and other "developed" countries are ebbing and flowing into the "third wave" of feminism, I see in Pakistan a weak tide of feminism receding in the fizz of one-sided statistics touted by famous religious clerics on TV channels, in Islamic research papers and in sermons.
The word 'feminism' is often taken to mean 'man-hating women', and a brief history is in order to correct that impression. Feminism as we know it began during the 19th century in Europe and America and spread through the world in various ways. The most common reason for the spread of feminist movements is the lack of gender equality in almost every culture and society. The Institute of Policy Studies, Islamabad, explains that the first wave of feminist movements brought to the fore a demand for women's right to speak in public, for women's rights of property, and for women's voice in political life. What we might call the second wave of feminism began in 1963 and ran until the 1980s. It focused on women's access to jobs and education, pay equity, rebalancing of women's role in the family and outside it as well.
Now the world's feminists are demanding sexual and reproductive freedom and celebrating human sexuality; they are rejecting gender binaries (two distinct forms of sex, i.e. masculine and feminine that disregard transgenders and homosexuals) and demanding rights for lesbians and gays as well as women's right to abort. Feminists in the US, UK and Australia have become strong advocates of a feminism that accepts women in the role of a biological mother, surrogate mother, single or child-free career woman, wife, sex worker, lover, lesbian, bisexual, activist, consumer, girly girl, tomboy, sweetheart, bitch, good girl, princess, or sex symbol.
The first wave of feminist movements made a demand for women's right to speak in public
But when I look at women's status in Pakistan from the spectacle of Islamic feminism, I feel jittery. Because the same department (Policy Studies, Islamabad) defines Islamic feminism in a way that allows no intermixing of the genders in public places, and requires that a woman observe hijab to guard her modesty. Intermixing of genders, it is believed, would provoke women's sexual urges and lead them to sexual waywardness. Similarly, not observing hijab is taken to be the cause for a rise in adultery and rape. Religious scholars in Pakistan, when advocating the hijab in their sermons, are likely to cite such "facts" as that rape incidents are more common in the non-Muslim world than in the Muslim world. In this regard, figures from the US are highly alarming: 7 in 10 women who have sex before the age of 14, and 6 in 10 of those who have sex before the age of 15 report that they had sex involuntarily (Facts in Brief: Teen Sex and Pregnancy: The Alan Guttmacher Institute, New York, 1996); teens between the ages of 16 and 19 are 3.5 times more likely than the general population to be victims of rape, attempted rape or sexual assault (National Crime Victimization Survey: Bureau of Justice Statistics, US Department of Justice, 1996); one in two rape victims is under the age of 18; one in six is under 12 (Child Rape Victims, US Department of Justice, 1992); and 9 out of 10 rape victims are women, though men and boys are also victims of this crime.
If that is the case, why do so many of Pakistan's rapes happen in tribal and rural areas where women are made to cover themselves? Indeed, if we are to look at "facts", it is apparent that what instigates rape in many cases is not a display of women's sexuality but a patriarchal power dynamic in which women are bought and sold and routinely "dishonoured" to settle petty feuds. And if there is a link between sexual desire and rape, it might be traced to the frustration and extreme social awkwardness caused by segregation of the sexes, by the repression of sexual needs, by the silence around the subject of sexual abuse (especially in childhood), and by the social privileging of marriage over sexually unsatisfying relationships. We need to talk frankly about rape (and sex!) instead of blaming women's sexuality for all that is bad in Pakistani society.
Why do so many of Pakistan's rapes happen in tribal and rural areas where women are made to cover themselves?
As for the oft-cited "facts" about sexual life in the West, the very presence of statistics shows that rape is being reported in those parts of the world. In fact, the US federal government has a sex offender registration system in various states designed to keep track of the residence and activities of sex offenders, including those who have completed their criminal sentences. Especially in the US, information related to sex offenders in the registry is made available to the general public via a website or other means. By comparison, how many times do we see statistics of rape cases from Muslim countries? And even when they are reported, how many of victims receive justice?
The recently controversial Egyptian-American journalist Mona Eltahawy has this to say: "Not a single Arab country ranks in the top 100 in the World Economic Forum's Global Gender Gap Report. Morocco, often touted for its "progressive" family law, ranks 129; according to Morocco's Ministry of Justice, 41,098 girls under age 18 were married there in 2010. The lowest-ranked country is Yemen, where 55 percent of women are illiterate, and just one woman serves in the 301-person parliament. Horrific news reports about12-year-old girls dying in childbirth do little to protest child marriage there."
If women were really so half-witted, how did Pakistan come up with an architect in Yasmeen Lari, or fighter pilots in Saba Khan and Nadia Gul, or an Oscar-winning filmmaker in Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy?
Let us now look at the campaign for Shariah Law that began in Britain in 2009. A key tenet of the proposed "Islamic" civil code is that a woman's testimony will be worth half that of a man's. It is a divine order which signifies that in all legal issues (except for the charge of adultery), if a woman is a witness, she should be accompanied by another woman in order to remind her if she forgets and to correct her if she makes an error. (What a nice way to remind women of their naturally poor memories.) More dangerously, such a law gives men the power to "discipline" and control women by the merits of knowledge, intelligence, and custody.
If women were really so half-witted, how did Pakistan come up with an architect in Yasmeen Lari, or fighter pilots in Saba Khan and Nadia Gul, or an Oscar-winning filmmaker in Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy? To date, the bulk of psychological and sociological studies have shown that there is no provable difference in intelligence levels or abilities between the sexes. History, meanwhile, tells us that women have been actively barred from the fields of science, politics and religion.
Intermixing of genders, it is believed, would provoke women's sexual urges and lead them to sexual waywardness
According to Maryam Namazie, the spokesperson for One Law for All, considering a marriage contract under Britain's proposed Shariah Law will mean that women can be divorced by their husbands with or without a cause, whereas a woman can only seek divorce from her husband with his consent. In the process, she will lose the sum of money (or dowry) that was agreed upon at the time of marriage. However, if a man has divorced his wife three times she may not remarry him, until she has married another man, and consummated that marriage, and then divorced the other man. This also means that, if a man remarries the same woman, he does not need to consummate a marriage with anybody. In case of inheritance law, sons stand to inherit twice the share of daughters. To prevent any argument or protests from a woman's family and from a woman herself, the Shariah councils will frequently ask people to sign an agreement to abide by their decisions. Councils call themselves courts and the presiding imams are judges. There is neither any democratic control over the appointment of these judges nor an independent monitoring mechanism. Moreover, Shariah Law proceedings are not recorded, nor are there any searchable legal judgments. Nor is there any real right to appeal.