Editor’s Note: In this article, Khaliq explains how the deeply held bias against women in Pakistani society, and the State’s collusion to it, have forced women into silence. If the society and the State do not see women as equal to men, she argues, women can hardly enjoy Constitutional rights to free speech. Pursuing free speech is that much more challenging for women, who must first assert their right to equality among men, and then assert their Constitutional right to free speech premised on equality. Pakistani State and society see itself as being the “protectorate”, thereby excluding women on any decision-making that affects them. If they disagree or do not obey, women are labeled or stereotyped as “bad”, and if any harm comes their way, they themselves are to blame.
by Bushra Khaliq, Executive Director, Women in Struggle for Empowerment (WISE)
Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) guarantees freedom of expression as a right. It is broadly understood that each person has a natural right to express himself or herself, freely, in any form of communication, without interference or fear of reprisal. Domestically, Article 19 of the 1973 Constitution of Pakistan provides guarantees so each citizen may express opinions and ideas freely. However, this right is subject to “reasonable restrictions” in the interest of “the glory of Islam, decency or morality”.
This constitutional right to freedom of expression assumes that the people of Pakistan can speak their mind, express their ideas or opinions, within the limits defined as decent and morally acceptable. However, who defines what is decent and moral, and how should this be defined?
In a country like Pakistan, it is not easy for a woman to express her thoughts and opinions. Women have to face several challenges and constraints. It is a dangerous path to tread on. Many have paid the price, even losing their lives, for exercising this right. There are multiple forms of discrimination against women and other marginalized groups. Even to demand for equal protection of rights, let alone free speech, under the Constitution, provokes strong reaction from the society and State.
Although the Constitution gives women the right to social mobility, work, inheritance and choice marriage etc., the society to a large extent denies these rights on the pretext of decency and morality. This is grounded on a certain interpretation of Islam.
The passive and sometimes collaborative attitude of the State also perpetuates the persistence of such anti-women attitudes in society. A woman, who expresses herself freely, goes to work, and comes home late at night, is labeled a “bad woman”. These labels diminish the role of women and their ability to be treated equal to men in society. A woman strong enough to voice her opinion, which may differ from that of the general masses, automatically becomes a “bad woman”. In fact, these attacks mostly target her character, in an attempt to tarnish her reputation. If a woman expresses her opinion, it is not uncommon for her to be ridiculed by extremely offensive sexual remarks. Other serious forms of violent discrimination, like honor killing, throwing acid on women’s faces, and domestic violence, remain pervasive.
The State and society’s “protective” attitude towards women is ironically often used against the women. Women are told how to stay safe, usually by restricting their movements and dictating how they should present themselves in public. They are instructed how to act and appear in public, supposedly to protect women from sexual assault. If a woman does not obey, she can be blamed if she were to get sexually assaulted. In a nutshell, women are being asked to withdraw their constitutional right to freedom of movement, speech, and to express themselves freely.
In cases involving sexual assault, women are perceived to have “asked” to be sexually assaulted. This is absurd. Having “asked” for rape, it is presumed that a woman would not fight back. And, if she resists being raped, this would mean the woman is “asking” for more violence. If a woman reports the rape to the authorities, this in turn implies that she is “asking” for further humiliation to herself and her family. And, in the world of this twisted logic, she could ultimately be asking to be killed.
We need to recognize that this mentality is fundamentally flawed. It is a total denial of women’s rights to equality. Unfortunately, this kind of mentality is perpetuated in different prevailing forms of art and literature—for instance poetry, drama, and theatre. It strengthens a portrayal of what is believed to be a “good” and a “bad” woman. The goodness and badness of a woman revolves around how one perceives her body. This has also shaped the collective mindset of the State’s public institutions.
Apart from this rooted patriarchal and feudalistic mindset, there is also the dominance of religious leaders. For instance, there is the Council of Islamic Ideology (CCI) in Pakistan, which vigorously pursues restrictions on women’s rights. The CCI are prominent players in politics that affects women’s lives. This supposed constitutional forum of clergies is bent upon leaving no stone unturned in opposing empowerment of women. The impact of religious leaders is so immense that even when they go ahead and oppress women, a lot of the oppressed women feel proud of consenting to this oppression. For instance, many women wearing the burqa often claim it is their own choice to do so.
To secure and enjoy the right to freedom of expression and the rights of women in Pakistan there is a long way to go. In my view, a feminist solidarity beyond class and creed is required to create a strong movement that supports women’s rights.