This op-ed first appeared in the Daily Times here.
In Pakistan, the ugly truth of hateful attitudes towards women have come right to the forefront of the national conversation, thanks to the emergence of the Ayesha Gulalai and the Ayesha Ahad cases.
Gulalai alleges sexual harassment by a famous politician, while Ayesha Ahad claims that she was harassed and tortured in her marriage to the son of another famous politician. Ayesha Ahad says that Ayesha Gulalai’s courage in coming forward and speaking about her story gave her the courage to come forward and speak openly about her own.
These two women should have worked together, in tandem with other women from all parties, to attempt to seek redress against the miserable way they claim they’ve been treated by powerful men. Instead, both women have fallen prey to the machinations of the political parties. They’ve allowed themselves to be used as pawns in a greater game of defamation and hobbling of the respective men they’re accusing, and their political parties.
Unfortunately, in a male-dominated society such as Pakistan, there is no other way of being heard than to hope that powerful men will give you a voice and amplify your complaints. But it doesn’t really work that way in our nation. As Nighat Dad, director of the Digital Rights Foundation says, “For all political parties, be it women or men politicians, women’s bodies are (a) battle ground: from cracking sexist and misogynistic jokes to character assassination and inciting violence.”
What’s truly alarming is the kind of abuse that these two women speaking out has engendered. They’ve been on the receiving end of the worst kinds of violent abuse, threats, and even the threat of a jirga being set on Ayesha Gulalai to have her house demolished and force her family to leave the area where they live.
This is the time for men to speak up and assert that they do not want to carry on the cycle of violence and misogyny against their countrywomen
Men online who have “I respect women” in their Twitter bios have always used filthy language against women, but it’s reached breaking point now. They’re flinging the worst kind of language at women and lashing out at anyone who shows support for Ayesha Gulalai. Meanwhile, anyone who shows sympathy for Ayesha Ahad is accused of trying to score points against the ruling party. Politics threatens to overshadow the reality that in Pakistan, women suffer harassment and violence in both the workplace and the home.
It’s well-known by now that online violence against women can lead to real-life violence. We only have to look at what happened to Khadija Siddiqui, the law student whose classmate harassed her online before stabbing her 23 times and leaving her to die in a pool of her own blood. The FIA must take notice of the threats against Ayesha Gulalai, including the coward who said that acid should be thrown on her face for making her allegations.
Meanwhile, women have been arguing that Pakistani working women harass men and use their sexuality to gain favours with their bosses. Not only is misogyny alive and well, but internalized misogyny is doing the work of making women turn on each other, instead of acting in solidarity. Internalised misogyny makes women police each other according to the rules of the patriarchy as they vie for space at the top table with the men.
PTI women wing’s leader Naeema Niaz went on record to say that they would make Gulalai face a jirga just for raising the allegations. In Pakistan, tribal jirgas, a form of parallel justice based on tribal codes, not the Pakistan Penal Code, are known for their violence against women, ordering them to be raped or killed to avenge ‘honour’.
But there is great potential in this moment, if we use it wisely. This is what we call a “teachable moment”, a concept that comes from the classroom when an opportunity spontaneously arises through which we can give insight to help a child learn a concept. This insight doesn’t come from textbooks, but from the teacher’s own life experience.
Pakistani men and women are deliberately child-like in their refusal to see how insidious these problems are, how they are ruining our society, and how the system is weighted in favour of men so that they are never accountable through the law or society for their crimes against women, big and small.
Ayesha Gulalai and Ayesha Ahad’s cases are a great opportunity for women to come forward to talk about sexual harassment and domestic abuse and violence to raise the understanding of these issues in Pakistani society. This is the time for men to speak up and assert that they do not want to carry on the cycle of violence and misogyny against their countrywomen. This is the time for men to talk to other men and tell them that they find their brothers’ hatred and crude attitudes unacceptable.
The genie is out of the bottle, and it’s up to us how we use it to our advantage to put forth the idea that something is terribly wrong in Pakistani society vis-à-vis how women are treated, talked about, surveilled, policed and punished. It’s now or never.