Jun 06 2014
By Sonali Kolhatkar
The stoning to death of a pregnant woman named Farzana Iqbal by members of her family in broad daylight in Lahore, Pakistan, last week has prompted protests in that nation by human rights activists. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has announced an inquiry into the slaying that was apparently spurred by the 25-year-old woman marrying a man of whom her family did not approve. The man himself openly admitted to killing his first wife in order to marry Iqbal.
Just days after the horrific Pakistani incident, in neighboring India, two young girls were found raped and lynched in a village in Uttar Pradesh, shocking a nation already reeling from several high-profile rapes and killings of women.
In the wake of such sexual assaults in the Global South, American conservatives and liberals alike naively ask the question of what is it about the “cultures” of countries such as Pakistan, India and Afghanistan that generates such misogyny. Having been on the receiving end of such questions myself many times, I know how infuriating it is to have to explain patiently to well-meaning people that misogyny is not the unique purview of certain foreign cultures; rather, it is sadly universal. Furthermore, it is often U.S.-backed militarism that fosters it at home and abroad.
Madiha Tahir is an independent journalist based in Pakistan and a filmmaker whose documentary “Wounds of Waziristan” focuses on the impact of U.S. drone strikes on ordinary Pakistanis. She has just co-edited a new volume of essays called “Dispatches From Pakistan,” along with Qalandar Bux Memon and Vijay Prashad. In an interview on Uprising, I asked Tahir whether she gets the “culture” question often. She agreed that “this is the predominant frame through which this story has been discussed, and it’s unfortunate because it doesn’t have anything to do with culture. It has to do with sexism, patriarchy, misogyny—and those issues are not specific to Pakistan or to Muslims.”
Tahir’s statements are confirmed by the ugly fact that, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, “1 in 6 women reported experiencing rape or attempted rape at some time in their lives.” Additionally, a quarter of all American women have experienced domestic violence, and a third of all women killed in this nation are victims of homicide by their current or former partner or spouse.
A new study concluding that Americans tend to take hurricanes with female names less seriously than those with male names proves just how implicitly sexism is embedded in the culture of this nation. And a look at these photos of a Tennessee survivor of domestic violence should also perhaps elicit the question: “What is it about the culture of the U.S. that generates such misogyny?”
Even the recent massacre by a 22-year-old man in Isla Vista, Calif., who announced his planned slaughter of women as collective punishment for a life of sexual rejection, proves that we all live somewhere within the spectrum of misogynist culture that stretches from California to Calcutta and beyond. Tahir cited the Isla Vista case as further proof that if there is a “cultural explanation” for horrific killings of women, it is a global one.
But what spurs such deep-seated misogyny? Pakistan lies just south of Afghanistan, where the U.S. has fought a 12-year-long war, and lies in the vicinity of the disputed territory of Kashmir, which is considered the largest militarized zone in the world. Pakistan’s own Northwest Frontier Province has been the target of U.S. drone strikes for years. I asked Tahir whether the constant backdrop of militarism was linked to violence against women. She didn’t hesitate, saying, “Yes, absolutely, militarism is deeply implicated in gender violence, and patriarchy more generally. In Pakistan, for all our democratic milestones about half the country is effectively under occupation,” such as the army-controlled Balochistan and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas where the U.S. drops bombs from unmanned aerial vehicles. These parts of Pakistan witness, according to Tahir, “daily violence being meted out by state and non-state actors, and that feeds into an atmosphere in which violence is seen as the tool for conflict resolution.”
But, said Tahir, militarism and its impact on women is “not specific to Pakistan.” Even the U.S. Pentagon’s own report found that violent sex crimes committed by active U.S. Army soldiers have increased by 50 percent, reflecting a rate that is far higher than in the general population. “When Pakistani men commit such crimes,” said Tahir, “it’s called ‘honor killings,’ and we condemn entire cultures for it.” But “when it’s Western men who commit such crimes we tend to look for psychological explanations.” So, the Isla Vista killer, Elliot Rodger, was described as a “troubled kid with high-functioning Asperger’s syndrome,” and U.S. soldiers committing sex crimes are seen through the lens of post-traumatic stress disorder from the battlefield.
The eloquent journalist doesn’t let Pakistan’s government and even society off the hook on gender violence or militarism. Tahir admitted to me that even in Pakistan there are those “who do actually buy the ‘cultural’ explanation whether they like it or not … so a lot of work needs to be done on the ground in terms of raising awareness about this as a collective social and global problem.” Additionally, she said, “the Pakistani army is also very complicit both in the drone attacks but also in conducting directly raids and aerial operations in the tribal areas.”
Although politicians in both Pakistan and the U.S. pay lip service to protect women’s rights, few changes in legislative or educational policies are planned. And Western nations like the U.S., which have used women’s liberation in countries like Afghanistan as a pretext to demonize groups and even to launch war, have remained fairly silent when it is their allies such as India and Pakistan in question.
“It’s unfortunate,” Tahir told me, “that the well-being of half of the global population is just not a priority unless it is being used to bolster cases for war and militarism as was the case in Afghanistan.”
Ultimately, she said, “what we need to do is confront what is happening socially and politically as a society. I don’t think this issue of gender violence can be resolved without actually dealing with the question of militarism globally. I think it will be up to activists to press the issue and continue to raise the issue.”