Victims of patriarchy: Save the women of Pakistan

Published: November 25, 2010

Up to 90% of women are victims of domestic violence in Pakistan.

My last blog post on soaring cases of rapes in Pakistan received a mixed review. While some readers appreciated the issues that I highlighted as being responsible for the increasing numbers of the gruesome tragedy, to others the piece was nothing but a Islam bashing, ‘westernized’ viewpoint coming from the pen of a feminist! And while a few of the emails that I received from our foreign readers discussed the hardships that rape victims all over the world have to face and live with (appalled at the lack of support for these victims in Pakistan), there were other countrymen who took offense at the mentioning of the Hudood Ordinance and its ‘blatant misrepresentation’ in the writing, leading to misinformation!

Religion, it seems is the favorite appetite of us Pakistanis, and hence always runs high on demand. This demand becomes more apparent when an average citizen wants to seek refuge for his shortcomings under the huge umbrella of religion. Hence starts exploitation in the name of religion, where it becomes easy to embrace and easier to discard the rules if and when required. But there are other, even bigger ironies that we witness and experience on a daily basis – ugly practices in the name of culture which, after having been long embedded in us have now almost become a national identity, and a national crisis for gender equality I must say. These ugly practices, with their strong and tight-clipped jaws seem to have engulfed everything, taking by storm almost every aspect of social life, not sparing even the most vulnerable segment of population – women.

To coincide with the United Nations-declared International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, marking November 25 as a day against gender-based violence, I doubt it will be any different for the ‘bechari’ women of ours who are forced to live in the hell of abuse, both in homes and the society at large.

It seems even the homes, considered most private and safe places on Earth cannot save these poor souls from the ugly culture of violence. So it’s not just the bus stops or hospitals, open fields or offices. With fear and shame lingering in their own drawing rooms, peeping through their windows and emancipating from their own families, domestic violence has become a norm for women in Pakistan.

We all remember the barbaric footage of the Taliban in Pakistan flogging a young girl in public back in 2009. We also remember the months of debate on whether the video was authentic or not. However, what happened to Chand Bibi in Swat was by no means unique. The Taliban are not the only ones brutalizing women in Pakistan.

According to a Human Rights Watch report, it is estimated that up to 90% of women are victims of domestic violence in the country where in every one out of three households there is violence against women.

The United Nations defines violence against women as:

Any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or mental harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life.


Violence against women, be it physical, psychological, sexual or through economic deprivation is one of the most pervasive of human rights violation which denies women equality, security, dignity, self-worth, and their right to enjoy fundamental freedoms. While such rash treatment continues to be a global epidemic that cuts across countries and boundaries and kills, tortures and maims the tender gender, from genital mutilation in the African women to killing in the name of honour in the Middle East, the situation gets a little dark when it takes up the garb of cultural practices and norms further fuelled by misinterpretation of religious tenets, cutting across class, education, income, ethnicity and age in Pakistani society. Even if we leave out the different forms that this violence takes up: rape, female genital mutilation, forced prostitution, feticide, infanticide, honor killings, acid-throwing crimes and women trafficking to name just a few, and focus instead on the evils of domestic violence only, the reality is hard to ignore and even harder to digest.

Unfortunately, a few bizarre and tragic stories of acid-throwing or stove-burning, those which are lucky enough to make their way to the media, seldom register on our conscience. A mutilated face of a woman or a third-degree burn patient therefore receives very little of our attention. And hence the crime goes grossly neglected and unreported across the country.

Dowry-related domestic violence is especially on a rise where the new bride is abused, often assaulted and even physically tortured for failing to bring the preferred size and matter of dowry. Many of these unlucky women are purposefully burned to death or mutilated to have committed the ‘crime’. Ironically, many consider death to be the safest possible solution to get rid of the living hell!

And there are other forms of this domestic violence, some which hardly make it to the national media. The growing number of incest, marital rapes, forced prostitution, assault by the in-laws is just a few to name. Unfortunately, in most cases those who suffer are not even aware of the reasons behind this inhumane treatment being meted out to them let alone find ways to snap out of it.

Our culture also perpetuates the crime to a large extent. Killing women in the name of honour, the centuries-old tradition of exchanging child girls in marriage often to settle disputes between rival groups – a practice which has several names like Savara, Vani and encouragement of the false notion that ‘silence is the best morality for girls’ are some of the examples.

Seen in the larger context, violence against women is not the result of random, individual acts of misconduct, but rather is deeply rooted in structural relationships of inequality between women and men in our society. The deeply rooted patriarchal values and norms and the prevailing social attitude that violence against women is a private domestic issue is a huge impediment in curtailing the ugly practice. It is often at the hands of male relatives that a woman undergoes violence. According to the Ansar Burney Trust, in the vast majority of cases where women lost their lives as a result of violence at home, it was their husbands and in-laws who were to blame; while at other times it was the victims’ brothers and fathers.

Our distorted representation of religion further adds fuel to the fire. Seldom does the civil law and the shariah law concede on a unified law of protection. This brings bad news for the already deprived victims of violence and leaves the room open for useless debate on the rights and the wrongs while the majority continues to suffer.

Violence therefore continues to be an inescapable reality of women’s lives in the land of pure, where the social customs and attitudes that support violence against them are entrenched and institutionalized at all levels – home, family, community, society, and the State.

Breaking the silence on this violence is not an easy, or even a real option for most women, where to do so threatens their lives. The pervasive culture of gender-based violence has therefore eroded women’s fundamental rights to life, health, security, bodily integrity, political participation, food, work, and shelter. It also explains the uniformly poor gender-related development indices in crucial sectors like health, nutrition, education, political participation, and employment, not to mention the agony of weak mental health which also hinders in raising a healthy generation of children, who often go neglected in such scenarios or learn the very submissiveness or authority over the crime.

So where are we headed?

On the legal front, the Domestic Violence (Prevention and Protection) Bill which was unanimously passed by the National Assembly in 2009 died an unsung death even before it could become a law. On the other hand, Pakistan has been elected as member of the executive board of the newly created United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and Empowerment of Women (UN Women).

However, mere presence of legislation is not the solution to the problem. Drawing violence against women out of the private domain into public attention and the arena of State accountability is a formidable task. We, as a society need to challenge and change existing social and individual attitudes that accept violence against women as normal. There is also a need to mobilize all sections of the family, community, and society to act to prevent violence against women; to build popular pressure on the State to formulate and implement gender-equitable policies and to bring together diverse local, national, regional, and international efforts working towards ending violence against women.

For those of us who are ready to stop playing hide and seek and instead slash the empire of misrepresented notions on the falsehood of distorted definitions, there is an urgent need to address the problem. There is a need to let go of our silence because understanding comes with acceptance.


Huma Iqbal

A blogger who writes on social development, socio-political and economic issues in the region.

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Syed Nadir El-Edroos

    Victims of Misogyny is perhaps more apt?Recommend

  • aamir

    it’s not just the men but also the women who’re responsible for the discrimination.Women choose voluntarily to give up their rights when they make it their aim in life in their teens to just get married off & don’t try to get higher education & a lifelong career.

    They choose not to leave husbands who degrade them,humiliate them,dictate terms to them & beat them black & blue,they don’t take the difficult but necessary step of getting a divorce & start fending for themselves,women in our country give the power & the indirect approval to men to treata them like dirt when they don’t stand up for their rights & leave abusive marriages.As long as our girls keep on enabling men to abuse their rights without any repercussions,this horrible state of affairs will continue.

    A bully keeps on bullying if the victim doesn’t stand up for herself,the man knows she’s at my mercy & won’t leave me so he goes on degrading & beating her.I know our public will love to believe that everything should be done on ethical basis in the 1st place & men shouldn’t abuse,but that’s living in the fantasy world,in the real world humans only stop abusing others when the victim fights back for her rights.


  • Sana Saleem

    Islam has prescribed punishments for different crimes but there are people who interpret Islam in their own way. They carry out violent punishment on their women without actually knowing the crime and think it a right action.Recommend

  • Huma Iqbal

    @Syed Nadir El-Edroos:
    No. Misogyny is no less a crime. Infact if we go deeper in the psyche and culture of violence behind this heinous act, we will see an equal if not less number of women involved. However, to justify a single gender as the main perpetrator is by no means just. Having said that, I think issues like these need to be analysed and scrutinized keeping in mind the prevalent cultures, practices and the general mindsets of our people. Perhaps we may find our next story then! Recommend

  • Huma Iqbal

    @Sana Saleem: Religion, as I said earlier is a VERY sensitive topic to tread on. I believe ours is a society who has since long been hiding and taking refuge in the name of not the true Islam, but the distorted image of it thanks to our mullah baradari. And hence we tend to get way too emotional to hear anything which discards our dearly held notions. You are right that people interpret religion in their own way and then completely love to bask in their glorified ignorance!

    ‘They carry out violent punishment on their women without actually knowing the crime and think it a right action.’ My question is even if they knew the crime, will it be a justified reason to ‘punish’?? Recommend

  • parvez

    Nice write up.
    I feel education in its broadest sense has a major role to play here.Recommend

  • afzal karim

    only the women of pakistan can save the women of pakistan.
    an abuser will never give up his power,authority or privileges until the victim fights back & raises her voice against her abuser.One has to go against tradition if one wants to change the circumstances & improve one’s one hands over a better life to you on a plate:you have to demand ur share of ur property from ur father,brothers & take them to court if necessary,take divorce from an abusive husband if he doesn’t stop hitting you after you’ve told him you won’t take his abuse anymore.
    if one doesn’t raise ones voice,nothing changes.Recommend

  • Tahera

    Good piece, Huma.

    In response to some of the other comments above, I can only say it is all very well to say women should stand up for themselves, but the fact is these women need some support! Men have a responsibility too, because the society enables abusers, and the law protects them – and men play a huge role in maintaing this status quo because it benefits them. Lets be realistic here, guys. It is not simply a matter of having the women protest against their treatment but all men who feel suppression of women is wrong should voice their support for them and help their cause. To change a system, it is not one person but a collective effort that is required. How can a girl who is brought up to believe she is inferior and the sole purpose of her life is to serve the men in her life, just get up one fine day and refuse to abide by this unwritten law? If we don’t support her and provide her the necessary tools to fight, how can we lay the blame at her feet for being the victim?

    Men cannot absolve themselves of this by simply saying it’s women’s fault they are letting themselves be abused. Step into the shoes of a victim – any victim of violence, man, woman, child – and then see how impossible it is to be objective and to have the courage to make a sensible decision, plus follow through with it. Victims of ongoing abuse suffer from many emotional and psychological traumas and issues and cannot be expected to think objectively and behave logically. It is the responsibility of those around them to show them the solution and to help them in any way they can to achieve it.

    Stop blaming the victim, please. Recommend

  • Ali Hassan

    Good piece, well researched. Thanks for sharing.Recommend

  • Uniqah

    I appreciate your comments but would like you to hear the other side of the story too.

    I can narrate my own example which is very less in terms of its gravity related to the topic under discussion. However, it does cover your part where you say why woman does not stand for her rights. I am the one who stood up for my rights. I came to Pakistan a few weeks back for the sale of the property which my late father left. I had to face a series of trial to have that done.

    Majority of the officials reminded me that since I am a woman I should not have been dealing with all those matters. The system has made the whole process so tedious and corrupt that they do not accept a female to come and even talk about her rights. One of my friends mother told me that I should be very grateful as they listen and talk to me decently because of my money and U.S passport. Otherwise they have very abusive language and rough manners for the local female.

    I will again say that I am blessed that my father gave me courage and raised me with pen as my weapon and truth as my strength. I do not know how many girls in Pakistan are blessed with the parents who raise them with self dignity and recognition. Mostly, husband is considered as the sole identity of a girl back home. For girls to standup we have to cultivate self respect.Recommend

  • Huma Iqbal

    @Tahera: I second your thoughts Tahera. They are quite an apt description of the situation. Many thanks all for your feedback:) Recommend

  • moonlight star

    one thing you are missing big time in your article is the fact that domestic violence does not starts from men but from all the woman in the house. take our families example for instance, my father never uttered a threat to my mother until my paternal grandmother started a feud every single day. and my mother for the sake of us kids and for the sake of her family’s “honor” kept on swallowing the painful pills (all the stupid claims by grandmother all the time). the rest of the woman in the house didn’t stand up for my mother and cycle continues. Recommend

  • Kavita

    Thanks for sharing this, Huma. Women have been the victims of the male dominated society since centuries almost throughout the world irrespective of what form it might take. However, the perspective is changing. Men like Vineet Nayar, the CEO of HCL, have shown their deepest concerns for the upliftment of women because they believe that women constitute almost half of the workforce and therefore isolating them would be a great threat to the country’s progress.

    I have come across an article that talks about women leadership. The link is as follows:

  • Amon

    @Deen Sheikh:

    Common really!!, pre-emptive strike? Are you kidding me? Read the examples Huma gives does that sound to you like pre-emptive strike. Is rape in a police cell a pre-emtive strike. You dont believe Huma’s examples. Read the investigative piece written by Robert Fisk:

    The whole Muslim world is riddled with this. Pakistan shines with 5 stars amongst the examples. I don’t understand, why we all become defensive of religion and our gender and find excuses for our innocence. This is the truth. Women are human. We have forgotten their humanity. Recommend