Misogyny, Violence & Empowerment –Insights from Gilgit-Baltistan (Part I)

Shahana Shah

There is a certain perspective quite pervasive in Pakistan which considers all enjoyable activities to be forbidden, particularly if women are taking part in it. When the government of Gilgit-Baltistan announced its plan to hold “Women’s Sports Gala 2022”, most people received the news with delight. It was not until certain religious leaders began to associate terms like “immodesty”, “culture” and “indecency” with the event that a debate began on the supposed pros and cons of letting women engage in healthy physical activities. A woman member of the GB Assembly and the Minister for Food also opposed the event.

A day before the gala was to kick off, a mob of angry men gathered outside the gates of Lalik Jan Stadium where the games were to be held. Tyres were burnt, slogans were raised and heavy contingents of security forces had to be stationed outside the stadium. An environment was created in which women had to be guarded with firearms during the simple act of kicking around a football.

An innocuous activity became a point of confusion and fear. On 5th October 2022, the Chief Secretary’s official Twitter account announced that the sports gala was being converted into a “Meena Bazar” on the instruction of the Chief Minister. Later that same day news of the inauguration of the event as “Women’s Fair 2022” was announced. Meanwhile, The Express Tribune published a report headlined “‘Under pressure’: G-B govt cancels Women’s Sports Gala, announces Meena Bazar instead”. The patronizing term left many activists seething.

Dawn reported the participation of girls from across GB, headlined “Despite opposition, GB women throng sporting gala”. Chief Secretary, GB Mr Mohyuddin Ahmad Wani admired the resilience and tough stance of the young girls of GB while talking to Dawn News program Zara Hat Kay. “They would not have accepted it even if I had cancelled the event. This is their social capital,” he said.

Girls who participated in the activities reported that all the sporting events went ahead as originally planned. It had already been announced even before protests from religious factions that all the organizers would also be women and that no male spectators would be allowed. One wonders if the last minute rebranding was necessary or even effective in appeasing a group that was not ready to listen to reason in the first place.

A fragmented society reacts

The fetishization of women’s bodies leads to each and every aspect of their physical movement being sexualized. They cannot go about their daily business without their every act being perceived as an invitation, provocation, offence or rebellion. There follows the supposition that it is up to the male of the species to enforce the code of control over women who do not know any better. This code is then given the name of morality, culture, tradition or religion.

Under the anxiety of this burden of enforcing control, men and the communities they lead can arbitrarily find objections to any activity. Men from different communities in GB are also competing to enforce control over the women of their respective in-groups. Where the level of this control is relaxed within a certain community, others may taunt it for the inferred moral weakness.

Academic and researcher Zaighum Abbas points out the sectarian patriarchal structures at the root of inter-communal judgment of women’s actions. “True emancipation is to break these structures… through cross-community solidarity networks among women. It is also the responsibility of politically conscious educated women to sensitize their sisterhood about these prejudicial patriarchal forms that play a vital part in the oppression of women,” he emphasizes. It is important to note the impact of communal tension on women when they do not even directly participate in the conflict.

A sample of social media comments on Gilgit-Baltistan Girls Football League held in Hunza
“More power to you, everyone thank you for supporting brave young ladies.” – Zahra Hunzai
“A living example of Girls and women empowerment. I wish the rest of Pakistan and Pakistani fathers, brothers, husbands and our social and religious leaders encourage the suppressed women folk and enable them to work for women emancipation.” – Fazal Nabi Khan
“Moulvion ki waja sy ye or ziada energetic hui hain ball ko zameen py aaney hi nai derahein.”– Sonia Khushleem Khan Jutialian
“That’s great to see these girls are playing without any fear and hats off to the people of the district to encourage these kids. We believe on women empowerment.” – Sher Ghazi
“’Mera jisam, meri marzi’ is practically being demonstrated in Gulmit, Hunza and Gilgit. What a pity.” – Muther Habib
“A handful of people are determined to destroy the Islamic values and society of Gilgit-Baltistan. Gilgit-Baltistan has nothing to do with this football league. Some people think themselves enlightened and educated by making their sisters and daughters a source of entertainment for others. This football league should be called “Hunza Girls Football League”. Thanks.” – Hassan Abbas
 “And then we complain that God has punished us through disasters. If this prevails, all of Gilgit-Baltistan would be utterly destroyed. May God guide them” – Raja Imran Hussain
“Only Hunza and Ghizer… May Allah protect remaining areas.”– Zubair Puniyali
“Once a person becomes beghairat they may do anything, whether right or wrong.” – Arif Nageri

Violence against women – what does it mean?

The United Nations defines violence against women (VAW) 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.”

Can the negative reaction to women’s sports in GB be termed as violence? As per the definition above, the answer is yes. There were clear attempts to coerce or threaten players as well as the administration in order to implement a narrow view that undermines women’s free choice and access to public places. Most of all, the controversy led to an atmosphere of frustration and anxiety in women regarding their chances of having some harmless fun. It threatened that elusive ideal of liberty – the dream of woman and the nightmare of patriarchy. VAW is a many-headed monster.  It can take different forms, at home and in public, such as:

  1. Domestic violence
    • Economic
    • Psychological
    • Emotional
    • Physical
    • Sexual
  2. Femicide
    • Honor killing
  3. Sexual violence
    • Harassment
    • Rape
    • Corrective rape
    • Rape culture
  4. Human trafficking
  5. Female genital mutilation
  6. Child marriage
  7. Online/digital violence
    • Cyber bullying
    • Non-consensual sexting
    • Doxing

There are many factors that contribute to VAW, such as poverty, conflict, substance abuse and high crime rate, but the foundational drive is provided by the acceptance of male superiority and entitlement. This entitlement inevitably leads to tacit or explicit justification of violence, victim blaming, and lack of community sanctions against men, and sometimes women, who engage in violence. Zaighum Abbas considers that VAW in GB is “deeply structural, shrouded in notions like honor, family and tribe. This often gives legitimacy to the perpetrators who are mostly men.” He also points out the subtler forms of oppression in which unpaid labor, household responsibilities and child rearing is phrased in terms of privilege and pride for women.

It is important to remember that a woman from any social or economic background can be subject to this kind of violence. In fact, the United Nations Population Fund considers gender-based violence to be one of the most prevalent human rights abuses across the world.

Globally, one in every three women has been subjected to intimate partner violence, non-partner sexual violence, or both at least once in her lifetime.

World Health Organization (2021)

Pakistan is doing very poorly in terms of gender equality. The latest Global Gender Gap Report ranked it as the second-worst country in terms of gender parity. It is also the country which has the smallest ratio of women in senior, managerial and legislative roles at a paltry 4.5 percent. The public in GB is sometimes so focused on narrow communal interests that they forget they are part of national, indeed global, patterns of oppression. It is important to understand the broader historical progression of the socio-political status of women, and the evolution of the concepts of liberty and equality as human rights.

Communities undergoing transformation

A number of misogynistic myths and superstitions existed for centuries in the psyche of the mountainous people of GB. From the “witch” who would not even hesitate to eat her own children, to the prohibition of women going into “pure” pastures, to the “female demon” interpretation of the Buddha figure – the collective imagination was held hostage by the otherness of woman. Modern era inhabitants of GB are inheritors of that shared psyche.

Bibi Nabat from Hunza is 77 years old. She reminisces about her childhood days. “Girls would be married off around the age of 12,” she says. “They did not understand what marriage meant. If a girl wasn’t happy after marriage and went back to her parents, they would beat her and send her back. This would happen several times. It was not uncommon for husbands, mothers-in-law or sisters-in-law to beat the woman. The solemnization of marriage and divorce were practiced differently than today. Even the mother-in-law or brother-in-law could grant verbal divorce to the woman if they were not happy with her. Haq meher used to consist of 12 silver rupees. One rupee was equal to 10 kilos of wheat.”

She appreciates the opportunities women have today.  “This is the era of education,” she says. “Our sons, daughters and grandchildren are free to go to any part of the world. When we were little, there was too much poverty. We would play with make-believe bread fashioned out of clay. Today we are living in a time of plenty, thank God.”

Not everyone shares this view of the arrival of modernity in GB. Zaighum Abbas recounts hearing from the older generation that “women in pre-modern GB were much more independent, less oppressed and major decision makers with actual power to transform things (take the example of Dadi Juwari, for example) — this is not to say that there were no forms of oppression in pre-modern GB but women’s bodily autonomy was very much different back in the days. There were no myopic notions of family, honor and religion to oppress women at those times. With the advent of modernity came the regressive versions of religion and middle class morality that subjected women in a much more oppressive way.”

This perspective is contested by educationist and poet Memoona Abbas Khan, who also considers that things have improved compared to the past. “Women have always been exploited but today at least we know that we can protest. Since the pre-modern era, women of GB have been working in the fields, giving birth to child after child, and even literally sacrificing their share of food in favor of the men of the family. Their nutrition and health were ignored. There was no room for their self-expression or choice. Women’s rights have been violated in every era.”

Gender and development expert Yasmin Karim considers the deeply rooted patriarchal set-up of GB to be very strong. “The myth of women’s weakness is still present, despite all the progress women have made. People did not even like it when we tried to help mobilize women’s organizations on village level. Sometimes local young men would make a human chain to block our entry into the village. There is some flexibility in the mindset of the new generation. Some men truly support women while others merely see women’s empowerment as a slogan or professional agenda that can bring them acclaim. Others cooperate due to pragmatic reasons because they know that access to opportunities and resources for the entire community is improved when interventions are made for women’s empowerment,” Ms Karim says.

Gender specialist Roheena Ali Shah and clinical psychologist Ishrat Fatima have worked extensively in development interventions and civil society management in Baltistan. “There is a power hierarchy between men and women,” explains Ms Shah. “This hierarchy can generate violence,” she says. She underlines the urban-to-rural contrast. “In Skardu city women have access to education, health and job opportunities. However, the quality of the existing facilities is lacking for both men and women. On the other hand, access to education, proper nutrition or health is not there in far-flung areas.

“The right to inheritance is rarely given to women, even in urban centers like Skardu. There is a lot of domestic violence, which is not even considered violence. Sometimes even the women are convinced that their husbands have the right to beat them. Yet, the context can differ from area to area within the same region. What is applicable in Shigar may not be so in Kharmang or Rondu. In some institutions if a man and a woman are working at the same position, the man would be paid more. There are rampant biases about what women can or cannot do.”

Ishrat Fatima corroborates the occurrence of rights violations. “The resistance to women’s sports gala has only highlighted how much work still needs to be done for women’s rights,” she says. “It was alarming that political as well as religious leaders opposed it. But a lot of people were also supporting the event. The main problem is the availability of opportunities. Once the opportunity is there, women can find ways to participate. There is also a lot of discrimination from women themselves. Traditionally the learned behavior of mothers is to discriminate between daughters and sons.”

At the same time, both Ms Shah and Ms Fatima have observed improvement over the years. “Development organizations have been successful in bringing about some changes. Women are engaged in sports. They drive their own cars. They are entrepreneurs. They are entering politics. Still, men’s attitude remains of utmost importance. Women cannot do any of these things unless the men in the family allow it. I am optimistic that things will get better as there is more awareness and exposure. No one can give rights to women – they are born with rights,” insists Roheena Shah. “Even when a conflict emerges, there is debate and discussion, and it gives us an opportunity to present the counter-narrative,” Ishrat Fatima adds.

Major rights violations identified by gender experts are related to nutrition, education, inheritance, decision-making, unpaid labor, physical abuse, harassment, discrimination, and gender stereotypes.

There are parts of GB which are still closed off to a modern understanding of equality. Journalist Roshan Din Diameri considers the deprivation of basic rights and freedom of any individual to constitute violence. He shares the conditions in his native district, where the majority of girls are provided no or limited access to education. “Women’s basic needs are not fulfilled. The entire Diamer district has only one college which is not operational because teachers are not available. The situation of health is also quite dismal, like in the rest of GB.

“Women have no careers or social participation. The only options available are teaching or working in the field of medicine. There is little acceptance in the local community. Diamer is dominated by religious discourse. Women may be killed in the name of honor merely on the basis of suspicion. However, the general conditions vary from area to area depending on accessibility. Chilas is different from Darel and Tangir. One common issue is the prevalence of polygamy which can result in conflict. Violence used to be quite common, but it has somewhat reduced with time.”

As far as men’s general attitude across GB is considered, Roshan Din does not find it much different than that of Diamer. Everyone talks about rights in the abstract but the real test comes when it is the question of respecting those rights within one’s own family. Double standards and extreme forms of violence like honor killing exist in all major religious communities. “Equality is yet a distant dream. People are still fighting for basic rights. Ultimately, it is the responsibility of the state to protect everyone’s rights, including women,” Mr Diameri concludes. 

Part II will be posted on Wednesday.

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