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

Shahana Shah

Thought and language

Actions are rooted in ideas and thoughts, conscious as well as subconscious. Social philosopher Aziz Ali Dad sheds light on the very concept of manliness. “In the subculture of men, masculinity is defined through machismo. This is the reason that men are also violent amongst themselves. If a man is not aggressive enough he is considered effeminate. Their entire personality stands on violence. Hence, women become victims of men’s identity crisis. Traditionally, women have been oppressed in GB but men became more insecure with the advent of modernity, making them even more violent,” he theorizes.

Linguist Samina Khan brings attention to the nuances of violence permeating speech. “Men have been dominating for ages. They yield the power to construct language in their own voice. Language is cultural practice, which reflects sexist elements. For example, the language men use in the streets or among themselves is aggressive and dehumanizes women.

“There are a lot of swear words in the local languages of GB which have elements of sexual violence and are used to imply insult to the man addressed through the violation of women related to him. There are also other aspects of language which trivialize women. For example, in Burushaski men are granted personhood in the phrase ‘hir sis’ while women are infantilized as ‘gus giyas’. Brave women are praised as having manly courage, but it is an insult to call a man womanly,” she elaborates.

In some parts of GB families give names meaning “no more daughters” to girls in the hope of having a son the next time. It is thought that the first person to enter a house right after the agricultural festival of Bo Fao must be a man because the harvest would suffer if a woman entered instead.

 There are a number of expressions and proverbs in the local languages of GB which attribute derogatory meaning to femininity. Some examples from Burushaski, Khowar and Shina, loosely translated, are:

  • “The house has a womanly aura”- meaning that said house is untidy, uninviting and lacking in homeliness.
  • “Womanly eyes” – implying ill intention, evil, ugliness.
  • “Woman has no religion” – meaning that a woman has to adopt the ideas of the man she marries.
  • “The sun will never rise if the hen crows” – meaning that women cannot lead in religious matters.
  • “Don’t follow a woman’s advice, even if she tells you to offer prayers” – cautioning against listening to women.
  • “The widow will till the sky” – used when a widow wants to live as per her choice.

The burdens on today’s women

Salima (not her real name) is a university-educated woman in her mid-thirties. She is a native of Ghizer and has married into a family from Upper Hunza. She has had the opportunity to closely observe gender norms in both districts. “The environment in which I grew up was quite conservative. It was frowned upon to leave the boundaries of the house. My older brother and uncles did not like us girls to even attend a wedding in the extended family, particularly when there was music and dance.

“In general, the environment is much freer in Gojal for women to move around, study or work. Women in Ghizer rarely work outside in the fields. Girls there are often married off at an early age while girls in Gojal are climbing mountains. Ghizer girls have the same capabilities but tradition binds them. Once in a village near mine, the local male community leaders decided that women must not be seen in the market, and if any woman violated the rule, the men in her family would be fined.

“It is also very common for different clans, like Syed, Baigal, Raja etc, within the same religious community to oppose inter-marriage. I knew a lady whose father had allowed her to get engaged to a man from another clan, but the family faced such intense boycott from his own clan that the engagement was broken off. She was then forced to marry an uneducated man from within the clan.”

Salima has also faced domestic violence herself. “I am the second wife of my husband. He was once violent towards both me and his first wife, under intense pressure from his parents. He is the only son and married me because he didn’t have any children with his first wife. I think I may not have chosen to accept a married man’s proposal if my own upbringing had not been so strict. Perhaps I saw marriage as a way out.

“My parents-in-law thought that they would get rid of me after getting a grandchild. They even said that if I gave birth to a son, they would keep him but if it was a girl, they would just send us both away. There was a time when I would keep wondering if life was worth living. When I got married my mother said to me that if I ever came back, my brothers would lose face in the community.” Salima and her husband have now reached a compromise. She is living and working in Gilgit. Her husband divides his time between his parents, and Salima and their son.

Why women stay in less than satisfactory relationships
An anonymous testimony
“I wanted to divorce my husband because despite contributing equally to the relationship in every aspect, I was still facing unbearable emotional abuse. I went to the community arbitration board. The head of that institution was more concerned about the image of the community than about my distress. I lost all faith in the system. No one was trying to see my perspective. I was gaslighted into believing that perhaps I was being over-sensitive. I then went to my mother for refuge. She shared her own experience of married life and told me to reconsider whether I really should get a divorce. I was also not willing to give up my children. I finally decided to go back to my husband, but on my own terms. While this was going on, I got a prestigious and high scale job. My position changed completely. I think that women should know how to utilize their position and power. Ultimately, I decided that instead of becoming a topic of gossip for society I would be better off resuming my marriage but on better terms while trying to raise my children as good human beings.”
Artist Bozdelaik’s interpretation of VAW includes a male-dominated society depriving women of personal vision and self-expression.

The experience of personal and social insecurity common to so many women is considered to be violence by Memoona Abbas Khan. “It requires a higher level of moral degradation to exhibit physical violence. More common is non-physical violence which I find particularly haunting. Emotional and psychological violence is difficult to prove. Even educated people start making excuses for exclusionary practices such as the deprivation of women’s right to inheritance. They do not comprehend the simultaneous standing of multiple rights of women. We may consider a working woman empowered, but we have to see if she is free to spend her earnings as she sees fit.

“I pity the men who have been taught harmful norms since childhood which they later practice with pride. Very few men unlearn these behaviors upon growing up. I have observed some men who like to converse with their women colleagues in a professional setting and espouse the discourse of empowerment but when they go home their behavior with their wives, sisters or daughters is in contradiction with their public persona.”

With all these pressures on women, what are some of the ways for catharsis and self-expression? Ms Khan has been writing prose and poetry since her college days. “When society represses you too much, it inadvertently also gives you the courage to resist. Initially, I was afraid that as a woman writing poetry I would be judged for its themes of love, dreams and idealism. Women told me that they got hope from my poetry. On the other hand, I learned that leading men writers of GB would mock my poetry in their gatherings and say that it was actually written by a man and that I was merely taking credit for it.”

She also laments the fact that regardless of performance, women are almost never considered for higher administrative jobs. Roshan Din Diameri agrees with her, pointing out that none of the government departments in GB are being led by women.

Samina Khan points out that even when women are working in high profile jobs, the expectations for domestic labor remain the same. “They are made to feel as if they have to compensate for spending time outside home,” she observes.

Most women live in the joint family system with their in-laws, often even when the husband himself lives out of town pursuing his occupation. It is quite common for petty quarrels and restrictions on the use of basic resources to cause friction amongst family members in such a set-up, leading to stress for all.

It is not enough that women have access to education, can have jobs and earn money. The question remains as to how safe they are while accessing these opportunities and how much their will is respected – a will which is inevitably strengthened as a result of education and employment. They must be protected from violence both at home and outside.

Sexual harassment is one of the common forms of VAW. It can happen anywhere, in schools, universities, offices, market places, and even in the virtual world. People are often hostile to women’s public expression.

Data from The Economist Alliance Unit indicates that 38 per cent of women all over the world with Internet access have personally experienced online violence.

Activist Iram S. Khan shares that screenshots of women’s posts often get viral. “If you say something people start making personal comments on you and your family. Most of the criticism has no intellectual basis. People misbehave and use foul language.”  When it comes to presenting a collective voice for women’s rights, one major obstacle that Iram points out is the fact that there is significant migration of sensitized and educated youth to other parts of the country or abroad, leaving behind a cerebral vacuum.

Unfortunately, even institutions that should be leading the intellectual trends in GB have been presenting a poor record on harassment. Sources from Karakoram International University, Gilgit share that women students as well as faculty face harassment. “There is no official body to deal with harassment effectively.  When women do report harassment they are put through multiple committee hearings, rumors are spread about them, and ultimately they are victim-blamed.  The final solution is “compromise”. If a faculty member has allegations of harassment against him it bears no effect on his promotion or benefits. Sometimes even male students address women faculty members aggressively,” sources reveal.

A student took the bold step of reporting harassment in November 2020. She wrote to the Vice Chancellor, reporting that a senior official in the scholarship office harassed and inappropriately touched her. Students held protests in solidarity with her in Gilgit, Hunza and Islamabad. Agitated students beat up the alleged harasser. Almost inevitably, the issue took a sectarian turn. Supporters from their respective communities rallied around the victim and the accused. Students who had been leading the protests were arrested and pictures of them handcuffed and chained while in custody surfaced on social media. 

The university administration’s solution was to simply transfer the accused to another department. He continues to work on campus today, despite corroboration of his behavior by a number of other women students. This debacle unfolded at an institution which fairly recently tried and failed to enforce a dressing code for women students and faculty. Where is one to look for equality if not even at the highest seat of learning in all of GB?

 Envisioning a future

While narrow religious interpretation remains the most lethal arrow in the quiver of patriarchy, alternative perspectives of individual rights are also emerging. “The notion of human rights exists. Sometimes even religious leaders approach us to report violations,” shares Human Rights Commission of Pakistan’s Israr Uddin. “However, there is little clarity or proper understanding of the concepts. Human rights encompass much more than just women’s rights or political rights. There are gaps in policy and legislation in GB. Legal procedures and response mechanisms are cumbersome.”

Zaighum Abbas has observed a gradual change in how violence perpetrated by men is viewed. Compared to the time when VAW, particularly honor killing, would be mentioned with pride and extolled as an example for other men to follow, today such actions are questioned and viewed as regressive. “The circles that I grew up in were critical of patriarchy, of women being exploited, and the way our culture enables it. We got to study, moved away from the place for some time which gave us the chance to look at GB from a more comparative angle. People who have always lived there were not able to do that,” he points out. While conceding limited progress, he warns that tribal patriarchal structures are not easy to dismantle.

“The very first step is to start thinking about existing inequalities philosophically. Discourse on women’s rights is in its infancy in GB,” Samina Khan reminds. “The conversation right now is superficial and only addresses the symptoms rather than the roots of violence. There isn’t even complete agreement on whether violence against women is fundamentally immoral or just a minor inconvenience. If we want an equal society, men must be our allies. In some of the more sensitized sections, one does see couples or family members interacting with a willingness to be fair, even if complete equality is not there.”

New voices
“The emotions and intelligence of girls and boys are exactly the same. Girls just don’t get platforms to do what they want to. Instead of focusing on their achievements, people troll them on their dressing. Parents are over-sensitive regarding their daughters. I am not at all satisfied with the current status of women’s rights in GB. I believe that we must take a stand for ourselves. It is my right to get an education and have a career. I would always fight for it. Violence is never acceptable. A husband has no right to raise his hand against the wife.”
–        Fariha Gul, 19 years old, student of humanities.
“Girls and boys should be equal but they are not treated as such in Pakistan. Boys are given preference in everything. Girls are oppressed. Boys can go out wherever they want but girls are not allowed to leave the house. Parents fear that their daughters may be gossiped about. I think that girls have the capability to do anything that boys do. I believe that girls should get their rights. They are human being and have the right to live their lives.”
–        Ali Shan, 17 years old, student of computer science. 

The people of GB must realize that the time has come to believe in something bigger than narrow communal interests and suffocating traditions. They must look beyond the mountains which surround them. The world is changing at a bewildering rate. The struggle for rights means much more than petty squabbling among three communities over quotas. The future will be a meritocracy. Men cannot continue to rule based on accidents of biology.

Whether we want it or not, the walls between tribes, sects and genders are crumbling. We cannot hide from one another or turn every encounter into a conflict. Men and women must live in harmony as equals belonging to the same specifies, which is not possible as long as men continue to wield brute force to protect their privileges.

As Mary Wollstonecraft, the author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, said

“Virtue can only flourish among equals.”


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