Muniba Mazari’s new challenge

Another week, another man pretending to salvage his honour by cutting off his nose to spite his face. You’d think it was old hat by now, but nobody seems to learn! For the uninitiated: Muniba Mazari, wheelchair bound activist, has been sued for defamation by her husband. The details are ridiculous—he insists she has shamed him and caused mental “anguish” to his family…by giving motivational speeches, becoming an activist for differently-abled people and occasionally modelling as part of her outreach campaign to normalise being in a wheelchair. Mazari was married to this prince for ten years and has been divorced from him since 2015, so it’s taken plenty of time for her ex to realize that his integrity as an “esteemed [former] officer of defence forces” has been compromised by his former wife. He has, of course, since then married and has a new baby, but can’t seem to overcome the fact that his ex-wife overcame a horrifying, life-changing accident (that happened because he crashed their car) with strength, positivity and candour—a rare combination in Pakistan, where we tend to pretend differently-abled people don’t exist, or speak of them with crushing pity. In that milieu Mazari has blazed forth, and Khurram Shahzad thinks that he deserves ten million rupees for it.

If your mind is boggled, you aren’t alone. How does one reconcile a breach of dignity by proceeding to be the zenith of undignified oneself? Shahzad’s petition includes real gems like “the plaintiff [Shahzad] could not allow the defendant [Mazari] to continue such practices” because they were against his family’s values. What were the things Mazari was doing to cut his family nose? Making friends with foreigners and developing an interest in modelling and singing. Painting was allowed, so that hasn’t figured in the list of offenses. Shahzad is also upset that he comes off looking bad in the entire saga of their divorce. That’s all right, it’s understandable that one doesn’t want to appear the bad guy—but how mystifying that the route you choose to exonerate yourself only makes you look like a villain. Previously nobody cared a hoot about Mazari’s ex. Nobody knew his name and she hasn’t, to her credit, gone crying it from the rooftops—and now boom! He’s put himself in the hot seat by demanding compensation for something that happened years ago from the woman he put in a wheelchair. That’s some serious chutzpah. Only a man could think of something so preposterously entitled. If someone’s reputation can be miraculously regenerated with the application of millions of rupees, it gives one pause to think about this amazing brand of honour that waxes and wanes as needed.

If anyone should be asking for compensation, it should probably be Mazari, who was twenty-one when the accident happened. She has spent the best years of her youth in a wheelchair, and whatever the details of her personal life it is undeniable that she has emerged from her ordeal in a truly admirable way. Her story resonates with so many people because she talks about overcoming fear and breaking past the things that hold you back from living your best life. But it’s also a woman saying these things, a woman who had the temerity to leave a man and strike out on her own, and wheelchair or not, career or not, we just can’t handle it. The petition Mr Shahzad filed also mentions how he nursed her back to health and supported her painting, as if it were a massive favour he did to her. He obviously feels like it was, and her leaving him is some kind of ingratitude she should be punished for, even years after the fact.

What one takes away from this ludicrous display of petulance and cupidity is that women just can’t be allowed. What on earth is Mr Shahzad going on about? He is remarried, he has a new family and best of all, he emerged from a terrible accident with complete use of his legs. What is the internet going on about, that Mazari must be some devious attention-seeking schemer who wronged her ex? She’s done more for differently-abled people than anyone in the country, she is a UN goodwill ambassador and she is a good mother to her son, whose adoption she openly speaks about. She could sue her ex for almost killing her, and yet she’s the villain? We just can’t let any of the girls be, can we, whether its Muniba or Malala or Mukhtaran Mai. We keep going back to the same old tired tripe of virtue and reputation and honour, and somehow that all hinges on what women do, don’t do or try to do. It doesn’t matter that they’ve been gang-raped, paralysed, shot in the head. They have faced unspeakable horror, and instead of breaking into a million pieces of devastation as all good little women must, they came back stronger. It’s every patriarch’s nightmare, women who don’t sit at home weeping in self-pity like all the dramas would have us believe; women who turn their adversity into strength and inspire other women and men to do the same. It’s an oppressor’s terror, the idea of the rebels sparking an uprising.

In the fabulous Hema Malini film Sita aur Gita there’s a scene where Sita, tyrannized mouse twin, changes place with Gita, her sassy and brave twin. Their nasty step-uncle tries to beat who he thinks is Sita with a belt—she has overstepped her “auqat”, and she needs to be taught a lesson. You will stay home, he yells, smacking her with the belt. You will cook, you will clean! Incensed, Gita yells back “so that you can rule?” and, grabbing the belt, proceeds to beat the living daylights out of him—with the same belt. She breaks her sister’s cycle of coercion, and while I don’t condone violence, the idea is sound: we should be protecting each other from injustice, fiercely.

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