In Interior Sindh, two young Hindu girls were abducted, forced to convert to Islam, and ‘married’ off to much older men. Another young girl has similarly disappeared. Three brothers, one of whom claims to be a religious ‘scholar’ teaching at a seminary, raped their own sister for two years before being caught. A nine year old boy was sexually abused in Narowal. In Lahore, a woman was stripped, tortured, and had her head shaved after she refused to dance for her husband and two of his friends. All of these heinous incidents took place over the space of just a few days and there are undoubtedly more cases of this sort that have either not received as much attention or not even been reported at all. As any survey or indicator will demonstrate, Pakistan consistently ranks amongst the worst in the world when it comes to the status of women in society, and also has the dubious distinction of being a country with horrifyingly high levels of sexual violence and abuse. Yet, it is depressingly unsurprising to find that rather than tackling the structural factors that produce such misogyny, or even doing the bare minimum required to prevent and punish violence and discrimination against women, the public discourse and political debate in Pakistan continues to revolve around the need to uphold and defend the patriarchal order in the name of culture, religion, and honour. Indeed, there is no more damning indictment of how Pakistan treats its women than the farcical scenes that played out in the KP assembly earlier this month when legislators tripped over each other to frothily denounce the recently held women’s march, but could not find the wherewithal to even mention, let alone condemn, the numerous incidents of violence against women that have taken place since then. 

Those who criticize the women’s march, and the feminist movement in Pakistan, generally tend to employ a standard set of arguments. First, feminists and activists are accused of being agents of shadowy forces aiming to somehow ‘Westernize’ or ‘liberalize’ Pakistan. More charitable versions of this claim eschew reference to foreign actors, but nonetheless emphasize how efforts to empower women represent alien norms that allegedly have no place in Pakistan. Second, feminists and their allies are derided as being ‘elitist’, products of wealth and privilege whose insulated existences prevent them from properly appreciating or understanding the circumstances in which the majority of Pakistan’s women live. Feminists are thus either oblivious to the ‘real’ issues women face, or simply campaign about things that have little relation to the experiences of ‘regular’ people. Third, feminists are accused of going too far, with their protests, marches, and events being labelled as provocations that take things too far; proponents of this particular idea usually have a tendency to begin their statements by proclaiming their support for women’s rights; but then go on to suggest that these rights must be limited in nature due to the supposed differences that exist between men and women. 

The obvious problem with these three sets of arguments is that they ultimately amount to little more than a reactionary justification for the status quo. The first argument, for example, is premised on the assumption that Pakistan’s culture is monolithic and, more importantly, unproblematic, delineating different roles and responsibilities for men and women with little need or desire for ‘Western’-style equality or empowerment. Appeals to religion as a way to justify patriarchy are founded on similar logic. Yet, if we were to accept the argument that feminism represents some kind of malign influence that is incompatible with Pakistani society (ignoring how culture itself is subject to negotiation and change at the macro and micro levels), what can then be said of the endemic violence, discrimination, and abuse directed that continues to be directed towards women? Is it part of the country’s culture to forcibly convert minors and then marry them to much older men? It just coincidental that it always happens to be young women and not, say, men who convert to Islam in this way? Is it culturally acceptable to douse women in acid if they fail to conform to the dictates of their husbands and in-laws, or to kill them for ‘honour’ if they marry of their own free will? Does Pakistani tradition dictate that child molestors go unpunished due to the taboos associated with reporting sexual abuse, or that rape and torture be accepted as long as it is perpetrated by spouses?

One of the greatest ironies of the attacks launched on the feminist movement in Pakistan is that those at the forefront of this condemnation tend to be precisely those who are least likely to speak up against the wanton oppression and subjugation of women under the status quo. They can whip themselves into a frenzy if a women uses a swear word, or dons clothing that they find unacceptable, or complains about receiving unsolicited pictures of men’s genitalia, but are completely silent when confronted with reports of murder, rape, and abuse. This is also precisely why their claims that ‘elitist’ women drive the feminist agenda are completely false; when the women’s march happened, much of the attention it received revolved around posters and placards making use of deliberately provocative language to discuss issues related to bodily autonomy, consent, and so on. While arguing that this ignored ‘real’ issues like sexual violence and economic inequality, what critics of the march chose to ignore was the presence of thousands of women (and, obviously, placards) that did precisely that. Even the most basic attempt to engage with the content and aim of the march would have revealed this to its critics but of course, engagement and understanding was never their aim, just as their concern for ‘real’ issues is limited to using those issues are rhetorical tools in the fight against feminism without actually lifting a finger to address them.

This is also why attempts to silence the feminist movement by calling for moderation and decorum should be utterly rejected. Those calling for sensitivity to the broader cultural context forget that the rules they seek to enforce around discourse and debate seem to fly out the window when it comes to male expression. Indeed, a considerable amount of commentary surrounding the forced conversion and marriage of minor Hindus has sought to justify what happened by claiming that it is was voluntary and consensual (as if children can exercise consent in this fashion), just as victims of sexual abuse, like the women punished for not dancing for her husband, are castigated for their alleged moral failings as part of a collective exercise in victim-blaming. This perverse logic arguably reaches its apotheosis when cartoon villains like Orya Maqbool Jan take to the airwaves and furiously react to the suggestion that women have control over their own bodies by claiming that men perpetrating sexual violence are simply making use of their own bodily autonomy. The sexual frustration and entitlement at the heart of contemporary Pakistani misogyny should be self-evident, just as it should be abundantly clear that attacks on the feminist movement ultimately seek to reinforce the economic, social, and political underpinnings of the patriarchal order. To suggest otherwise is to condone the status quo.