Leap Day — A great day for freedom


There is so much we have yet to do


In good times and bad, society begets widening schisms that bring out the problematic side of plurality. Over the years, cultural and moral degradation in the garb of nationalist and religious rhetoric towards political ends has become commonplace. The phenomenon has slipped beneath the surface of mainstream discourse and resounds of a vastly desensitised silence in the public sphere. Although most of us try to hopelessly hold on to an optimistic numbness that sits comfortably in the dark cave of this melancholic acceptance, the whirlwind of reactionary and counter cultural ideas jolts us out of our comfort zones, when confronted with divergent ones.

This is not to suggest that the civil society does, at all times, come up with linear solutions to social issues that must always be lauded. The metaphorical moral compass of society, however, was shockingly skewed, with the needle pointing to the violent, pessimistic and dismissive proclivities of the masses on the leap day this time around. The day saw the government and judiciary take a much-awaited leap of faith while the international arena came to appreciate the efforts of one Pakistani woman.

While bigots all over the country were quick to crown Mumtaz Qadri with martyrdom, many anti-west jingoists, so-called moderates, half-baked liberals and general sour-pusses decided to dismiss Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy’s two Oscars with the widely overused and clichéd criticism: “She should have made a film to represent the positive image of Pakistan”. Of course, some people think she is a CIA agent and is paid to make Pakistan look bad as well.

Some people claimed to have a better grasp on the stipulations of filmmaking than Sharmeen and thought she was just not good enough for viewership with veterans like Syed Noor around who do not get due acknowledgement. Respected Mr Noor himself claimed that ‘The Girl in the River’ was originally his brainchild and Sharmeen stole his idea. Noted politician Shireen Mazari suggested that she should make films about positive things in Pakistani society while the doyen of Pakistani theatre, Shah Sharabeel suggested that her documentaries should be based on more imminent threats posed by the west. In essence, they mean that Sharmeen should make films about cute dolphins or drone attacks or else stop altogether. While I fail to believe that Sharmeen’s Oscar was a part of some sort of western agenda to point flaws in our society and fail to see her accolade as a sinecure, in this wave of amusing criticism, I do see sense, logic and a pattern.

I clearly remember the July of 2007, when almost all of the news channels were bombarding viewers with gruesome images of the siege of Lal Masjid. The crimson walls, cocktails of limbs and pools of blood painted a ghastly picture of horror and marked a vivid beginning of a warpath between the government and ‘Islamic militants’. Religion became more politicised, society more divided and mullahs more deluded. The ‘ugly image’ of Pakistan is no secret to the world since.

Terrorism, organised violence of in the name of religion in South Asia and a battle to establish the need for more strictly imposed misconstrued Islamic ethics by extremists have killed scores of fundamentalists, moderates and politically neutral men, women and children alike. This war has cost over 80,000 lives. Out of these lives, Pakistani security forces report losses of 5,498 lives, the number of militants allegedly killed are 26,862 and the highest number of casualties, some 48,504, are civilians. The economic losses incurred are over $100 billion. The issue is of gargantuan proportions and is proportionately represented, thusly. At the same time, on a societal level, we are faced with many other issues, which we are more reluctant to acknowledge and talk about.

I also distinctly remember witnessing Sakina’s* luminous face half melted when I saw her last. I was only a child then but I remember it as the most horrifying visual of my life that still haunts me. Sakina was an adolescent maid who used to work at my grandparents’ house since she was 12. She was married off into an unknown family by her parents when she turned 16. Her mother-in-law poured gasoline on her, while her husband lit her on fire. She died owing to third-degree burns on 90 per cent of her body in a manner of a day. I still remember her skipping around in my grandparents’ backyard, with her moon-faced innocence, hopes of a lesser servile tomorrow in her bright eyes.

Unfortunately, there is no effective state-funded portal to count the victims of honour killings, domestic violence, rape, acid-attacks, child abuse and other grave issues that are swept under the rug. Even if there was, the problematic notion of honour, hinders victims and their families like an oppressive mountain from voicing out the nature and intensity of atrocities committed against them, even if they do come to fore. They stay quiet to preserve honour for they uphold it as having more value than their lives.

There are over a 1000 cases of honour killings reported across Pakistan each year. Needless to say that this idea of honour and the fact that it is located in the bodies of women, legitimises their maiming, burning or killing. The old dictum that suggests ‘the body is a temple’, holds true in a way, as honour makes it to prone to desecration and eradication. It can be made derelict and can be sequestrated upon the whims of its curators.

This notion of honour, unsurprisingly, is as old as time in the subcontinent. It dates back to Hindu mythology’s brazen representation of Sita’s Agni Pariksha (Trial by Fire) on the pretext that her honour had been sullied. Sita, who was suspected to have been raped by the mythological monster, Ravana, refused to walk on fire as a test of her chastity, and left Lord Rama’s court, emphasising her agency. This fable gives us an insight into the origins of the patriarchal notion that rape is considered a besmirching of ‘honour’. The religio-cultural nexus, then, has deeply impacted how honour is viewed in the intricate lattice of Indian and Pakistani societies.

The 1990 Qisas and Diyat Ordinance provided a shield for the patriarch to get away with killing in the name of honour. Personal pardon and settlement among relatives worked as social sanction to permit homicide and limit the writ of state. The fact that Sharmeen’s internationally acclaimed documentary brought to fore the issues that we seldom spoke about even in the personal sphere, is likely to force the state to revisit the laws on honour killings.

Recently, legislation has been tightened in wake of Sharmeen’s second Oscar, to protect domestic violence victims. Cleric Mufti Muhammad Naeem labelled Sharmeen an ‘obscene woman’, while right-wing politician Maulana Fazlur Rehman criticised the law as a source of ‘humiliation of husbands’. This supposedly ‘obscene’, ‘husband- humiliating’ woman, however, has proven to be an influential lobbyist whose efforts have helped for a system of judicial accounting to materialise.

Domestic violence is a societal practice more prevalent than we would like to believe. It is endemic in Pakistan and according to a study published in 1999 by the New York based Human Rights Watch, over 90 per cent of women in Pakistan are victims of domestic violence. Most women from relatively privileged economic classes and the responsibility of preserving their social status end up justifying these practices. The ones from underprivileged families do not speak up because they are not equipped with the requisite tools of discourse for interest articulation and are sorely dependent on their patriarchs for subsistence. Most women, in effect, are complicit in their oppression.

Even so, according to Progressive Women’s Association, Islamabad, over 4,000 women are battered and beaten by their husbands every year, with 80 per cent of them with bruises serious enough that necessitate medical care.

According to a rough estimate, then, since its inception, Pakistan has seen approximately 276,000 recorded cases of domestic violence. Society perpetuates these practices with attaching the notions of machismo and power with violence and the need to assert it on to the weaker lot. The point I am trying to make here is that the bigger picture in this regard is bleak, making the ‘positive image of Pakistan’ highly irrelevant.

The question, then, is that if the number of lives affected by domestic violence is hundreds of thousands women, does that make it an important enough issue to make a documentary about? Is it that the ground realities that we like to stay silent about can be spoken about through the medium of art because otherwise child rape or acid-burning or domestic violence are crimes too mortifying to talk about for our society, mired in the complexities of honour, power and patriarchy?

In my humble opinion, we talk about drone attacks because we have made an opinion about who to side with and who to oppose and have neatly devised our ‘us’ and ‘them’ camps. We have formed our value judgements and we know who the bad guys are. We have yet to make up our minds over whether or not a woman is stripped off of her honour when she is raped or whether a wife-beater is a true villain or has been given Islam’s sanction to civilise his ignorant, subhuman wife. We have yet to make up our minds whether the monstrous act of defacing a woman is an assertion of a patriarch’s masculinity or not. We have yet to talk about these issues because they are complex, not because we think they are unimportant. Because clearly, they are not. We have yet to figure out if the leap day was a great day for freedom. Or not.

Note: *Name has been changed for discretion.