Should Pakistani women exist? People seem uncertain and in an effort to persuade the wavering, a billboard on the road back from the Karachi airport once assured travellers that a girl is a gift from God too.
Presumably in the hope that exhausted from their travels, Pakistanis might be susceptible to the subtle persuasion in the use of the word "too" (or bhi in the original Urdu rendering).
While the billboard is long gone, variations on the sentiment (larki bhi khuda ki naimaat hai) can be found circulating valiantly among the well-meaning. Perhaps a psychoanalytic interpretation of that assurance might render useful insights into our collective psyche.
Many Pakistani women are immune to the confusion and made all the fiercer by the appalling furnace of loathing and punishment in which they/we (after all, I, too, was raised — by men and women, to loathe myself) are raised, fight to launch the Women’s Protection Bill, deliver polio vaccines, go on demonstrations, work in hospitals and fields, fly airplanes, win Oscars, run dance and theatre groups, get shot in the head and dare to survive.
Many — beaten, tortured, attacked with acid — don’t survive and that’s where all responses founder.
The scale of the atrocities — not just the number — but the weird confluence of the public and the domestic, the kitchen sink component of the horror makes it all the more awful.
Take a look: The jirga that murdered Ambreen should be Pakistan’s last
I know how to talk about political injustice and national and imperial militaristic violence, drones and jihadis; I don’t know how to talk about the cruelty that makes a mother, a brother and a father participate in the brutalisation of a daughter, a sister.
I could do a sociological analysis; I have the intellectual tools, but what I want to be able to talk about, despite the armature of my Ph.D., is the fragility and beauty of a young girl or woman’s life.
Yet, in a context where the soon to be defunct men on the CII can only debate the degree of violence to be meted out to women not question its need to exist, to even think of fragility seems the emanation of a fevered and delusional imagination.
So when asked if I would consider writing about the torture and murders of the 19-year-old schoolteacher from Murree, Maria, who dared to refuse a marriage proposal and the 16-year-old, Ambreen, who helped her friend, Saima, elope, I went into a bit of a tailspin.
How do I write about these women without reducing them to the spectacle of their deaths?
Perhaps focus on their youth and innocence, the fact of which are wrenching, heartbreaking, inexpressibly tragic?
But even that phrase ’youth and innocence’ is a misstatement, for how many Pakistani women have the luxury of innocence?
So many of us — regardless of whether we are born into tribal, religiously conservative, liberal, elite or working class context — are told from birth that we are collectively owned by fathers, brothers, uncles, family, people on the street, the CII.
That we must assent to all dark propositions about us.
At puberty, that our voices are too loud, that we shouldn’t laugh or run in public, or apparently, in private; told by the men on the CII, terrified of losing control of a world they no longer recognise.
That we have neither the right to assent nor the possibility of refusal; that we should be prepared to be beaten, prepared also to be grateful for the ’lightness’ of the beating.
See: No justice for the Tahiras’ of Sindh
Two young women immolated in the space of a month in some bizarre national reinterpretation of sati.
One for daring to say no to a marriage proposal, because, apparently, male desire compels assent simply by being male desire; another for saying no to a system that said her friend should not love whom she wanted or choose to leave whatever she was leaving behind.
These young women, Maria, Ambreen, Sumaira: daring to say no, daring to breathe, daring, indeed, to be.
It’s not just honour killings we have to attack and decimate but an entire vocabulary and set of actions committed to the annihilation of Pakistani women who, emphatically and unmistakably, exist and dare to want more in an environment in which many seem unsure whether they should exist at all.
Sadia Abbas is the author of At Freedom’s Limit: Islam and the Postcolonial Predicament. She teaches at the English department at Rutgers University, Newark.