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Pakistan: Reproductive violence

Friday 10 June 2016, by siawi3


Tahir Mehdi

Published Jun 07, 2016 04:55am

TWO things happened in Islamabad on the same day recently, one pertaining to the Council of Islamic Ideology and the other to Pemra, the electronic media regulator. CII sanctioned ‘lightly beating’ of wives and Pemra banned (and then partially withdrew) advertisements of contraceptives.

The two seemingly unrelated events have more than their timing in common. Their relationship is intriguing and intense and covered by the same ignorance that so many in our society defend in the name of religion and culture.

But before I dilate on the link between the two, let me first contradict the maulanas who topped their shenanigans by declaring that wife-beating does not exist in our beloved country which is inhabited by pious Muslims. It not only exists, it is rampant.

There is no doubt that this area is understudied and lacks specific data and information but whatever little is available makes it evident that wife-beating is the rule and not an exception. A small study (which I helped to conduct) a few years ago in two villages of central Punjab revealed that two in every three women were beaten by their husbands. A quarter of them were not only slapped, boxed and shoved but beaten with sticks and shoes at a frequency of ‘often’ to ‘regularly’. Nine of the 190 women who were interviewed reported having bled at least once as a result of being beaten, and seven had one of their bones broken in a single bout.

If these horrendous statistics could be extrapolated to the 38 million or so married women of the country, the picture becomes extremely grave. But that’s not what one sees from the windows of the CII office in Islamabad.
Wife-beating does not only exist in the country, it is rampant.

Besides attempting to quantify the practice of wife-beating, information was also sought on the marriage age of respondents, the number and sequence of male and female children born and perceptions about who was at fault, what triggered the incidents, their mitigation strategy and which family member played what role during and after the act of violence. That’s where links between wife-beating and misplaced concepts about reproductive performance of the couple become evident.

As a rule, women in Pakistan are married young. Young men entering a marriage are under pressure to produce evidence of their male prowess — and what better proof than a pregnant wife? The young brides are thus expected to conceive immediately and if they fail owing to any natural or health- or age-related factor, the men take it as an affront. There were incidents reported in the study when men started beating their wives for months after the marriage but stopped when the woman became pregnant.

The average Pakistani male’s understanding of sex and reproduction is at best at the level of what it used to be in the mediaeval ages. Male egos thrive in this sea of ignorance. It is impossible for them to accept that their wife’s failure to conceive can also be due to some reversible or irreversible problem at their end. It is the women who have always been faulted and who must bear the brunt. Two middle-aged men in the study, who savagely beat their wives, took second wives as the first ones did not bear them any children, but their second wives remained issueless too.

When a bride is finally pregnant; her next ‘assignment’ is to give birth to a male child. Women giving birth to girls first or to more girls than boys are considered inferior. Such women lose the sympathy of even their close circles and their ‘poor’ husbands are seen justified in venting their frustration.

There was considerable difference in the pattern of violence involving women who were proud mothers of sons compared with those who bore only girls. No one has a clue about the scientific fact that it is the man who is responsible for whether the offspring will be male or female. This fact could only become part of common knowledge if talking about sex and sex education were not taboo.

Almost half of the women (mostly in their 30s) beaten by their husbands reported that they were no longer beaten. But that comes when the man’s age is close to 40 and his children have reached adulthood. Most women of this group reported that when their husbands intend to beat them, their sons tell them not to. There were women in this group, however, who said that their husbands had stopped beating them as soon as the coveted male heir was born.

This, however, is not to say that the archaic understanding of reproductive matters is the sole instigator of such violence. But if the ego of a large section of Pakistani males is deconstructed, their poor understanding of sexual matters will be found as one of its important factors.

Ignorance breeds ignorance. Our young men and women have no institution to fall back on for guidance on such matters. Sex education in schools gets an even stricter rebuke from the authorities than the Pemra ban on contraceptive ads.

This chosen ignorance then becomes a huge market for quacks offering dangerous quick fixes and for ‘pirs’ bestowing amulets and other more hazardous prescriptions. There is a reason why every village wall is painted with their advertisements.

A few vertical programmes related to reproductive health have attempted to raise communities’ knowledge base but they too face stiff resistance from the guardians of public morality. These programmes are implemented by young workers who lack authority. Any affirmation of what they say by the national media lends them credibility and makes them more powerful and effective.

It is ironic that the acts that deprive them of this clout, damaging their cause, come from the highest level of government that is actually supposed to lead these campaigns with vigour and resolve.

Tahir Mehdi works with Punjab Lok Sujag, a research and advocacy group that has a primary interest in understanding governance and democracy.