07 Mar 2016
Sobia Ali Faisal
The issue of violence against women in Pakistan has received some international press in the last week or so. First, with Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, a Pakistani-Canadian filmmaker, winning an Oscar for A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness, her documentary about Saba Qaiser, a survivor of an attempted “honour killing”. This was followed by news that Obaid-Chinoy had screened her film for the Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. He, in turn, promised legislation that would end “honour killings” in the country. Then came the news that the Pakistani state of Punjab had passed a law criminalizing all forms of violence against women, including domestic, emotional, psychological, economic, and sexual.
There is no doubt that Pakistan needs to do something to end violence against women. According to a report by the Aurat Foundation in Pakistan, there were a total of 10,070 cases of violence against women reported in 2014 (imagine how many more went unreported, especially in rural areas). These included acts such as kidnapping, rape, acid throwing, and ‘honour’ killings, among others. They also reported this number was an increase of 28.3% from 2013.
But, what do these recent news stories mean for women in Pakistan? Should we be optimistic?
First, let’s take a closer look at Obaid-Chinoy’s win. The response from Pakistanis on social media has been mixed. There has been much praise for her win, but others have expressed the belief that she is giving Pakistan a bad name. They appear to believe that she should stop focusing on the negative aspects of Pakistani society and instead should make films about the good in Pakistan.
Keeping in mind that those who have access to and use Twitter are those with relative privilege, tweets still provide a certain insight into a certain subsection of society.
Although the positive responses demonstrate support among Pakistanis for change, the negative response demonstrates a true lack of understanding of the severity of the problem. The idea that exposing violence against women in Pakistan is “something negative” trivializes the safety and security of women. I am no fan of poverty porn made for Western audiences, but people burying their heads in the sand at the expense of women’s safety and lives is much worse. Seeing the threat to women’s lives and safety in Pakistan simply as something which would tarnish the image or reputation of the country instead of the crisis and lethal force it is, reflects that many segments of society don’t quite care to understand what many women face.
I have been critical of Obaid-Chinoy’s films in the past as their audience is a Western audience, not a Pakistani one. Yet, I will say that I am pleasantly surprised and happy that she is using this film to try to create change in Pakistan (as demonstrated by the film screening for the Prime Minister), and not simply provide poverty porn to Western audiences. However, the negative responses, focusing more on Pakistan’s image than on the safety of women, leave me feeling pessimistic.
Similarly, the response to the new law in the Punjab has also been mixed. Although many, especially women’s rights groups in Pakistan, have praised this move, the bill faces opposition from the usual suspects who believe that this new law is anti-Islamic and anti-Shariah. The chief of the Jamiat-i-Ulema Islam party, Fazlur Rehman, stated that this law violated a family’s privacy and was trying to introduce “Western” values into Pakistan by hurting Pakistan’s “strong family structure.” He also believes this law would make men insecure. However, their views regarding the specifics of what exactly makes this law unIslamic are unclear from media reports.
There are coherent and human rights-based critiques of the bill. For example, as Abira Ashfaq points out, this bill, among other issues, does not clearly define sexual violence or oppressive behaviour (term to which it refers), does not mandate an improvement of women’s shelters (which are often “jail-like”, unsafe, and controlling), and places restrictive conditions on a woman being able to re-enter her marital home once she has left. There is also a very valid and serious concern that the laws will not even be implemented or used to protect women. However, saying that protecting women from violence from family members is un-Islamic is purely disturbing.
In some ways it feels as if we’re taking one step forward, but two steps back. Documentaries on violence against women in the global south that are made for Western audiences are problematic in nature. On the other hand, if they can effect some change in their home country, even if through the fear of embarrassment, then perhaps it is worth it. But that “if they can effect some change” condition is huge, and very difficult to attain. Only time will tell if this film will have any impact on the issue of violence against women in Pakistan. The same goes for the new bill. When religious leaders are misusing Islam to claim that such legal protections are un-Islamic, not to mention the long history of the lack of enforcement of many laws, it doesn’t leave me with much hope. It seems there may be many good intentions in both situations, but that is not good enough for the women facing daily violence.