The Pakistani Women You Have Probably Heard About

There’s something interesting, in that facepalm sort of way, about the manner in which the South Asian female form is constructed and seen through the North American media gaze. The characterizations of the South Asian female differ from country to country in the subcontinent, from Bangladesh to Pakistan to India to Afghanistan. Despite these differences, however, their portrayals always rely on what is given to us as the foundation of their experiences and identities: they are victims. And it seems that the recognition and propagation of their victimhood is our means of maintaining our gendered and political superiority as well as our overall humanity here in North America.

On September 8th, the New York Times published an article entitled “Defying Parents, Some Pakistani Women Risk All to Marry Whom They Choose.” The article explores what is, unarguably, a weighty social (and economic) issue in Pakistan regarding a woman’s right in choosing her marriage partner. Many Pakistani women face social and personal challenges when trying to assert their right to choose a spouse in a society where the family remains the stronghold of any (male or female) individual’s life. Decisions rarely come solely from the individual but are usually, if not often, the result of family deliberation or the authority of elders. Yet there’s something missing. There is, in fact, a lot missing.

MMW’s very own Merium does a great job of highlighting some of the many issues that are missing in this particular piece as well as similar articles that explore the issue of marriage (and by extension gender relations) in Pakistan. Most poignantly she brings up the centrality of economic stability and ties that come through gendered social relations:

For many Pakistani families, a marriage builds networks and in many cases is a step up the economic ladder for one of the parties.  In the same vein, it is understandable from a completely practical point of view why many parents would not approve of love marriages, because unlike those who can choose their spouses, for many, the social networks created from arranged marriages is a source of pride and in my experience even perpetuates (and justifies) nepotism in the work place.  A marriage for love does not guarantee this.”

Unsurprisingly, marriage in Pakistan cannot be reduced to an economic deal or a cultural practice or a religious and social institution or a right of passage. It is, like any other social relationship and practice in any other society and culture, a confusing, messy and inconsistent part of what makes a people a people. While my colleague Merium discusses the burdens upon and grooming of young Pakistani women to lead lives of marriage and, essentially, home-creation, I would step further to say that men, too, receive burdens and grooming, albeit differently, and often, but not always, in ways that give them a greater advantage in the relationship and in the decision-making process.

Yet as important as this issue is to me, a layered Pakistani Muslim woman, I cannot help but shake my head at the NY Times article and those that tread the path led by same chants.

Undoubtedly, South Asia is plagued with gender issues that pervade every aspect of life in both explicit and salient ways. I hate to pull the “this is like anywhere else” card – but here it is and surprise-frickedy-ise. As much as race and class affect our political, social, personal and professional relationships in both the private and public spheres, so do gender and sex. This is not to say, of course, that across the world women are all afforded the same poor treatment in their respective societies and therefore we cannot judge or pinpoint error. Of course not. But there is something to be said about how we pinpoint error and how we choose to let those errors define the experiences of all women of a particular society and thus let those errors be the foundation of their identities.

Portrayals of and discussions on Pakistanis in our North American media rely heavily on the tragedy of the Pakistani female form. When a Pakistani woman is not being brutalized by her countrymen (emphasis on men) she is being triumphant over that brutality. Whatever her position is – a poor Christian woman or the British-bred Prime Minister – a Pakistani woman’s identity and experience is laden with, as a previously linked Atlantic article headlines, “abuse, shame and survival.” She is abused by the men in her life and by the state; she is then made ashamed of the abuse she has suffered, and if she is lucky, she survives and overcomes. In a piece I wrote for KABOBfest, following last year’s Academy Awards, I wrote of the documentary Saving Face’s win:

“Despite the importance of the bringing justice to the women (and men) who face these senseless attacks (beyond Pakistan), I couldn’t help but cringe at the fact that not only was such a documentary nominated but that it won and is “Pakistan’s first Oscar”. This is how Pakistan is recognized at what is considered the ‘most important’ film award ceremony? An Oprah special turned into a documentary? And is this what South Asian women are, once again, reduced to? The trope of the victimized South Asian female, at the Oscars, is not new; it has been dangerously bludgeoned for years. A quick look at past nominees from South Asia (specifically India) for various categories reveal themes of female victimization…But even more than this — is this how Pakistani women, in particular, are seen? Victims of acid attacks by a ‘backwards’ society and can be saved with the help of a camera crew and a British Pakistani surgeon?

And none of this is new to how the Pakistani female is portrayed in our media. A quick look through the NY Times archives, alone, reveals a flurry of articles from the past twenty-five years that cry out to the tragedy of the Pakistani woman as a victim of rape (thank you Nicholas Kristof)/acid-attack/religious extremism (yes, he actually uses “Moslem” in that last link; apparently that was still in the NY Times lexicon in the late eighties).

These are but a few acts of violence that occur against many Pakistani women on a daily basis, and what is required more than ever is for a way to engage with these abuses without further abusing the women themselves, as well as not extending the image of the battered and bruised Pakistani woman to all those in the country and diaspora. Not all Pakistani women can be made into Victims, including women who are victims of violence and abuse, because this characterization limits how they choose to express their own identity and self. And not all Pakistani men can be made into abusers. Domestic and state violence against Pakistani women – specifically poor women – can never be understated, but should those experiences come to signify the experiences and identities of all Pakistani women? How can we engage with the economic and physical violence against women, everywhere and anywhere, without falling into the trap of creating strict, rigid lines of good and evil that are unfair characterizations of populations? Additionally, what purpose do pieces such as the above-linked NY Times article on so-called “free will marriages” ultimately serve? Now that those of us who sit as spectators of Pakistan, from the outside, know that this is an experience of many Pakistani women – what do we do? What can we do?

We read, we sit and we judge. But it doesn’t stop there. These images and narratives are used to justify calls for “civilization” and “reform” in countries such as Pakistan, changes that come from anything but the people of the country itself. The country, the people and their religion need reform – they need to be changed, “liberalized.” We have something to offer them, to make them “better.” And while “we” perhaps do, these images make it easier to see a country like Pakistan as one that breeds a woman-hating, religiously zealous population, which then makes it easier to ignore the violence being done to them through our own governments.

So, I’m ultimately unsure of what it actually is that we’re offering by engaging in and creating a discourse that serves to only reinforce the thoroughly evil character of a country – but here it is, dressed in op-eds and exposés on the trials and tribulations of the woman of the global south against the man of the global south.

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