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.

  • Sarah

    Yes, yes and yes! As an American (muslim) woman, I get really frustrated with the victimization of any female that is not white, middle-class, Christian, and American. Not only does this create a social dichotomy and enforce the same colonial attitude that has cost and continues to cost so many lives and liberties, but it takes the attention away from violence against women in our own community. One in four woman in American experience intimate partner violence, why are we not talking about that…. In the end, its about working together to create communities that are violence free. We can’t do this if we are demeaning people and minimizing their experience and persona to a victimized stereotype.

    I realize I just really went on a rant there. What I mean to say is that I really appreciate everything you said here, I learned a lot, and I support you in effort against ALL unequal power structures.

  • Carl

    Sad story from a Pakistan newspaper – http://t.co/Ebp3OUPH

    Seems that you don’t like such stories (one of many I could have selected) making the news as it offends your Pakistani “pride”?

  • mash

    also funny how western media doesn’t seem interested in the Pakistani women being killed by drone strikes.

  • DP

    So you’re saying the NYT should have not covered this story, even though it is true?

  • Rochelle

    “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”‘

    “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”

    This would all be very good and true, except for the fact that it is women of pakistan who are fighting themselves against forced marriages and gender violence. And many of them want their struggles to be aired around the world in order to put international human rights pressure on the Pakistani government to enforce the anti-violence-against-women bill they passed a few years ago. And furthermore, this strategy has worked several times before, — the hodood laws comes to mind.

    I’m not saying it was the west who secured those victories, nor do I believe that they should be involved today. It is clearly the Pakistani women themselves who are on the frontline of this battle. But you seem to think that the Pakistanis have no role to play in this dynamic of western reports about these things. That they’re hapless victims in all this and not human rights defenders making a conscious decision to raise awareness both in AND outside of Pakistan as a tactic to achieve THEIR goal of reform. THEY are the ones conducting this fight, they are the ones pushing these stories, and they have a damn good reason – because people need to know this shit is going on.

    “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?”

    Now, clearly you think it is better that reports such as these never reach the light of day outside of Pakistan, lest you and your (probably middle class) diaspora buddies get stereotyped as poor, helpless and backward women. My, these practices never happen to folks like you, right? How dare they put you in the same box as these people? And in order to soothe your complex, we are willing to ignore / wish away14 year old girls getting shot in the face or have acid thrown on them, because – oh no! – that would damage your sensibilities by acknowledging that horrible fucking shit happens.

    Cool, I get what you think. But – wish all due respect – why the hell should I be listening to you? Okay I get that portraying Pakistani women as uniquely oppressed or Pakistani men as dangerous is damaging and terrible. But I’m not willing to take that advice (‘it happens everywhere! don’t worry about it!’) over the advice by a lot of Pakistani human rights activists who are telling me to pay attention to the issues and struggles they are having in their country. You’re not the representative of Pakistani women. So why again are you trying to imply what’s best for Pakistani women?

    “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.”

    What a bunch of equivocating nonsense. Something to be said, indeed.

    “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?”

    Excellent question. Unfortunately I won’t find a modicum of an answer here.

    • Tec15

      Yep, a bunch of Iranian and Algerian Atheist exiles who fetishize French and European “secularism” and claim “secularism” to be a human right, are the real voice of Pakistani women and know whats best for them. Along with unnamed and unspecified “Pakistani human rights activists” of course.

      The Times article is a typically tendentious piece (to put it kindly), that nevertheless appeals to a certain kind of “feminist” who never tire of the same kind of article being published in the Western Press. Usually that nonsense can be ignored, but pretending that articles like this actually help in the advance of Women’s rights in Pakistan or anywhere else is simply a bridge too far. The only practical use of these articles is to nurture the towering self righteousness and sanctimonious self regard of those same aforementioned western “feminists”.


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