That False Promise of Security in a Broken System.

That False Promise of Security in a Broken System. August 4, 2016

People in thrall to a broken system often believe that if they follow the system’s rules, they’ll be safe from victimization. You’ve likely heard the rationalizations: if you don’t want trouble, then simply show respect to those in authority. Don’t cause waves and you won’t go aground on rocks. Those people who were hurt must have done something wrong, but if you don’t do anything wrong then you’re safe.

This belief is wrong, heartbreakingly so, and I’ll show you why today.

(Credit: Sonny Abesamis, CC.)
(Credit: Sonny Abesamis, CC.)

Another Day, Another Honor Killing.

Last month, another honor killing occurred.

The victim was Qandeel Baloch, and one of the only reasons that the rest of the world knows about this particular murder was because she was a fast-emerging celebrity and social media personality in her little corner of the world. She posted flirty, fun, cute pictures and videos of herself and talked about the stuff she enjoyed doing, the young men she had crushes on, the clothes she liked. She blogged anonymously because she knew a lot of people wouldn’t approve of her clothes, behavior, topics of discussion, or declarations of feminism. She sat in the lap of a leading cleric in her country and charmed his hat clean off.

She was doing something dangerous, though, and she knew it.

Eventually, her identity got out. Members of her own family began to threaten her. She revealed in a social-media update that she had begged the police for protection but they had refused to help her.

Shortly afterward, just as she’d feared, this vibrant, beautiful young woman was strangled to death by her own brother as part of a conspiracy hatched with some of her other male relatives. Recently one of the conspirators, one of her cousins, got taken into custody. Her own father did not appear to approve of the murder, but he clearly hadn’t been able to prevent it.

Normally in the case of honor killings, the people responsible would never see any punishment.

Honor killings in Pakistan are seen as crimes against the victim’s own family, not against the state, so those families can decide how to respond. They often fully forgive her murderers–in which case those criminals walk free. That’s how it’s been “since forever,” as one news link puts it. If the family doesn’t wish to “forgive” the murderer(s), then sometimes they are coerced or given a hefty payoff to do so. It’s all but impossible to get justice for these horrific, brutal crimes.

Every year, hundreds of women are murdered just like Ms. Baloch was. Earlier this year an Oscar-winning documentary came out about the subject of honor killings, featuring a young woman who had survived her family’s very dedicated attempt on her life, but despite the attention it got, little came of the matter right away. Meanwhile, as of 2016, by the end of July there were almost 300 young women murdered by their families in the name of “honor.” Violence against women is on the upswing, with nearly 20 young women in Pakistan every single day becoming victims of rape or murder, or being driven to suicide.

Change Might Be In the Air.

Thanks to international outcry, however, Qandeel Baloch will (hopefully) get justice.

Pakistan’s government legally took on the role of the offended party before her family could do so. Forgiveness is off the table as a possible outcome of the trial to come. That means that even if her family does end up forgiving the murderers for the offense, the criminals responsible will still be prosecuted and punished. Further, the Pakistani government seems like it’s finally ready to pass legislation seeking to outlaw honor killings.

You’ll notice that Islam itself had nothing to do with her getting justice. Indeed, it wasn’t until an outside party stepped in to override Islamic religious privilege in her country that Ms. Baloch’s murder seemed like it’d finally get the justice it deserved. Pakistan’s Sharia council declared her murder un-Islamic, but they are coming kinda late to that party–since the people who are committing these murders certainly seem to view them that way.

People around the world are figuring out why laws and societies that favor one group at other groups’ expense only seem to breed scandals and abuses against those other groups.

Dancing On a Tightrope.

One could make a lot of comparisons between right-wing Christianity and a number of other right-wing religions. I’ve written before about why I was drawn to that kind of society and why I stayed for years, and why I saw other women getting into it and staying in it even though they were put through any number of injustices.

But many women don’t see that the way they’re treated is unjust or unfair. They may think that only women who step out of line risk punishment–so that if a woman behaves herself and does as she’s told, then she has nothing to fear from the men in her culture. Those men are there to protect her, she is told, and so therefore if she is punished, then surely she did something to deserve it. A woman who doesn’t ever do anything to deserve punishment will enjoy all the benefits of a whole society full of men who are sworn to protect her to their dying breath and treat her with respect and adoration. But only if she deserves it.

This thinking is part of the Christian concept of complementarianism. The idea was gaining currency when I was Christian, but it’s all but axiomatic in the more toxic ends of the religion now. Leaders teach that men and women had very different roles, but they are equal in their god’s eyes. They have complementary roles, is all. Men are divinely commanded to lead, while women are divinely commanded to follow, but (we women told ourselves, repeatedly, and were told, repeatedly!) that didn’t mean that women are inferior. Oh no! Perish the thought! Women are simply the ones told to follow. Followers aren’t inferior (we told ourselves, all the time, and were told, all the time!). Women just have a different role than men do. Not everyone can be leaders, after all. Gosh, isn’t it nice that men have been ordered to be women’s big strong capable protectors and providers? Aren’t women totally lucky?

And back in my day, we tried to ignore the gnawing fear that one day, it could well be us on the receiving end of the abuse we saw constantly, with no recourse, no say, no defense, and no hope whatsoever of help from the very men who had been divinely-charged to protect us from themselves.

Nothing has changed.

A False Feeling of Security.

 

If one group is stripped of power and that power is handed over to another group, the result is not gracious harmony, peace, and stability. And nobody is fooled by sanctimonious proclamations of separate-but-equal equality except the people who desperately want to be fooled.

Such a system can’t survive unless those in power have some way to keep those beneath them under control. They start with false promises to lure in the unwary, followed up by violence and coercion when their victims wise up to the fantasy they bought into.

Someone wrote a moving and eloquent post on Facebook about why a patriarchy’s promises are nothing but a fantasy. Here is part of it:

Here is the thing, sisters: the line keeps moving. The reasons for ending a woman’s life keep expanding, as does the criteria for being called “beysharam” [roughly “brazen” or “shameless” — CC]. An estimated 1000 women are murdered annually in Pakistan in the name of honour, and every human right’s organization agrees that this figure is a severe underestimate. But all of them must have done SOMETHING to warrant it, right? A woman was found with a boyfriend? Well, obviously that’s haram and she must have dishonoured her entire khaandaan [family — CC] single-handedly, right? She married a man of her own choosing? Hmm, that’s technically her Islamic right, but maybe she should have sought her family’s approval. She wanted to work after marriage? She turned down a marriage proposal? She was talking on a cell phone in public? She wanted to go outside to enjoy the rain with her sister? Where do you think it ends? Exactly where and how do you sit that you feel so secure that tomorrow, it won’t be you?

The patriarchy owns both the right to draw and constantly redraw the line of decency, and it owns the movement of your feet. It believes it owns your very breath. Your existence is not a right, it is entirely conditional. When a man can cut his sister’s throat, or put a bullet in his own daughter, and innumerable people can nod their heads and “mmmm” with approval, and say “aise hi hona chahye”*, how could you possibly fool yourself into thinking that men protect you? How can you lie to yourself and say, “I am safe because I follow the rules.”

The Line Keeps Moving.

When I was Christian, there was never any way to know for 100% sure that I was within my culture’s rules. Clothing that one man considers modest, another considers iffy, and another still considers completely unacceptable. Behavior that one man thinks is adorably high-spirited, another calls rebellious, and another still boring and docile. One man appreciates that his wife has a great career; another considers it sinful for her to even desire a job outside the home.

But every single man who goes in for “modesty standards” has what he believes to be Bible verses aplenty backing up his ideas.

There’s a reason for that.

Certainty and correctness are very important to people in right-wing cultures–and to the privileged groups at the top of the heap in those cultures, triply so. By keeping standards subjective, people caught in a broken system are kept very anxious and off-kilter. Privileged groups keep flexing and grabbing for more power, while marginalized and powerless groups are kept dancing and stretching to appease those in power over them.

I used to wish that there was some way to codify “modesty” in my culture so that women everywhere could know, for sure, 100%, that we were in the right when criticized–or in the wrong without having to be criticized at all.

I didn’t realize back then that systems work exactly the way their masters want them to work, and that this lack of objective definitions was yet another instance of a broken system’s problem being a feature rather than a bug.

A Conspiracy of Silence.

When women’s voices are silenced and they are stripped of all power, two very important things happen to the men above them.

First, those men suddenly become incapable of identifying and keeping from power any man who would abuse that power.

Second, those men become equally incapable of bringing to justice and removing the power of any man who actually does abuse that power.

These situations are related.

The men in power can’t speak to the utter unsuitability of any other man to grasp the reins of power because that would be a sign of the brokenness of the system. A patriarchal system assumes that men are inherently superior to women–more suited to leadership, more sensible, more just, etc. If the men who are not suited for power are identified and kept from power, that undercuts men’s claim to inherent superiority. In the same way, women must be kept from power because the more women who gain power, the more obvious it becomes to all onlookers that there’s no logical reason to keep women from power.

The many abuses that occur undercut men’s claims of inherent superiority, so those abuses must be explained and re-positioned as being the fault of misbehaving women. Further, these abuses cannot be resolved in a way that would put men’s future rule at risk.

Long ago, Queen Elizabeth I dithered for years over whether or not she should execute her fellow ruler Mary, Queen of Scots. No, it wasn’t because of some sentimental attachment to her blood relative! Rather, she was concerned about the message that a queen’s trial and execution would send to her people. One day it might be her sitting in court, and she wanted her power to be unimpeachable. The last thing she wanted was for her subjects to start thinking that a ruler could be ruled!

If one man defies that system, his defiance makes all the rest of the team look bad. People start wondering if men are really all that well-suited to rule automatically, by sheer dint of their gender.

But if one woman defies it, well, they have ways of dealing with that–as Qandeel Baloch knew well.

Cracks in the Wall.

It is only through violence and coercion that those in power in a broken system manage to remain in power. Human societies are changing. Ideas are working their way even into the darkest corners of the world.

We’re fast moving, as a global culture, away from the idea that inborn characteristics like race and gender should qualify or disqualify anybody from power and rights. We’re also moving away from the idea that someone should need to “behave” in order to avoid victimization and abuse. We’re definitely moving way past seeing violence as an acceptable response to mockery, dissent, or even defiance.

I don’t think anything frightens privileged groups more than these three changes. If they are not given power automatically, then they may well not get any power at all. If they are not “allowed” to victimize and abuse anybody based upon subjective and shifting notions of propriety, giving them the power to coerce and force those beneath them to obey, then their privilege will erode quickly and in a hundred different ways. And if we remove violence and coercion from their toolbox, they will have nothing whatsoever left with which to maintain their power.

Qandeel Baloch stood, in life, for a forward movement of women in her culture that many of her very own family members could not stomach. By taking her life into their hands, her murderers demonstrated exactly how precarious their rule is. And ironically, her death may well become part of the end of that rule.

As the Daily Beast wrote, may Qandeel Baloch rest in power.


* Google Translate thinks this means “Got to be the same.” 

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