From Pakistan to Turtle Island: #YesAllWomen

Art by Iranian artist Seema Sardarzehi.

Op-Ed by Muriam Salman

There has been widespread condemnation of the attack on a 25-year old pregnant woman as she stood in front of Lahore Courthouse, Pakistan on May 27. Farzana Parveen died after being hit with bricks and sticks by her father, brother, and former fiancé.

The stoning coincided with news of Elliot Rogers who shot and killed 7 people including himself in Santa Barbara, California, in his “War On Women”, sparking the Twitter hashtag #YesAllWomen. Rogers acted on a patriarchal power trip, and family friends reported that “Rogers had talked to [their] son about wanting to hold down and rape women”.

In both these instances, men intentionally, publicly and violently executed a gender-based attack on women.

Yet coverage of the two incidents have shown stark contrast. While the Santa Barbara shootings are portrayed as an act of individual rage, the attack on Parveen’s death is depicted as one of many ‘honour killings’. These are frequently described in op-eds of leading Canadian mainstream media sources as a ‘social institution in South Asia and the Middle East’, and are wrongly attributed to the ‘tribal’, ‘violent’, ‘illiterate’ South Asian men, who are steeped in ‘pre-modern’ and ‘ossified’ traditions.

The brutal attack on Parveen and her unborn fetus should rightly be condemned and taken as a call to action against the terrible conditions faced by many Pakistani women. But it can not be chalked up to any misguided notions of Islam, culture or to some inherent violence or madness found in Pakistani men. Such ideas allow structural oppression to be dismissed, colonial influences to be overlooked, and patriarchy seen as simply “a problem in our culture”.

“After reading the news that morning, one begins to think that murder by gunshot is somehow less barbaric an act than by stone,” says Tayyaba, a Toronto graduate student who was born and raised in Pakistan for 18 years. The depictions of an entire culture as barbaric are not only blatantly untrue, but also reek of Eurocentric prejudices that are used to justify imperialist aggressions around the world.

The vast prevalence of sexual assaults in our homes, on campuses, and in the military is evidence to the contrary that we in Canada / on Turtle Island stand on some moral higher ground when it comes to gender equity. Perhaps the most glaring demonstration of Canada’s colonial-patriarchal character is the epidemic murder and disappearance of Indigenous women. Yet such attacks are portrayed largely as exceptional and individualistic acts that have no connection to each other. What fails to be recognized is that the same problem that is so quickly pointed out abroad, also exists at home and should not be reduced to the tendencies of any given culture.

Shamefully adding to the blatant racism, one commentator began shaming other Pakistani women themselves for their inaction, mockingly asking if they “require permission from the men of their families”. She continues by saying that in other countries, “one does not need an outside agency to prick a conscience, and there is no hiding behind the deceptive veil of culture.”

Surely we’re as much to blame for the 1,026 murdered aboriginal women as a whole, if Pakistani society is to blame for their “social institution” of stoning? Where’s the public outrage about that? Or about Robert Pickton’s mass killing of 49 women? Or for the women who are raped every 17 minutes in Canada?

There is a rich history behind the global gender equity movement and women in Pakistan have not been known to keep quiet. Some of the prime examples of social movements in Pakistan’s history, such as the peasant movement in the Okara region and the anti-Zia Ul Haq protests, have been women-led.

Art by Iranian artist Seema Sardarzehi.

Art by Iranian artist Seema Sardarzehi.

Alia Ali, a former women’s rights activist in Pakistan describes the public demonstrations that took place in the 1980’s under what is considered to be one of the most repressive regimes for women in Pakistan’s history. “Despite the oppressive regime, censorship and lack of connectivity large numbers of women from all walks of life came out on the streets and faced brutalization by the police,” she recalls.

The protests were against the harsh reforms implemented by military dictator Zia-Ul Haq that sought to limit the social visibility, physical mobility, and sexuality of women in both the public and private spheres.

“They were active in public consultations on the laws in higher courts across the country. Some of the organizations that came into being as a reaction have persisted and continue to raise their banner against oppression of women”.

Both of these tragic incidents resulted in a senseless loss of life. And both must be understood against the backdrop of the structural violence that silences women in the first place, and the ongoing struggle against it.

Reducing these acts to individual or cultural problems is tantamount to ignoring the systemic oppression and exploitation that women face in both Pakistan in Canada.

Both Rogers and Parveen’s killers are products of the same societal values whereby patriarchal relations – the social domination and violence of men over women – express themselves in the social relations of each country. Certainly Pakistan and Canada are widely variant. Yet, Canada cannot claim superiority in this regard, as women and Indigenous peoples from across the territories demand an end to the murder, disappearance, and violence against Indigenous women.

In a response to the racist discourses in a major media outlet. Azeezah Kanji, lawyer and active member of the Toronto Muslim community wrote to the editors:

Let us not forget that Pakistani men were among those protesting the horrific murder of Farzana Parveen … As a feminist, I am committed to addressing patriarchy in all its forms. And as an anti-racist, I am committed to not demonizing entire groups of men as carriers of an “antediluvian, violent hatred of female sexuality” on the basis of their ethnicity.

It is precisely these commitments that must be reiterated. Tackling systemic barriers requires that people get organized, following the trails that women before them set ablaze to confront the structures that stand in their way.

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