By Zubeida Mustafa
EVE Ensler, the American playwright and feminist activist, is set to give the final push that she believes will banish violence against women from our lives for ever. She has declared Feb 14, St Valentine’s Day, as V-Day.
Moved by the oft-quoted figure that one woman in three worldwide — that is one billion — is subjected to some form of violence in her lifetime, Ensler has in effect declared enough is enough. It is time for women to rise to proclaim their aversion to violence. Hence the campaign for One Billion Rising (OBR).
These are the women whose problem Ensler wants to bring into the public consciousness. She wants governments to know that “ending violence against women is as important as ending poverty, or AIDS or global warming”.
There are critics who dub OBR as an imperialist ploy and question the wisdom of jumping on the American bandwagon. And why St Valentine’s Day, they ask, when we have our own women’s day — Feb 12? (On this day in 1983 the Women’s Action Forum had staged a rally in Lahore against Gen Ziaul Haq’s infamous law of evidence and paid a price for their act of defiance by suffering brutality at the hands of the police.)
True our own feminists have waged a long and courageous struggle for women’s rights, including their right to be protected against violence. But today when so much hype is being created about the high incidence of violence against women, one can hardly deny that the existence of the problem also amounts to admitting defeat.
I would have been happier if OBR — or its equivalent — had been our own initiative. Having said that, I feel the struggle has to go on whatever the avenue and Ensler’s move cannot be dismissed as being of no consequence. Given the gravity of the crime and the barriers our own women activists have faced in getting laws changed, we should treat OBR as another opportunity.
While there has been some success in having pro-women laws enacted, the domestic violence bill has run into a wall of male resistance. Now is the time for some dispassionate soul-searching on why we are still so far from our goal of zero tolerance for violence against women. The requisite public-awareness is conspicuously missing. Some women still carry a cultural burden of guilt from the past and blame themselves for provoking their male oppressor. The male approach is not free of biases either.
Given these sentiments, it is futile to hope for any change.
A large number of men consider it to be their “privilege” to exercise control over the female members of their family by using force.
To change this mindset public consciousness has to be created. In that respect, local initiatives rooted in our own culture prove to be more effective and are easier to advance. The foreign origin of OBR makes it alien. Many women — including educated ones — did not know what OBR stood for when I asked them randomly and fewer still were aware of its origin.
Hopefully the organisers of the events on Thursday will use the occasion to inform and educate the women on the issue. In Karachi there will be a brave attempt by the founder of Tehrik-i-Niswan, Sheema Kermani, to stir women into action with her dance performance while others aim to inspire the audience with their tales of resistance. But they will reach out to only a few women who are no more than a drop in the ocean.
Small wonder violence continues in Pakistan and women continue to be victims. The data prepared by Aurat Foundation so diligently every year underlines the need for a sustained struggle. In 2011, the last year for which statistics are available, 8,539 women fell victim to violence and this showed a rising trend. In 2008, the figure was 7,571. One must remember that many cases are not registered while others are not reported at all.
The absence of massive protests against horrendous crimes such as rape, honour killing, etc, does not minimise their gravity. It only reflects on the public apathy towards women and women’s own sense of helplessness. In such a situation why should anyone want to change the status quo that operates to his advantage? While advocacy is important to get laws enacted, especially against domestic violence, it is also important to work holistically at the social level to raise awareness to improve the status of women and empower them.
However, this does not mean that the present situation does not operate to the disadvantage of the country and its standing in the community of nations.
A new book Sex and World Peace by Valerie Hudson, an American professor, provides some food for thought. According to it, if a country focuses on reducing its rates of violence against girls and women it also lowers its own propensity for engaging in military conflict. The author finds a close relationship between rape, domestic violence and all social issues on one side and the so-called manly national security issues on the other.
As war is a manifestation of a state’s sense of insecurity vis-à-vis the “other” — the enemy — violence against women is the manifestation of a man’s insecurity vis-à-vis the “other”, that is the woman. Basically it is this perception of gender equation that calls for a change.