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The Real War on Women

The Real War on Women

I just appeared for a rather intense hour on the BBC on the World Have Your Say program to talk about three separate cases in the news: the Pakistani woman who was just stoned to death for daring to marry the man she loved; the massacre in Isla Vista, California, fueled by a violently misogynistic manifesto; and the German tabloid exposure of Kate Middleton’s bottom.

I appeared with some very wonderful speakers in Pakistan, the United States, and the UK on this issue.

As to the first story: Early today, a 25-year-old woman was stoned to death by twelve–yes, twelve–male relatives, beginning with her father and including her brothers and possibly cousins. They did so right outside the High Court in Lahore. This is a brazen statement about refusing to abide by any secular Pakistani law.

This victim’s blessed name was Farzana Iqbal and bravely, tragically, she refused to marry her cousin and instead married the man she loved. One of the Pakistani women on the BBC program pointed out that none of the many bystanders rescued her or stopped these men from killing her.

A crowd gathered. No one dared intervene. The bystander phenomenon coupled with cultural approval for this act of barbarism, coupled with some vicarious enjoyment involved in seeing an “uppity” woman punished, coupled with the fear that if one intervened they, too, would be stoned, stayed the hand of one and all.

According to one news account, Farzana’s husband claimed that her family had wanted money from him and, failing to get it, they killed her. This suggests that the family may have been poor. However, wealthy families in Pakistan also commit brazen honor killings.

In 1999, in a high-profile case in Pakistan, twenty-eight-year-old Samia Imran was shot to death in her feminist lawyer’s office for having initiated divorce proceedings from a violent husband, a man who was also her first cousin.

Samia’s parents were wealthy. Her father, Ghulam Sarwar Khan Mohammed, was one of the most successful businessmen in the North West Frontier and the president of the Peshawar Chamber of Commerce; her mother, Sultana, was a gynecologist. They prided themselves on being modern and liberal. Thus they told Samia that she could leave her husband and return to school; they even had a hand in banning her husband from the home. Samia’s parents were adamant: Whatever she did, she could never, ever get divorced. This meant that, at twenty-eight, Samia would have to had to resign herself to a life without intimate companionship. An affair would be out of the question. Samia told others that she feared her parents “would kill her” if she disobeyed them.

Bravely, but in retrospect, tragically, Samia decided to initiate divorce proceedings. She made an appointment with two leading feminist lawyers, Hina Jilani and Asma Jahangir. Within five minutes of Samia’s entering their offices, her mother came in, accompanied by a hired hit man who shot Samia to death. Unbelievably, Samia’s paternal uncle was there, too. The hit man proceeded to kidnap at gunpoint a woman, Shahtaj Qizalbash, who worked in the law office building.

Many Pakistanis were not angry that the Sarwars had murdered their own daughter. On the contrary, violent demonstrations broke out against her feminist lawyers–whom the police and the courts refused to protect. The two lawyers received death threats from religious extremists. Imran’s family organized a meeting of the Peshawar Chamber of Commerce which supported the murder and issued fatwas demanding the lawyers be punished. Samia’s father considers himself a “liberal.” He is also a realist. He is not in a position “to change society. Everyone must have honor.”

Please note: Her mother carried this hit out in person. Yes, women are also perpetrators and collaborators when it comes to the honor killing of their own daughters. And also note: Absolutely no one has been prosecuted for this heinous crime.

Pakistan is a terrible place. Honor murders are committed without fear of prosecution. Even if an arrest is made, jail sentences are rare. The concept of family honor, which is rooted in extreme patriarchy, trumps all western concepts of universal human rights or women’s rights. Arranged marriages, usually to a first cousin, are what is expected. Any woman who refuses to obey this tribal/cultural/ethnic/religious “law” or “lore” is seen as having provoked her family into defending itself. And they do so by attacking her. Otherwise, no one else will marry into their family, etc.

I stayed on the BBC to discuss the mass femicide/homicide in Isla Vista, California, and the extraordinary internet outpouring from women about their own experiences of sexist verbal abuse, sexual harassment, rape, near-rape, domestic violence, etc. The murderer’s manifesto was as hateful towards women as Hitler’s Mein Kampf was hateful towards Jews. It is too chilling to read in full.

A culture in which verbal and sexual harassment and rape are both glorified and criminalized, a culture in which the eroticization of young girls as well as prostitution and pornography flourish as never before–such a culture is bound to profoundly influence the loose cannon, the mentally ill, the evil, the haters, those who have access to guns or drugs, who will then unpredictably act upon such propaganda with impunity.

Some American feminist voices on the BBC program spoke about feeling relief that so many other women were responding to the hashtag #yesallwomen; they also felt anxious and fearful of so much misogyny. Some said that internet activism was fully underway. Said I: It is only the start. Often, when one tweets something that is the end of it. No legislation gets crafted and passed. One merely expresses oneself and feels stronger that one is not alone. I hope that the coming generation of feminists, both men and women, do more than that. I am counting on them to do so.

Our last topic was the German newspaper’s publishing Kate Middleton’s exposed bottom when the wind blew her dress up. Poor taste, beneath contempt said I–but proof, yet again, that no woman, however royal, is really spared this culture of public shaming. All women are equal in terms of eroticized body parts when it comes to providing fodder for tabloid rags.

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