Huffpost WorldPost
Saad Khan Headshot

The War Against Pakistani Women

Posted: Updated:

Terrorism and Afghan insurgency have so overshadowed other issues in Pakistan that it sometimes feels like we -- common Pakistanis -- have no other issues. Take, for example, women rights. Here I am not insinuating feminism or related issues. We are still stuck at basics in this country.

Let's start with rape. It has kind of been institutionalized in the tribal and feudal culture of Pakistan. In the southern province of Sindh, specifically the rural areas, which remain the main political base of the ruling Pakistan People's Party, Karo-Kari is a centuries old custom where women accused of adultery are regularly put to death, often through beheading. Men are also accused but often remain unscathed and unhurt. They are not even accused if they are from the powerful feudal families, can save their lives by paying off a handsome amount if they are not-so-powerful, and flee if they are poorest of the poor.

In Punjab, there is no Karo-Kari but honor killings are very much the norm. In urban centers of Punjab, another kind of violence is common: throwing acid on girls to disfigure them for life and thus making them destitute and vulnerable to all kinds of exploitation. In rural areas, stove burnings are more of a fad. There could be many reasons behind the accidental stove explosion, be it the lack of any good dowry brought in by the bride, inability to produce a male heir or simply revenge. Tribal councils in southern parts of Punjab regularly endorse gang rapes of women if their male family members have committed any crime. These rapes go ahead even if there are false accusations. The accused, of course, come from the lower classes and the accusers from the rich landowning classes.

Vani and Sawara are two of the blackest customs of the Pashtuns, especially those residing in the rural areas adjoining the Punjab province. These customs permit the tribal elders to exchange women and girls to strike peace deals. There is no age limit. A girl of two years is equally good for retribution as an 80 year old grandmother. Add some cattle and property to it and the peace deals are sealed for good. In southern Balochistan, similar peace deals are reached during the tribal councils, known as Jirga.

Perhaps the only ethnic group in Pakistan that remains relatively immune from this mass butchering and trade of women are the Mohajirs who inhabit the urban areas of Sindh and immigrated from India after the partition of India in 1947. There are no such instances of violence against women among them. Maybe the high literacy rate -- the highest among all in Pakistan -- and because they are exclusively urban dwellers play a role in this regard.

But, the majority of Pakistani women suffer in silence. They are at the mercy of their husbands, fathers, uncles and sons. Yes, there have been instances when sons killed their mothers on suspicions of them having illicit relations.

As for the statistics, violence against women saw an uptick of 13% during 2009. A total of 8,548 incidents were "recorded", according to a report by a local NGO. The actual cases maybe as high as 20,000 or even more as many women are reluctant to report minor injuries sustained during domestic violence. It is only the massive burns, deaths or bodily fractures that are reported in such estimates.

The infamous Hudood Laws have been modified but not annulled, so there is another endless chapter of suffering still open for the poor women. This is another war, an indigenous battle, but unfortunately no one, except for a few brave women, are tackling this issue. When will the broader civil society, and more importantly, the government do something about it? We don't know the answer to this question. It is at the lowest rung of the priority list. Education enlightens minds and quells violence. Pakistan spends just around 1% of its GDP on education and a hefty percentage on defense. We are truly a country of contradictions.