Dreams of Women and Freedom

Public concern over scourges that plague society is most constructive and useful when it is given free expression in different media – print press, social media and television.

Protesting, voicing one’s thoughts and opinions, expressing outrage and revolts against injustice, wrong political and social policies are the duty of responsible and well-informed public. Opinions, ideas and thoughts not only promote enlightening debates but help elected members of government to adopt right policies. A submissive and passive society has itself to blame for the wrong courses its country veers towards.

Encouraging and positive signs as regards discrimination, injustice and cruelty against women are long overdue in places where resignation towards retrograde attitudes have prevailed for too long. One example is that authorities in Pakistan are increasingly giving due attention to an assertive public opinion demanding progressive and modern laws and rules, more tolerance and individual liberties and the elimination of outdated bigotry which has cast a black veil on women and men’s emancipation for decades..

For the past two months, barbaric murders of mostly women, commonly referred to as ‘honour killings’, have been reported every week. The most mediatised of such atrocity is that of Qandeel Baloch, a beautiful young woman, social media celebrity and model who was strangled by her brother for bringing so-called dishonour on her family on account of her photos published on Facebook which portray her in modern clothes and hairstyles. It transpires that as long as her sexy figure appealed to men and excited their phantasms, she was tolerated in the deeply patriarchal society.

But Fouzia Azeem, her real name, gradually took stock of her popularity among girls as a symbol of women’s empowerment, and set herself the goal of helping the cause of female emancipation. She was seen as a daring young woman who was determined to make her own choices and live her life fully after running away from an arranged marriage with a man she did not like. Her murder was all the more shocking as she was said to have built the family house with her own money. Her two brothers are also suspected of coveting her bank account.

What is new in this case of honour killing is that the parents side with their daughter and demand death penalty for the brother. Fouzia, her father said, was his best friend. To her mother, she was a dearest friend with whom she had lengthy conversations on women’s status in society. Her killing was planned in the usual way. First, an invitation by her brothers to come at the family house, where she was drugged and strangled. Her parents upstairs were equally drugged so that they could not intervene.

What is new is that, right from the outset, following public outrage in the media, the government with the strong support of the Prime Minister’s daughter, Myriam, declared itself as a complainant against the brother in case he would get away with the murder due to family forgiveness.

In fact, the government has decided to implement new laws, deal squarely with ‘honour killings’, and sort out the legal limbo created by the authority of jirgas which gives impunity to family members who kill their female relatives mostly. Jirga is the equivalent of panchayat in rural areas in India, except that in India the local assembly is elected by villagers, and some of them are run solely by women. Panchayats have also drawn harsh criticisms for the retrograde and backward mindset that discriminates against women.

Two months ago, shock and anger sparked by the killing of a 16-year-old girl for helping a couple to elope led the Pakistani government to start dealing seriously with the issue. The girl was drugged and tied to the back seat of a car, and the car was set on fire. A 16-year-old!

Another recent shocking case was a barely 25-year-old young woman who married the man she loved against her parents’ wishes in Pakistan. She was seven months pregnant when she was ‘invited’ to visit the family home. With the help of her brothers, her own mother slit her throat. A pregnant woman killed by her own mother! Just unbelievable. So inhuman and cruel.

Yesterday, a young British woman of Pakistani origin who broke her arranged marriage with her cousin to marry another Pakistani man and lived with him in Dubai was reported to have been similarly ‘invited’ at her parents’ house in Pakistan, where she died of a ‘heart’ attack’ , according to relatives. An investigation is being carried out.

Given that Afghanistan and Turkey are also plagued with honour killings, and even applied them in Europe, it would be most enlightening to establish the origins of such practices from a historical point of view. Moghul invaders and others from Central Asia, ancient Persia, Turkey and Arab lands which are today the Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Iraq crossed Afghanistan to invade India. The dowry system also exists in Arab countries. How Indian society keeps these outdated customs and even amplifies them to extremes, such as suttee and female foeticide is worth analyzing. Backward and cruel panchayat discriminatory judgements against women, and sometimes men, are mostly related to inter-caste or mixed marriages of partners from different religions. Whether honour killings are native to society or imported through the history of invasions, a lot investment is needed in educating people out of self-destruction, backwardness and immorality.

Honour killings do not spare men either. A week ago, for some obscure reason, a Pakistani man was killed in a most horrendous manner, his feet, hands, nose and ears severed from his body.

Let us pay tribute to Qawwali artist Amjad Sabri who was brutally assassinated allegedly by Taliban for so-called blasphemy content of his songs. The Shia Sufi-inspired singer hails from Moghul ancestry with a long tradition of great artists.

No wonder a few artists of Pakistani origin living in the West have asked and obtained Indian passport or the Indian Overseas Citizen cards over the last year.

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Parched or La Saison des Femmes

Indian producer Leena Yadav’s latest film ‘Parched’ premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2015 came out in France at the Festival de Cannes in May this year. It is a women’s story told by a woman and set in a remote parched rural small village in the parched desert landscape of Gujarat. The main characters are three women friends, a beaten housewife, a widow and a sex worker. The young bride in a forced marriage represents the perpetuation of oppression of women in obsolete backward social systems. Her liberation by her own widowed mother-in-law epitomizes the will and capacity of women to change an obsolete system.

The film is cleverly crafted to balance unbearable domestic violence and sexual exploitation with female solidarity, humour, and the preparation of Dusserah festival which brings hope for regeneration and renewal. There is a striking symbolism of the wheel of fire in the celebration of Dusserah consuming Evil and the violent husband at the same time. A couple of social workers who try to save a woman from a panchayat’s decision to force her back to her husband’s family where she is beaten and raped stand out as educated and progressive characters against all odds.

The three women friends are, undeniably, the most entertaining, lively and dynamic characters in the film. The fact that they fight against a system which brings misery and pain to their lives, help one another to break the shackles of subordination, leave the village and travel to Mumbai with the dream of a new life is no insignificant message.

Finally, does the film focus on female issues? No, because respect for women as human beings is necessary for women’s happiness. And family stability and happiness largely rest upon the shoulders of women who are the ones who mainly transmit spiritual values to children. Respect for women, young or older Ghar ki Lakhsmi, is a key factor in the spiritual development of men themselves and society in general.

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Masculinity, Sexuality and Illegal Migration

Why do so many young men risk their lives across Iran, Turkey and Greece to reach the heart of Europe? Every month and every year, thousands of young men get into debts and sell their belongings to pay smugglers help them make the passage to the West. Masculinity, Sexuality and Illegal Migration by Dr Ali Nobil Ahmad, Professor at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences at Lahore University is a worthwhile reference to understand current issues of migration to the West.

Press references to the book show exhausting perilous travels, long distance walks, shortage of food, injuries and loads of psychological miseries of illegal migration. And yet why are so many men bent on leaving? It is quite understandable that war-torn countries like Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan push their people on the road to safer havens, according to the author.

The findings of the Professor lead him to conclude that economic betterment is not the main reason for migration. His queries disclose that the primary reason for migration might be rooted in ideas of masculinity and sexuality than economy. Sexual freedom, self-discovery and the conquest of the unknown are worth the harrowing tales of illegal migration.

On gender issues, violence against women, artists, disillusion with society and dreams of greener pastures, beautiful women and sexuality, it is high time for introspection, self-criticism and modernity in many countries.

* Published in print edition on 29 July 2016

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