ONLY HALF A PERSON.
Generally speaking, all women have one thing in common, each exists in a male dominated culture. Under these circumstances, consciously or unconsciously, they live in a state of generalized fear and basic insecurity. In Pakistan, where women are literally only half a person ...half in inheritance, half in evidence and (if murdered) half in 'blood money', this insecurity and fear is very real.
All over the world women are, by and large, at the very lowest rung of the social ladder. Western women broke free of the chains that bound them to the stereotypical `woman' after the World War. They had proved that they could do a man's job; and it was impossible to revert to the earlier social mores. Yet, they still have to work twice as hard, for half the salary, to prove themselves worthy and competent.
There is no experience that is genuinely a human experience. Gender is the most important determinant of any individual's life experience, so there is only the male experience and the female experience. A man defines himself by what he does, a woman through her relationships. By and large, woman `is' only in relation to another person, while a man `is' what he does; he creates himself. Yet, women's issues are symptoms of problems that affect everyone and are therefore emotionally explosive for both sexes.
No matter how sympathetic, a man can never understand what it is to be a woman. He cannot understand the uphill fight, for things he takes for granted. He cannot understand fighting for recognition as a person who matters in her own right; not because of a father, husband or son.
To be a woman you have to know that there are many doors that are permanently closed; for no other reason but, that you are a woman. In Pakistan, to be a woman you also have to remember that the child you carried for nine months within your body; the child you nurtured with your milk; the child for whom you spent many sleepless nights; is not really yours.
There are many divorcees who have lost their children, because that is the law. The child belongs to the father. Women only have the responsibility of bearing and rearing children. The rights belong to the father. Curiously enough, the father's rights are asserted only after the child has been successfully weaned and potty-trained by the mother!
Tradition bound societies are rigid in their stereotypes. The more rigid the stereotypes, the more vigorously are new concepts rejected; concepts that threaten the status quo. Conservative societies, by definition, maintain, preserve, perpetuate and glorify traditions and customs. Such cultures are often authoritarian and patriarchal. They reject new ideas and ways, looking upon them with deep suspicion.
Conservative societies ruthlessly fight change; especially if that change is concerned with the status of women. Self-appointed guardians of social morals proclaim that `Modesty' and `Religion' are threatened, the minute a woman takes charge of her life.
Most feudal upper-class Pakistani women are generally passive recipients of the largesse bestowed upon them by a man. Like most subordinates, they learn to conceal their real thoughts and feelings under an enigmatic exterior.
Generally, men treat calls for women's emancipation with contempt. They believe it is the rallying cry of spoilt and\or immoral women who have nothing better to do. The general impression is that women who demand freedom, demand it to be promiscuous.
In Pakistan, women are in varying stages of development; from the women who fight for the status quo more steadfastly than any man, to the followers of the bra-burning Western women of the sixties.
No psychological or sociological study has demonstrated a genetic basis for sex differences in personality, behaviour and social status. Most child-rearing practices encourage girls to be nurturant and altruistic; and boys to be aggressive and self reliant. Therefore, instead of genetic limitations, social restrictions are seen to be the major forces molding the attitudes and personality of individuals.
Movies and the mass media add to the pressures on a woman to conform; by projecting, encouraging and sustaining the stereotypical `good' woman as submissive and long-suffering. Assertive, confident women are often shown to be wanton and immoral, and invariably meet a sorry end. Such stereotypes encourage and glorify characteristics that emphasize women's subordinate status. As long as she stays in her `proper' place all is well. It is only when she asserts herself; when she demands what is rightfully hers, that all hell breaks loose.
The female has always been defined in male terms and the reason for this can be expressed in one word: Power. A man is the head of the household; he owns the objects and the people within it. Everyone must obey him. The social, attitudinal and economic realities of this male dominance shapes the day-to-day lives of most women. Since her well-being is almost invariably dependent on the whims of a man, they have a profound impact on how she feels about herself.
The story of women's degeneration from a person of worth and dignity to that resembling a chattel, began at the dawn of society. Survival depended on social roles being clearly demarcated. Due to their physical weakness, pregnancy and the long period of helplessness of the human infant, women were delegated the job of child-rearing while the man protected them against the wild beasts of the jungle.
Women were in real need of protection during that earlier, brutal period; but then, everything has a price. The abdication of their rights, their freedom, the control over their destiny and even their own body, is the price that women continue to pay (in many cultures) for this `protection'. This `protection' is still forced upon women in the 20th century.
Today men protect women from other men. This is necessary because of the existence of rape. All over the world women are held to ransom because of the very real fear of an ever increasing incidence of rape. Rape is a conscious mechanism that is used to control women. A mechanism by which all men keep all women in a state of fear. Women are subjugated and their movements restricted because of the threat of rape.
A man may use rape not only as an instrument of satisfying his warped desires, but also as revenge. In revenge rape a woman is the scapegoat who experiences the wrath of one man against another. The enemy is demeaned by damaging his sexual goods.
The protection offered to women is similar to the protection `ghoondas' (mobsters) offer small businesses. The underlying assumption being that, the `good' woman is sole sexual possession of one male, while the `bad' woman (lacking status as sole possession), functions as an outlet for `normal' male promiscuity. Rapists know there is a greater chance of the victim remaining silent. Social ostracism, blame and frequently punishment is the fate of a rape victim (with the recently enforced 'Hadd' laws enforced in Pakistan).
In Pakistan most victims do not report rape because it is almost a crime to be raped. If the victim cannot prove that she was actually forced she receives punishment for adultery (lashes or stoning to death). It is the woman who is reviled, often carrying the proof of the crime. The man often gets off scot-free; even nature is on his side.
The concepts held in a conservative society are often fundamental, as its needs are crude and elemental. Generally the male attitude in such a culture is that, `If a woman wants to avoid being attacked she should stay at home'. The pertinent question which arises from such an argument is whether she is safe at home.
There is no special psychological characteristic of a wife-beater. Almost every man is a potential wife beater. Domestic violence is more widespread than one would like to imagine; cutting across cultural, social and racial boundaries; from burning a wife, to the odd push and shove. Men in some cultures even condone wife-beating, as an appropriate instrument of control for a disobedient, rebellious wife.
Those who learn to think of themselves as powerless, helpless and ineffective react to stress and trauma with passivity, helplessness and depression. Abused women are often immobilized by fear; afraid to go and afraid to stay, creating more passivity and depression. If a battered wife does decide to leave, fear follows her. The husband cannot tolerate the blow to his macho pride. When his wife leaves him he loses `his' woman, the scapegoat was living proof of his superiority. He hounds her until she is made to return, often to face renewed and greater violence. Frequently the husband simply kills the truant wife, thus erasing the stigma to his virility.
In Pakistan women initiate divorce only under extreme circumstances, as they have too much to lose. They always lose their respectability, frequently their children and often their place in society. It is the unspoken consensus that something must be wrong with her. The divorce is taken as proof that she is immoral. She is often shunned by her friends and relatives, who believe she is now hunting for a man, any man.
Often, when wife abuse is brought to the notice of others they do not interfere. This reflects the attitude of a wife being the property of the husband, to do with as he pleases. It also explains why some men cannot understand the concept of marital rape.
Full equality between the sexes may not be something we can hope for; at least not in this generation (especially in Pakistan). It is going to be a slow and painful process for men to abdicate their position of power. The government's encouragement of female education and employment will be unproductive, unless men are taught to change their attitude towards women. They have to learn that women are people with an intrinsic dignity and worth; rather than simply sex objects. It is only then, that the threat of rape will subside, allowing women to live in a world without fear, achieving their full potential as human beings.
Social ostracism is a powerful weapon. It can be used to great effect against polygamists, wife-beaters, old men who marry young girls (legalized pederasty), sale of women and the ever increasing 'dowry burning'.
In Pakistan, where the level of education is abysmally low, most women are illiterate, and more than one culture exists. It is not a reflection of class or money; it depends on the level of education in any given family. At one end of the spectrum, society is at its most primitive. Women are no more than chattel; bought, sold and burned at will, with no freedom of movement or thought. At the other end is a culture that has outstripped it by generations of civilization and education. In between these extremes are the frustrated pampered wives of rich men. Women who are forever marauding the shops for new baubles that may give them a feeling of self-worth. At the end of the day, a cage is only a cage, however gilded!
It would take an almost superhuman political will to take on the religious\obscurantist lobby in order to ratify legislation that would eventually change society's attitude towards women. It goes to the credit of the first military dictator (General Ayub Khan), that he took the first step of `belling the cat', by formulating the Family Laws. It goes to the eternal discredit of the last military dictator (General Zia-ul-haq), that he used the obscurantist religious lobby to drag Pakistan back to the past.
Women must reexamine what it means to be female and how they want to live their lives. They can begin by searching for solutions to problems that reflect their own experiences and the experiences of women around them. Groups should be formed, in which women talk freely about their problems and their fears, tearing down the taboos that keep them imprisoned in the status quo. They should learn to accept that a bad marriage does not necessarily mean they are failures as women. In talking to each other they will be doing more than reevaluating their own feelings and life styles, they will be creating a female solidarity that reflects a positive view of the female experience. One that shows that `good' women' are not passive and weak; they are independent, assertive and strong.
It is only when all women take the persecution of any one of their sisters as a personal affront; it is only when all women realize that female solidarity is the only path which will give them political and social strength, that they will be able to force a change in society. Female solidarity has a tremendous social impact, in it lies not only a woman's personal strength, but also her social force.
At the end of the day it is women alone who can effect a lasting transformation to their status of `half a person'. Only women can change the basic concepts of society. It is they who have sole charge of children at the most critical stages of development. Therefore, the onus of change lies at the door of the mother.
Mothers can teach their sons and daughters new concepts. Concepts which see women as confident, assertive and complete. People with an intrinsic worth and dignity equalling men.
Until such a time, all that any government can do is to develop the required infrastructure; to educate women with a view to making them financially independent and to prohibit the overt and covert messages and stereotypes portrayed and encouraged by the mass media.
Since the time that the Aztecs offered the sacrifice of virgins to their gods, it is always the woman who is expected to sacrifice her happiness for others. The media can change these stereotypes by, once in a while, showing a man sacrificing himself at the altar of the family well-being. The media can be used to spread the message of equality and self-worth to women who are imprisoned by their ignorance and lack of exposure to the developing trends in the world; and to men intoxicated by their power.
All that any government can ever do is to encourage women to be in charge of their own destiny. Actual empowerment can only come about when women shake off the passivity that has shackled them for ages, and stand up tall and say,
"I am a complete person".
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