Islamabad, December 8, 2012: Online abuse meted out to women, while exposing Pakistani patriarchy and its mindless violence, serves to reinforce the traditional chadar aur chaar diwari mantra. It is time for women to take charge of spaces they live in, both physical and virtual.
Watershed moments, this is what the young generation of Pakistanis has been living for since the turn of the millennium. But beyond the bubble of temporary gains, each potential moment has burst, often with greater intensity than the last. A primary reason for each false dawn has been exclusion or relegating of women from people’s movements for social justice or empowerment – Pakistan, it seems, struggles for the emancipation of its men and relegates its women to the chador and confines of the four walls of their houses (chadar aur chaar diwari). The tragedy is that much like public democratic spaces, the chadar aur chaar diwari mantra has taken over online spaces. Is it merely that Pakistani men are unable to deal with outspoken Pakistani women, or has the chadar aur chaar diwari mantra insidiously pervaded younger segments of society?
When the information technology revolution initially burgeoned in Pakistan, in the late 1990s, urban centres witnessed a mushrooming of internet cafes – places where young people found space to interact with others, complete homework, and log on to various chat rooms. That access to the internet has become economical enough for internet to have moved from internet cafes to homes should have been cause for celebration. When viewed at from a patriarchal perspective, it is indeed cause for celebration. When viewed at from a feminist lens, the same phenomenon has served to push women inside homes, or at the very least, to keep them confined inside their chaar diwari. While boys and young men tend to have no restrictions in terms of the websites they want to access, or the time of day that they would want to access the internet, girls and young women have no such freedoms – neither from their parents or siblings, nor from their husbands and in-laws.
Looked at another way, while conservative Pakistan of the 1990s had deemed satellite/cable television to be a corrupting influence on younger generations, the internet has assumed anathema status in the Pakistan of the 2000s, especially when it comes to how girls, young women and women are to interact with the outside world (non-family). Newer generations of Pakistanis have sought to negotiate gendered public and private spaces by keeping a strict vigil on what womenfolk in their households access on the internet, whether that access falls under acceptable family or culture norms, and whether alien ideas are being transferred to their kin. There is thus a politics of gendered spaces at play, which feeds into the patriarch’s model of control.
While the internet and mobile phones were supposed to usher in a new era of information flow, the chadar aur chaar diwari mantra has reinforced gender roles in the virtual world. The advent of social media was meant to include more voices in public space on the internet. And yet, urban social attitudes as displayed on forums such as Facebook and Twitter have dictated that even this free space comes at a cost: women will be allowed space only if they adhere to patriarchy’s rules. Failure to abide by these arbitrary rules has led to punishment by abuse and shaming – the same tactics used inside our homes and sanctioned by families.
The notion of “honour” – once associated with the physical person of a woman – has thus found an extension in the virtual world too. It is a myth that the chadar aur chaar diwari mantra is a rural or merely feudal phenomenon: denying women unhindered access to the internet is very much an urban phenomenon, since the internet remains a phenomenon of urban Pakistan. Worryingly for Pakistan, urban social attitudes as demonstrated by curbs on access to internet have demonstrated the same impulse to cage women or silence them as feudal Pakistan.
Playing by patriarchy’s rules is a choice that many women make. But perhaps there also needs to be a realization that playing by patriarchy’s rules in Pakistan has also led to the stunting of thought, of ideas, and of a better Pakistan. As 14-year-old Malala Yousufzai was struggling for life after being shot in the head, Samia Raheel Qazi, daughter of former Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) chief Qazi Hussain Ahmed, was among those trying to portray her as an agent of the United States on social media. That she chose not to sympathize with, let alone support, a teenaged girl who was still in surgery then reflects how much space conservative Pakistani women have ceded to men in their lives.
Muslim countries that provided space to women to live, breathe, and think have had greater success at building prosperous societies than their more conservative counterparts. In Iran, for example, civil society struggled for greater space for women during Khomeini’s reign under the slogan of “women as home-makers” – where home was defined as the country. Their argument was simply that their country would not be able to make any strides forward if women were caged indoors. Restricted as it may have been at the time, and with more demons still to be banished, Iranian women are among the vanguards of a pro-democracy movement in present-day Iran. Their honour intact, their spirits undefeated. Similar has been the case in Egypt, Turkey, and Malaysia.
Watershed moments, this is what Pakistan has been living for since the turn of the millennium. Their arrival has been delayed, and false dawns have been plenty, because Pakistan has systemically chosen to keep women away from the nation-building process and has refused to accept them as agents of change. Our watershed moment will not arrive until Pakistani women take charge of spaces they live in, both physical and virtual. As things stand, men continue to abuse and traumatize women without recognizing the social cost of their actions. All we are guaranteed today are abused futures, for us and for generations to follow us.
Our honour is truly being compromised!
This article is contributed by Ahmed Yusuf for Take Back The Tech Campaign and Bytes for All, Pakisatn. Ahmed is Founder and Managing Editor of Chashm (www.chashm.net). Connect with him on Twitter @ASYusuf