Patriarchy is deeply entrenched in Pakistani society, with most people looking down upon the feminist movement. Earlier this year, when hundreds of women protested against gender discrimination and demanded their rights, even some liberal men criticized them and slammed the feminist slogans as “vulgar.” Therefore, men who support the women’s rights cause in the South Asian country, are rare. They are often labeled as “Western agents,” who are bent on disrupting social and religious norms.
As feminism is considered a women-owned and women-led movement in Pakistan, men like Naeem Mirza are often misunderstood by society. “You’re a man. How can you be a feminist?” people generally ask.
Mirza, the acting executive director of the Aurat Foundation (Women’s Foundation), a non-governmental organization, has worked relentlessly for more than two decades to challenge the stereotypes. He’s a leading women’s rights activist in the country, and a role model for many men who believe that women’s rights are human rights, and that men must support them.
“I was very active in left-leaning labor movements in the 80s. But I realized that gender-discrimination is a bigger issue, as women suffer on multiple levels. Women are being oppressed across all economic classes, and their suffering is multi-layered and more intense,” Mirza told DW.
Violence against women has been on the rise in Pakistan, a country of over 200 million people. The South Asian nation ranks sixth on the list of the world’s most dangerous countries for women.
According to statistics collected by White Ribbon Pakistan, an NGO working for women’s rights, 4,734 women faced sexual violence between 2004 and 2016. Over 15,000 cases of “honor” crimes were registered. There were more than 1,800 cases of domestic violence and over 5,500 kidnappings of women during this period.
Media reports say that more than 51,241 cases of violence against women were reported between January 2011 and June 2017. Conviction rates, meanwhile, remain low, with the accused in just 2.5% of all reported cases ending up being convicted by the courts.
Violence in many forms
As the UN-designated International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women approaches, Mirza says that the women’s rights movement in Pakistan has come a long way.
“We have faced many odds during our struggle. Much still needs to be done, but I feel encouraged that an increasing number of women are now demanding their rights. They no longer tolerate domestic violence, for example. They resist and raise their voice,” Mirza said.
Mirza and his organization deal with all kinds of women’s issues. “Women from all over the country approach us. They come to us to seek support on marital problems and domestic violence as well as more intense issues such as murders in the name of honor,” the activist said.
Mirza has been actively supporting Mukhtaran Mai, who was gang-raped in June 2002 on orders of a “panchayat” (village council) as “punishment” for her younger brother’s alleged illicit relations with a woman from a rival tribe. The rape made international headlines, with women’s rights groups demanding justice for Mai and punishment for the rapists.
In August 2002, an anti-terrorism court sentenced six out of the 14 accused persons to death. Four of them were sentenced for rape, while the other two were convicted as being members of the village council. Eight others were released. However, in 2005, the Lahore High Court acquitted five of the six convicts while one person’s death penalty was converted to life imprisonment.
“Mai took a bold step, something that Pakistani women usually refrain from. Due to the stigma attached with rape, most women don’t report it to police. But Mai has been fighting a legal battle against her gang rape for a long time. She has been an inspiration for all of us,” Mirza underlined.
The activist, however, said that there are countless such cases that go unreported, or that are not picked up by media. “Also, we have to maintain confidentiality about many cases, as these are sensitive issues, and we don’t want to put these women in harm’s way.”
“Over the years, we have rescued so many women who could have been killed had we not intervened,” he added.
Is the government helping?
Pakistani lawmakers have passed some pro-women legislation in the past 10 or 11 years. Their implementation, however, remains problematic.
“It wouldn’t be right to say that we don’t receive support from the state. Without some help from the government, we would not have been able to do our work effectively. But it is also true that we had to work a lot to get support from the authorities. We had to campaign a lot,” Mirza said.
The activist said that there are very few government facilities for the “women in distress.”
“Victims of violence need immediate support. If they don’t receive support in the first few hours, then it becomes even more difficult to provide relief to them,” Mirza said.
“These women are not taken in by the government-run shelter homes unless they receive an order from the court. Now, after our campaigning, the authorities eased their rules and women can now find shelter in government-run facilities immediately.”
Despite some improvements, Pakistani women prefer to tolerate domestic violence, Mirza noted. “They are aware that they will be more vulnerable if they step out of their home, as there is little support for them from the government. According to various studies, around 80% of Pakistani women suffer domestic abuse.”
Mirza plans to create more awareness about the issue of violence against women through nationwide campaigns starting from November 25 to mark the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.
“We receive threats from religious hardliners and many other segments of society. When we leave home for work, we don’t know if we will come back alive. Our work is very risky. But we are committed to improving the lives of Pakistani women. We’ll continue our struggle,” Mirza stressed.