"Aren’t You Suffocated?"

I vividly remember the day when I was driving to Lahore with one of my colleagues. Abruptly interrupting the flow of the conversation, he asked me to slow down the car. He slid down the window and started yelling at two men on a bike. It took me no time to understand what had actually happened. Perhaps I am too habituated to the catcalling and street harassment that my conscious mind failed to notice those men. My colleague turned to me and asked, “Don’t you feel suffocated?” Baffled by his question, I turned my eyes on the road and continued driving. His words often echo in my mind whenever any news about the harassment and violence against women surface in the media.

Hearing, witnessing and enduring the atrocities make me reflect upon all the past encounters when people tried to tell me how Pakistan is safe for women and we are fortunate to live in this society rather than any western country. Trying to understand the underlying psychological phenomena, I question whether they are truly incapable of seeing what is happening around us or is it that they prefer to live in their make-believe Utopia?

It shattered my soul when I first heard about the motorway rape incident. That night, I couldn’t stop thinking about all the desolated places and roads I have travelled through. Perhaps I was fortunate that my car didn’t break down at any such place. While I was still trying to let the fact sink in that many monsters in human guise walk around us, I heard the statement of CCPO Lahore. According to him, the victim should have checked her petrol tank before leaving. His statement implied that a momentary lapse of concentration in planning a trip is likely to get a woman raped in Pakistan. As admissions of helplessness go, this was one of the most cowardly and supine argument I have ever heard.
Then there is another class of men who might not be sexual predators but thrive on subjugating and humiliating women. When Usman Mirza and his accomplices assaulted a woman and recorded the incident on video. In a way, they undressed our hypocritical society, whose nakedness was already visible to Manto in the 1940s.

Today, I logged on to Twitter and saw a picture of a glowing woman with an infectious smile and luminous eyes all over my Twitter feed. When I read the caption, my heart skipped a beat, or two. She was “beheaded” (yes, you read it right) in the heart of the Capital city of Pakistan. With deep melancholy, I peeked outside my window. There was a lot of blood in the courtyard of my neighbor. It was Eid day so they must had sacrificed an animal but why are women being slaughtered in my country? Three back-to-back events, just before Eid Ul Azha, of women being murdered brutally by men have taken place. It reminds me of Faiz's couplet:
Na ganwa’o navak-e-neemkash, dil-e-reza reza ganwa diya

Jo bache hein sang sameit lo, tan-e-daagh daagh lutaa diya

(Faiz Ahmad Faiz)

What makes these molesters, murderers and apologists turn into cannibals? They must have felt strong and powerful while ripping off the dignity of a woman. These events shouldn’t be analyzed in a vacuum. Assaulters and abusers draw their power from the prevailing social structure. In Pakistan, we are living in a patriarchal social setting that is characterized by male domination and female subordination. Any chance of empowering women and giving them their deserving right is strongly resisted and opposed. For example, the Domestic Violence Bill could provide legal support to women who suffer from violence in their homes. However, our elected representatives couldn’t agree to give a fundamental human right of protection from physical and psychological abuse to the women of Pakistan.

There are a number of scholarly studies that document how a patriarchal social structure enables violence against women. So, is there any way out of this destructive socio-psychological setup that we breathe in? The solution to most social issues lies in education and awareness.

I urge my fellow academics to realize the huge responsibility that rests on our shoulders. We are chosen for the "Taleem-o-Tarbiat” (educating and character building) of the upcoming generation. Why are all our discussions, debates and efforts, even the academic curriculum, limited to developing the skills that can serve the capitalist system better, rather than developing the human values that provide the foundation of a civilized society?

Announcements of conferences, seminars and guest lectures in the disciplines of engineering, business studies, medical sciences and information technology pass before my eyes every day. Yet I rarely see the debates and focused group discussions on ethics, philosophy, justice and human virtues. We, the teachers, will be held accountable by history if we abdicate our responsibility to develop the sensitivity that leads to compassion and a burning desire for justice in the next generation. Let’s end this suffocation and give the women of Pakistan the space to breathe which is their birthright.