Misogyny in Action

This column was first published in Dawn.com

A recently-published biography, The Sensational Life and Death of Qandeel Baloch by the journalist Sanam Maher, traces the life of the famous Pakistani woman from the Punjabi village where she was born as Fauzia Azeem, through her hard-fought battle to become Qandeel Baloch, Pakistan’s most well-known social media star, before she was strangled to death by her own brother. It portrays a Pakistan whose sexual repression and fascination made Qandeel Baloch famous, then destroyed her for overstepping the bounds of what that same society deemed appropriate and good behavior for a woman.

Despite the women’s protection laws passed by our Parliament, women continue to be assaulted and murdered with depressing regularity, and the perpetrators are let off with chilling impunity, as evinced in the case of Khadija Siddiqui, whose would-be murderer was acquitted even after stabbing her 23 times on Davis Road, in front of witnesses.

The brutal elimination of women through “honor killings,” domestic violence, and other forms of gender-based violence is very hard to square with our desperate attempts to elevate the position of women in our society. Why have we not been able to make a bigger dent against violence against women while continuing to claim that the protection of women is one of our highest priorities?

Women’s rights activists generally place the problem squarely within the territory of misogyny, or an innate hatred of women by men, without really being able to tear out its roots. Dr. Nafisa Shah’s Honor Unmasked: Gender, Violence, Law, and Power in Pakistan, published last year and based on research she did for her PhD thesis in anthropology at Oxford University, goes further, interpreting the phenomenon of weaponized honor as a way of maintaining power structures in Sindh.

The idea of weaponized honor supports what Cornell philosophy professor Kate Manne explores in her new book Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny. She proposes a different definition of misogyny, generally understood as a broad hatred of or prejudice against women. This “native conception,” Manne argues, doesn’t account for men who say that they don’t hate women, and yet still behave in ways that are harshly punitive towards them. We see this in action all the time in Pakistan: men who claim to “respect” women, place them on a pedestal, avow love for female family members, but rain abuse, threats, and violence on them when they “disobey” or “defy” them (disobedience and defiance as defined by them, too).

Misogyny is not a psychological phenomenon — a man’s negative feelings towards women in general — but rather a force in action: a controlling, policing force that men and women employ in a sexist society to keep women in check. Sexism, says Manne, is the belief that man is superior and woman inferior; that men are strong and women weak; and that because of these “facts”, women are best confined to house and home. Misogyny is the mechanism, through emotional, mental and physical violence, but also by the creation of laws, societal and cultural strictures, and institutions to ensure women stay in that inferior position, and that patriarchal power structures remain intact.

We need look no further than the boundaries of our own nation to see how true this updated version of misogyny is. Tribal codes, discriminatory laws, sky-high rates of domestic violence, all work together to control and police Pakistani women, even as men claim to love their mothers, sisters, daughters and wives, as the protectors and guardians of women. But in return for this “protection”, women must remain caregivers, helpmeets, domestic servants. The moment a woman steps out or speaks up, outperforms men or defies patriarchal norms, we reach out to hold her down and pull her back, and we punish her gravely – with scoldings, ostracism, physical violence and even death.

By this definition, we are all misogynists. We delight in censuring women who don’t dress the way a “good” woman dresses. We take the men’s side in sexual harassment scandals such as the one between Meesha Shafi and Ali Zafar, because we relish the idea of a “bold” woman being put in her place by a man, and we want to demonstrate that we are “good” women in the patriarchy. When a woman is beaten by her husband, we ask what the woman has done to provoke the violence from the man. When a woman must work to earn money and feed her family, we call her a bad mother.

Even the recent dismissal of Salman Sufi as Chairperson of the Chief Minister’s Special Reforms Unit, who was overseeing several useful initiatives to help women empower themselves, can be seen as misogyny in action. Political motivations may have been behind his dismissal, but the end result is a negative impact on the lives of the women he was helping to empower.

We may or may not hate some women, or all women, or none at all. But ending violence against women is only possible when we examine how we all do our part to police women and make sure they know their place, and stay in it.