Pakistan’s Open Secret: The Epidemic of Domestic Violence

By: Tasmir Aziz

This past week, social media was set ablaze by Fatima Sohail’s gruesome tale of abuse at the hands of her husband and popular television personality, Mohsin Abbas Haider. A familiar script was followed to the letter with Ms.Sohail facing significant backlash and her credibility being questioned by the swarm of unlettered and vicious misogynists that congregate in the comment sections underneath any post that even attempts to hold men accountable for their actions. Ms. Sohail did not hesitate to take action however, dispelling any of the usual accusations that intonate that such exposes are done for fame with a police report that eventually translated into the Federal Investigation Report which led to Abbas’s firing from the TV show “Mazaaq Raat”, but not before he could utter the telling words to reporters, “I wish there was an NGO to protect men’s rights”.

In the preceding press conference, when addressing the bruises all over Ms.Sohail’s face and arms, Abbas stated that he had a mother, sisters, and nieces whom he had never hit. With his hand firmly placed on the ultimate symbol of vindication in our beloved country, the Holy Quran, he continued to boast about his thriving career, implying that his wife had a promiscuous past, and retaining a remorseless smugness that defines the mentality of men in Pakistan. Abbas and his press conference are a symbolic representation of how domestic violence is treated in this country. From immediately casting aspersions about a woman’s character, a remarkably easy task in our society, to continually citing Islamic rhetoric in order to convey a superior moral compass, it seems that the accused have a playbook by which they can escape justice and if Ms.Sohail had not had the initiative and courage that she did, who can say with any degree of certainty that a wealthy TV personality would have faced the full force of the law.

Pakistan ranks as the 6th most dangerous place for women in Pakistan, with over 70% of women in the country reporting forms of sexual and physical violence by their intimate partners. And the methods by which such violence is carried out are as grotesque as they are diverse, from acid attacks to pre-meditated honor killings.

By no means, is this a secret. In a country where denial of fact is a favorite past-time and truth is what the powers that be determine it to be, few would deny (if any) that domestic violence is ingrained into the fabric of Pakistani society. From the horrors of the jirga in KPK to obscenity that is the practice of karo kari in Sindh, modes of suppressing women are an open secret and when they are not, they are celebrated as necessary practices required to retain peace.

Our institutions of marriage and family have been built on the silent suffering of women. The practical severance of past familial connections upon marriage is an understood norm in this country that applies to the majority of women who are to be at the mercy and under the “protection” of their husbands. For the countless women forced into marriages before they could complete their education or forced to give up their careers who retain no financial freedom, the maintenance of their marriage is a burden they carry, often for their children. Those who dare to seek the authorities are often unsuccessful in gaining any respite with the common understanding amongst the police being that these are matters “best settled between man and wife”. And should they pursue an escape and be successful, who would be naive enough to think that their families would support them and their decisions?

This is but a glimpse of the tragic story that represents innumerable women across this country who for generations have kept their suffering (an open) secret.

And yet, the moment the nation sees one of its celebrities, many of whom have never expressed the slightest sense of compassion for these issues on the forums they have access to, embroiled in a domestic abuse scandal or a case of harassment, we witness an uncertainty in the population that is never expressed when they see reports of honor killing in interior Sindh or acid attacks in Southern Punjab.

When these stories occupy six inches worth of forgettable column space in the newspaper or a fleeting ticker underneath the nine’o’clock news, there is no need to try and exonerate anyone — for the paper can be discarded and television channel changed.

There is no need because those stories for many are faceless and therefore, meaningless. But when we see a familiar figure, a popular singer or a comedian, one who has never given us any reason to think he is not capable of what he is being accused of, we feel the compulsion to defend him so powerful that we can look remorselessly at the battered face of a pregnant woman and ask “Why did she not go to the authorities earlier?” and “How do we know she did not do that to herself?”

Every comment and every tweet that is posted in the defence of these figures does not come from a place of sympathy for said figures. They are inspired by a rejection of the image of ourselves that we are forced to confront. If justice is to continue to be as swift and decisive as it has been with Mohsin Abbas, we must face that image of ourselves and the biases that have been ingrained in us lest we continue to let the truth be obscured as it almost was once again.

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Femsoc At Lums

Femsoc At Lums

We are a student-run society at LUMS concerned with increasing awareness about the institution of patriarchy embedded in our culture.