Stop Gaslighting Pakistani Women

Trigger Warning: gender-based violence

Our World in Data says that “per birth, a woman in Nigeria is more than 200 times more likely to die in pregnancy or childbirth than a woman in Sweden.” Additionally, UNICEF explains that “While the country represents 2.4 per cent of the world’s population, it currently contributes 10 per cent of global deaths for pregnant mothers.”

According to the said statistical statements, it would not only be a foolishly false analogy and possibly an act of negating the said comparative magnitude but also insensitive to make a sweeping generalization and declare that maternal mortality is the same everywhere. It clearly is not. According to the WHO, in 2017, around 295,000 women passed away globally “during and following pregnancy and childbirth”. A staggering “two-thirds (196,000)” of these maternal deaths were in ”Sub-Saharan Africa” and “one-fifth (58,000)” in “Southern Asia”.

Hence, it is an emergency in some regions and relatively more manageable in others. It is thanks to statistical data that experts can shift their attention to where help is direly needed. Another example of a similar fallacy would be to say that poverty levels are the same everywhere. They are not. Research shows us that it exists in different, varying levels around the world.

Similarly, the record of organized corruption, the uncovering of fake licenses to fly and the subsequent ban by the European Union Aviation Safety Agency and the unfortunate data that can predict the probability of a mid-air mishap – all point toward the Pakistan International Airlines being unreliable – to put it politely. Once again, it would be a dangerously inaccurate fallacy to compare PIA’s record with Lufthansa’s or Emirates’s. PIA – to date – is certainly not at all in a position to be compared with the most reliable airlines around the world.

We know this because:

  1. We read the news
  2. Many of us have lived experiences and observations
  3. We believe in scientific and statistical data (and not cherry-picking, if you please) compiled by experts, investigators and researchers that confirms the former two

We also know that if one compared Nigeria’s mortality rate with Sweden’s or likened PIA’s performance with Lufthansa’s, the victims of PIA and many others would feel:

  1. Hurt
  2. Emotionally gas lighted
  3. Angry

Why then do Pakistanis not follow the said three simple steps of gaining a basic level of understanding about other issues? One of them happens to be the topic of women. The situation in Pakistan was termed an “endemic” of gender-based violence back in 2008 and was recently also called gender terrorism (yes, it exists) by experts working on the field. I do not just believe in these terms; I believe in them with my whole heart. And that seems to annoy irrational, defensive, aggressive nationalists and self-declared ‘patriots’ – both men and women.

When it comes to speaking about the current state of Pakistani women, many people feel offended and betrayed by not just the data but also by the direct testimony coming from Pakistani women themselves.

They would rather force Pakistani women to fly with PIA than with Lufthansa or Emirates just because PIA is Pakistani. Anyone who questions this is probably receiving paychecks from India, Israel and/or America and is not a true Pakistani. This is the result of nationalism + irrationality + denial towards research (or even the social sciences completely) + misogyny.

When Malala Yousafzai expressed her truth – the truth – about what education, the state of human rights and life were like under Taliban rule as a young teenager in Swat, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan, she received praise from around the world but nationalistic and misogynistic wrath at home. Roughly the same age as Malala back then in 2012, many people I knew bought the nationalistic narrative of how detrimental it can be to Pakistan’s image for women to speak so negatively about one’s country; as if the media coverage since 9/11 has not been enough to taint its image. Reputation before reality.

Face saving, you see, comes with a cost greater than that of a country’s reputation. It comes with the cost of freely being able to speak the objective, rational and oftentimes painful truth. And as Pakistani women living in the “sixth most dangerous” country for women on the globe, we are conditioned to deny it or to say that all countries are the same. At the cost of our truth, our pain, our agency, our struggles and dreams and really, ourselves.

Fast forward ten years from Malala’s shooting (which she survived, thankfully) and I find myself receiving social flak, questioning looks and subtle accusations of disloyalty (which happens to be a very colonial-era style of accusing local dissidents of sedition to force them into silence or execution btw) towards the country I was born in and spent twenty years living in for something as seemingly inconsequential as speaking the truth about Pakistan’s treatment towards its women. And towards me, if you please.

“Do you not love Pakistan?”, I am asked. “Does Pakistan love its women? Does Kasur love its children?”, I ask back. To receive nothing but silence in return.

As someone who works full-time as a researcher, I am told that statistics and data exaggerate and lie. As someone who has lived experiences of twenty years, I am told that I am either too biased or too Western-oriented for agreeing with the data. This is not to deny or defend – in any which way – the corruption scandals and controversies associated with donor agencies, (I)NGOs etc. but to make a sweeping generalization and use the former to outright deny and disregard the data coming from any/every statistical research ever done in a Western country – without any rational or scientific reasoning – is nothing less than absurd.

Many university-based research staff and PhD students, think tanks, NGOs and policy groups work with statistics regularly. Normally, they include their research methodology in their publications for transparency. There could be some outliers who might not want to be as transparent but that does not take away from researchers and scholars who are otherwise open and accountable about their research methods.

Some of the criticism towards ‘data collection’ and analysis comes from Pakistanis, many of whom themselves want to move abroad, un-ironically. Maybe that is where the issue lies.

If a male doctor or engineer moves abroad to find a better life (many of them openly say that life in Pakistan does not suffice) for his family and himself, that is normally more than acceptable. For a male Pakistani to find greener lands to live on is not a selfish or unpatriotic act at all; it is for a better lifestyle. For a Pakistani woman to say that she feels unsafe in Pakistan is blasphemous; it ruins the country’s reputation and makes her a rebel who is too feminist and westernized. Washing one’s ‘dirty laundry’ in the public is not what shareef (good) girls do.

The laundry that Pakistani women have inherited – without any choice of their own, though, is not dirty. It is rotten red. It carries the blood and tears of first, Bengali women (estimates suggest that around 200,000 to 400,000 Bengali women were taken hostage in ethno-religiously indoctrinated “rape camps” set up by the Pakistani army and its supporting groups during the 1971 war.) and eventually Pakistani women themselves.

To willingly choose to wash what is not even one’s own mess – out of ‘love’ – is to become the ‘perfect victim’. South Asian culture struggles with demarcating love, control and abuse. The Urban Dictionary defines the idea of a perfect victim as:

“A person who will get used and blame themselves or empathize with their abuser. Generally while in a relationship or love.”

Love your society and culture even if they are abusive, controlling, toxic and misogynistic. Love them despite what you go through for the sake of loyalty, honour, patriotism and reputation.

Hypothetically speaking, even if representing Pakistan well was one’s duty as a citizen, those who did do it against all odds did not receive a better treatment than those who did not. Former Ambassador Shaukat Mukaddam served Pakistan all his life in the Pakistani Foreign Service. The day his daughter, Noor Mukaddam, was buried, he had to go on stage and ask his community to stop speaking against her character. Why has Pakistan – as a society and state – not served him back with the same love he served Pakistan with?

Those who choose to break away from this reputation game, which is more of a catch-22 – go through gas lighting of various kinds, especially from people who come from and want to glorify the same or a similar culture. It is more convenient to justify the status quo – be it the role of the elders, social norms, patriarchal relationships and society’s workings at large – than to question it.

These days, the justification comes with a blatant and shameful misuse of critical theory, especially post-colonialism. In Pakistan, Islamic-nationalist populism serves as the best example.

If urban women complain about their circumstances, they are reminded that they are privileged, they can ‘wear jeans’ and sleeveless saris and go back home later than most Pakistani women would be able to. If they go beyond this boundary and ask for more, they would be becoming too westernized for Pakistani society’s taste. Similarly, if lesser privileged women try to break away from the social rules in their homes, they are told (in more cruel ways) that they need to know where they come from, nationally and religiously. In both cases, misuse and really an accusation of ‘Western imperialism’ serves as the best way to shun a woman’s demand and take away legitimacy from her expression. The moment a Pakistani woman – regardless of her background – tries to do something that does not sit well with her ghar waalay (family members), she is told that her roots don’t allow her to do so. If you are born somewhere, do you forcefully have to live life a certain way to be accepted? What if Pakistani women did – in fact – become very westernized, hypothetically speaking? Does that take away from their agency? Ideally, it should not.

Thanks to post-colonialism, many Pakistanis are accepting that Pakistani women can have a more Eastern mindset and attitude but what they are ignoring and in theory – also attacking – is that the said Eastern mindset and attitude has been forced upon many women in Pakistani history (especially since the 1980’s). For instance, if a girl in my school was caught smoking or hanging out with her boyfriend, her familial reputation would be targeted and she would be slut-shamed. To make up for that loss, she might stop seeing boys or dress more conservatively. From a distance, these are minor changes that many traditionalists might think are very noble for a young girl to adopt. They might appreciate it as an act of claiming one’s ‘identity’.

To me, this is social bullying and moral policing wrapped in the facade of an ‘anti-Western-imperialism’. Another example is of a girl child being told her entire life that if she engages in a romantic or sexual relationship before marriage, she will go to hell. For eternity. Fast forward a few years and she says that she does not want to date before marriage and her parents are proud of this ‘choice’ that they think is noble, is it even a choice to begin with? Coercive conditioning – just like gas lighting – can easily seep into one’s mind (especially when one is brainwashed since childhood as many of us have been) and control one’s future decisions. Coercive conditioning, when taken slightly further and used to induce intolerance and otherization through moral policing, leads to sometimes physically intangible and yet palpable forms of brainwashing. Psychiatry experts include “isolation, humiliation, accusation” and fear tactics in the process of brainwashing. Brainwashing is camouflaged, hidden and unseen. Yet it exists.

I commonly see people on social media say that to be a modern-age woman living in 2022, one does not necessarily have to smoke, drink or dress like Western women. That is manipulative and highly controlling, again. The entire idea is that a woman can choose to smoke, drink, dress and live a certain way – or not, and should be accepted either way because it is her choice. But to pressurize Pakistani women into embracing a pre-meditated anti-Western, traditional lifestyle by taking away her agency and then conveniently pretending that it is her decision is extremely unethical, ​​guileful and dishonest.

Logically, as long as one can afford to fly with Lufthansa or Emirates, one will do that. Don’t blame humans for making that choice simply because they want to be safe. Go fix PIA instead. A huge red flag is conditioning or pressurizing passengers into choosing PIA over Lufthansa or Emirates so that they can prove their ‘loyalty towards Pakistan’ to you by potentially putting themselves at risk and then detaching yourself from the situation and presenting it as a ‘choice’. However, even in this situation, ‘choice’ is a privilege. And that should not be taken for granted or used as mockery or a way of otherizing the masses and the majority, many of whom do not always have the said choice.

I would like to quote Anatol Lieven’s befitting observation of Pakistan’s motorway and the way it functions under the National Highways & Motorway Police in Pakistan: A Hard Country:

“Their high pay makes them resistant to bribes, and because they are commanded from Islamabad they are immune to local political pressure. Perhaps equally importantly, they work in a context – that of Pakistan’s splendid modern motorways, with their gleaming service stations and roadside cafés – which gives them legitimate pride in their country and their service. In consequence, they are amazingly honest and efficient. My driver was given a ticket for speeding on the way from Islamabad to Lahore – with no suggestion that he could be let off in return for a bribe – and I heard numerous members of the elite complain with astonishment that the same thing had happened to them. Then again, Pakistan’s motorways often seem in a way to float over the country without being connected to it, so it is natural that their police should be the same”.

Those who understand what the motorway stands for in the said context would also understand what living in isolated communities means for urban Pakistanis. Whilst money does not buy empowerment, it does buy privilege. That privilege – whilst not preventing Pakistani women from still having to deal with a misogynistic environment – does sometimes make them insulated. I often speak to urban women who look down upon women’s issues as ‘poverty-only’ issues; an ill-fitted conflation indeed.

Pakistan’s gated communities and posh areas within cities like Lahore, Islamabad and Pakistan do not represent Lahore, Islamabad and Karachi to a full extent. They are small bubbles within those cities. Furthermore, Lahore, Islamabad and Karachi do not represent Pakistan in its full measure. These are bubbles too. Life exists beyond those bubbles and that life is what the majority has to face; the one urban people tend to get annoyed at when they see it on CNN or BBC. One has to be wary of not letting one’s bubble become one’s mental totality. To think that just because life in one’s isolated bubble is similar to that in some developed countries – and assume that Pakistan is exactly like the rest of the world for women’s rights..and then to gaslight someone for disagreeing and calling them ‘too orientalist’ (what a self-contradictory thing to say) in their perspective is gas lighting along with the misuse of critical theory: a toxic deed indeed. Might I add that many people who act like experts on critical theory are not. They present their opinions as fact; which they are not.

With that said, if one is lucky (and maybe secluded) enough to have not gone through what most Pakistani women go through, please acknowledge your privilege rather than question the lived reality of others. If you cannot relate to what they go through, then don’t. But that never warrants gas lighting Pakistani women. Their victimhood, survival, experiences, emotions and sense of self are not dependent on your validation and privilege.

There is more to life and to the reality of the masses that one’s crusade against who one might think are ‘naysayers’ even though showing the naked truth is not the same as being negative. If cognizant and sensitive, one does not even have to look far beyond one’s locality because I am more than sure that if one opened their eyes, they would find plenty of stories around them within Gulberg and Defence – let alone in areas beyond.

But when urban women – especially from the said areas – do speak out about their realities, they are misunderstood by many as exaggerators of what may seem to them to be a ‘small, every day, global issue’. The sweeping generalization of making an issue seem equally globally prevalent to take away from its higher intensity, amount and magnitude within one particular place in the world does not help anyone. Rather, it triggers and hurts victims – both urban and non-urban – simply because they do not fit into the ‘perfect victim’ persona.

This persona is that of a person who will still love and defend her parents or husband etc. despite the abuse. The same applies to one’s love for Pakistan. They want women to love and defend a place (and deny the validity of any survey that shows the truth that one is not comfortable with) even if that place has caused them harm. To me, this is unacceptable and also goes to show why no one has the right to question why Malala does not live in Swat or Pakistan. Why should she live in a place where she got shot (even if she loves it)? It is ridiculous, especially considering that no one asks male doctors and engineers why they move abroad in big numbers.

Malala is just one person. A very important person though. Because she does not let others speak her truth in a way that they would find pleasing for their socio-lingual optics and aesthetics; as though one’s trauma was meant to be described as a romantic summer sunset on a tropical island with a side of coconut water. She speaks her truth her way. More power to her for that.

So yes: stop gas lighting Pakistani women for their experiences, opinions, choices (in the true sense of the word and not religio-cultural coercive conditioning to maintain a misogynistic social order.) and agency (this goes for Pakistani men too. If they have gone through a traumatic experience, just listen. Don’t gaslight them.). Gas lighting is abusive and wrong. Learn to accept that your country is one where many women are abused and treated a certain way – a wrong way – every single day (in ways that many women in some other countries are not) and some may find Western ways of empowerment fitting for themselves and others may not and some might be in between, doesn’t matter. Speaking the truth for what it is, does not make anyone less of a patriot. It makes you sincere towards the reality of the women in your country. And maybe, just maybe, there is no greater service to the cause of Pakistani women than simply understanding – really understanding them.

I would like to end this piece with the following quote:

“When I was seven years old, we lived in a green house. One of our neighbours, a talented tailor, would often beat his wife. In the evenings we listened to the shouts, the cries, the swearing. In the mornings we went on with our lives as usual. The entire neighbourhood pretended not to have heard, not to have seen.

This novel is dedicated to those who hear, those who see.”

Honour by Elif Shafak

The writer is a doctoral candidate at the University of Exeter’s Politics Department, where she works as a Postgraduate Teaching Associate (PTA). She is the recipient of the fully-funded SSIS PTA Studentship. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.