Feminism and Violence: The Short and the Long

By Anjum Altaf

March 8 was International Women’s Day about which I have two stories to narrate. They are from the heart of affluent Pakistan by virtue of the accident that I live on a university campus situated in an upscale urban residential district of Lahore.

The first story, the short one, is situated in what is generally acknowledged as the premier private university in the country. A group of students organized the ‘I Need Feminism…’ campaign in which individuals complete the sentence on a placard before uploading a photograph on social media. ‘I Need Feminism because I want to wear shorts in public’ was one of the placards that went up briefly before it was taken down because of threats to the bearer and the organizers from inside and outside the university.

The second story, the longer one, involves a woman who works in the complex of campus apartments and lives in a low-income pocket in the high-income district (this being how some cities adapt to the lack of public transport). On March 8 she arrived much later than usual because her mother had been beaten in the morning. The perpetrators of the violence were a group of women of a neighboring community from which a woman had eloped with a young man related to the victim. The runaway’s relatives had identified a girl from the man’s family in exchange as settlement which the family of the latter and their neighbors felt was a just demand; only the victim asked why the girl had to pay the price, whence the violence. (The husband was unable to defend the wife as it was against the norm to touch unrelated women.) After the violence, the transaction was accepted. On being asked if this outcome was right or wrong, the narrator indicated she was unable to say but ventured that this was a common occurrence.

What can these two stories tell us about feminism and violence and our attitudes to them?  Let us first place the concepts in context.

In every society at any given point in time there exists a social order selected aspects of which are considered normal, right, and proper by the majority. Any deviation from normalcy is feared as a potential source of disorder and violence can be employed to prevent such deviations. One example of this is the attitude of men towards women and the attempt to regulate what the latter can or cannot do. Gendering is the social process through which the proper behavior of men and women is reproduced by the enforcement of norms and rules whose legitimacy is considered beyond question.

Inherent in every social order is a distribution of power – power is concentrated in the center while the peripheries are inhabited by the powerless. One can easily note the distribution of power by gender in our social order. Power, however, stems from other sources as well, one of which is class. Thus, for example, a woman within her class would often have less power than younger males but across class a younger women would have more power than older servants, male or female. In general, however, women in South Asia have relatively less power than men and have many more constraints on their choices.

How do social orders evolve and change? In every social order, there are the powerless at the margin; the majority may have internalized the normalcy and propriety of their positions but some do strive for change. At the same time, there are privileged individuals at the center of power who can imagine themselves in the shoes of the powerless and join them in the struggle. A feminist is a person who can exercise this imagination with respect to the gender dimensions of the social order. To adopt feminism as a political stance, for a man or a woman, is to take a stand against the gender privileges that stem from the unequal distribution of power in society. To be a feminist is also to believe that change is possible and that it is necessary to work for that change through all means that are available and possible.

We can now go back to the two stories. In the first, a student expressed an opinion about what she would like. This was immediately met with a threat to desist. Even the expression of an opinion, let alone the act itself, was considered a threat to social order – the term floating around was fitnah, the source of disorder in society. Keep in mind that the expression of an opinion is not a violation of the law but the issuing of a threat is. The proper recourse in such a situation is to charge those issuing the threat with a breach of conduct and to adjuticate under the existing rules. However, the internalization of the social norms is such that the officials in charge might themselves believe that the expression of such an opinion was not judicious in our society.

The male prerogative is marked by ironies. It is quite possible that individuals issuing the threat might have felt at one time that co-education itself was not proper. Yet, the attraction of an education at one of the best institutions in the country could have overcome the qualms. It is equally likely that the same individuals would be seeking scholarships in countries where wearing shorts is the norm for females. There, existence in the midst of fitnah would be deemed acceptable under some plausible rationalization.

In the second story, one can observe the power of internalization of norms at the periphery. There was a sole voice protesting the injustice of offering for settlement a girl who had nothing to do with the incident. This resistance was crushed with violence perpetrated by women themselves and the settlement was considered fair by the community.

The two stories highlight the nature of the struggle ahead. In the most upscale urban district, the affluent promoting International Women’s Day on social media act quite contrary to its spirit as soon as their sense of propriety is challenged. And within the affluent district itself live people quite unaware of International Women’s Day reproducing a social order that is oppressive to them and their weaker members.

Feminism and violence stare at each other around the specificities of our social order and leave us with many questions to ponder. Where do we go from here? The first step is to recognize that holding contrary opinions is protected under the law and that violence or the threat of violence is a violation of the law. The second is to draw strength from the fact that social orders do change – one just has to reflect on the norms that were prescribed for women a hundred years ago to realize that nothing stays constant. That is why the struggle must go on.

For the conceptual elaborations in this post I am indebted to Professor Nivedita Menon whose excellent book ‘Seeing Like a Feminist’ was published in 2012 by Zubaan-Penguin Books, New Delhi.


I have two favorite texts on change which illustrate how strongly we believe that what exists at the moment is what is right and proper for all times and how we are proven wrong again and again. Yet we do not learn from history.

The first, Taleem-e-NiswaaN, is an essay on the education of women written around a hundred years ago reflecting the liberal progressive perspective of the time. The author, Muhammad Sajjad Mirza Baig Dehalvi (1876-1927), was a professor in the Nizam’s College in Hyderabad. The premises and assumptions taken for granted then are now only a source of amazement which should be a cause for humility – what we believe to be the ultimate truth at this time could well be considered amazing a hundred years from now. The essay is included in Sarmaya-e-Urdu by Hafiz Mahmood Shirani. The book was reissued by Sang-e-Meel in 2004 and is available in the market for Rs. 300.

The second is an excerpt (from Intizar Hussain’s classic novel Basti) which describes the arrival of electricity in a village. The following English translation is by Frances Pritchett:

Bi Amma had undoubtedly lived a long time. She always told how in her childhood only one torch, in the Small Bazaar, was lighted at night. Everywhere else, in the streets, in the lanes, was darkness. Before her very eyes the torch vanished, and lanterns appeared in the streets and lanes; and now in their places poles were standing, and here and there on the streets electric light could be seen.
Electricity had now begun to be installed in the mosque as well, but Abba Jan had thrown a spanner into the works. “This is ‘innovation.'” And equipping himself with a cudgel, he stood on guard in the doorway of the mosque. The electricians came, received a reprimand, and went away. Hakim Bande Ali and Musayyab Husain tried very hard to convince him, but he gave only one answer: “This is ‘innovation.'”
On the third day of his guard-duty, Bi Amma fell ill; her breathing became fast and shallow. Abba Jan, giving up the guard-duty, hurried home; but Bi Amma did not wait for his arrival.
The next day when Abba Jan went to the mosque for the dawn prayer, he saw that the electricity had already been installed. When he saw this he came right back, and for the first time in his life offered the dawn prayer at home. From then on he never entered the mosque, and never offered his prayers except at home. Though for many days he did go, morning and evening, to Bi Amma’s grave, and recited verses from the Quran there.
How hard Abba Jan tried to halt the spreading ‘innovations’ in Rupnagar! During Muharram, when big drums began to sound, he seized them and ripped out the drumheads. “Playing drums is forbidden by the Shariat. I won’t permit them to be played in any majlis or procession!”
“But in Lucknow, they play drums in every procession!”
“Let them play. The Lucknow people have no power to change the Shariat!”
That year drums were in fact not played in any majlis or procession, but by the next year, Abba Jan’s power had been broken. Every procession was accompanied by drums except the one that left from the Khirkivala Imambarah, for that was Abba Jan’s family imambarah and he had power over it. And also because that procession, which was in honor of Hazrat Hur, was recognized as the quietest of Rupnagar’s Muharram processions. No small drums, no big drums, no singing of elegies — for Abba Jan declared elegy-singing too to be contrary to religious law. Abba Jan had taken a firm stand against elegy-singing, but the results were the same as in the case of his other firm stands.
Abba Jan’s grip on Rupnagar was loosening. Bi Amma had been called home by God, and electricity had come to the town. Abba Jan couldn’t prevent electricity from being installed in the mosque, just as he couldn’t prevent drums from finding a place in the Muharram processions. His firm stand against electricity was the last of his firm stands against the ‘innovations’ of the time. After that, he retired to his room.


  • Anadil Saeed
    Posted at 20:12h, 20 March Reply

    The underpinning psychodynamic between two conflicting moralities is very carefully demarcated. Both are irrationally justified, and both need individuals for their existence, who love something about them. Consider the remark,

    ‘… holding contrary opinions is protected under the law and that violence or the threat of violence is a violation of the law. (We must) draw strength from the fact that social orders do change…’

    Do you think we can argue on the basis of this, that moralities of arbitrary types may be arbitrarily constructed given there is sufficient number of people ‘wanting’ a proposed morality and willing to devote time to effect it? Don’t you think that this makes the question of moralities, either introducing new or preserving the old, fundamentally sterile? Because given enough time, every morality will vanish… then why bother? Where does one derive his sense of Good and Evil from?

  • CT Maloney
    Posted at 01:19h, 21 March Reply

    Feminism has gone so far in most western countries that courts would rather believe that violence is only committed by men against women and not women against men. Over 200 studies have shown that violence is almost equal both ways, in western countries– though maybe not quite in South Asia. India has legislated a n Act largely modeled on the US Violence Against Women Act whichis terribly gender-biased neglecting the whole area of women’s violnece, and also the frequent use of false accusations of violence by women against men. This is very common and a huge issue among men in the US. This all ties in with this article about norms of power in the society.

    • Anadil Saeed
      Posted at 03:19h, 21 March

      Thank you for presenting a more realistic picture, which challenges the emerging Divine Desdemona Archetype, on legitimate empirical grounds.

      I wonder if you could explicitly quote some of the studies…

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 05:38h, 21 March

      CT Maloney: You are a careful reader so I am sure you did not take the argument to imply that women were better than men in some moral sense. The point was that the power structure over time has favored males. There has been more violence by men on women within social classes. The phenomenon is different across social classes – witness the verbal violence inflicted by ladies of the house on male domestic servants.

      Feminism in the West has alleviated some of the discrimination. I interpret what you cite as the overhang of history – because of the pattern that existed, female claims of male violence have much more credibility than the other way round and there may well be genuine grievances that are ignored. And, as is natural, whenever a law is enacted the opportunity to manipulate that law to advantage also opens up. You are quite right that harassment laws are being exploited in a growing number of cases. But without the law males had a field day – ask any female office secretary from the 1950s and 1960s. Gail Collins has a good book on this history: When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present, Little, Brown and Company, 2009

  • Anil Kala
    Posted at 04:08h, 23 March Reply

    Because something can be misused therefore it should not be pursued! What kind of argument is this? Frauds happen in Banks nobody has closed banks, Aeroplanes are hijacked but more are flying.

    Talking about misuse is gross red herring and dilutes the magnitude of problem faced by women. Sure there will be misuse in some degree but if the law can instill some fear in public, women will be a lot more free to enjoy rather than live there lives.

  • Anjum Altaf
    Posted at 08:25h, 23 March Reply

    Anil: I presume you are referring to CT Maloney’s remark about the Violence Against Women Act and how it is being used frequently by women to level false accusations against women.

    My response was along the same line as yours that while there is some manipulation of the law, without it women were much worse off. However, if a loophole in the law becomes obvious it should be plugged – that is not the same thing as getting rid of the law.

    Also, your examples of banks and aeroplanes is not fully relevant. Yes, there are deviations from good practices everywhere. The analogy would be to compare what happens to bank fraud after a law is introduced to control it. If fraud decreases, it is good law; if fraud increases, it is a bad law and should be repealed. If fraud decreases but the cost of implementing the law is greater than the fraud prevented, it should still be repealed.

  • Anil Kala
    Posted at 03:29h, 25 March Reply

    Anjum: My grouse is about airing views on misuse on this board. I think most laws can be manipulated or are being misused in some degree therefore if you have views on misuse say it on some other place. A couple of years back Barkha Dutt an ace journalist with NDTV was video taped promoting/recommending someone from Congress party for Ministerial berth in cabinet reshuffle. In a hasty press conference held by journalists themselves chaired by Rajdeep Sardesai, Vinod Mehta etc and telecast live, most of them found her act unethical but in that press conference Rajdeep Sardesai diluted the gravity of her conduct by listing out generally high standards of his fraternity. My point is this; he did not reveal anything new fellows knew there are many journalists maintaining very high standards of journalistic ethics so what was the point of stating a know fact and deflecting the main issue?

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 14:41h, 25 March

      Anil: I am not following the nature of your concern. The case of Barkha Dutt did not involve any law – she was simply involved in unethical practice while it might well be correct that most journalists are not. But all laws must be evaluated on the basis of their efficacy – if some law causes more problems than it solves, it must be reassessed.

    • Anil Kala
      Posted at 15:27h, 25 March

      My point simply was that misuse of law is an entire different thing why raise it on this board?

Post A Comment