Thanks Teesta, for making me write this. beena
'Violence in South Asia'
Communalism Combat, January 2003, No.83
Violence begets violence
Violence is an overriding theme and an underlying assumption in much of the world, especially these days with the all-pervasive 'war on terror' and its accompanying rhetoric. South Asia is no exception, and Pakistan is no different
BY BEENA SARWAR
Violence is an overriding theme and an underlying assumption in South Asia. Pakistan is no different. Violence pervades all aspects of life here. It is manifested in the aggression witnessed daily on the streets and in homes, and it tends to overshadow the positive aspects of our lives - the generosity (material and spiritual), hospitality, tolerance and good humour that are also part of our tradition and that our people continue to demonstrate in the face of all odds.
Where does this violence come from? The argument that poverty is the greatest form of violence has resonance in a region where palatial private homes overlook shanty towns in which human beings live an inhuman existence. It exists in the state's glorification of war, and in the monuments it has erected to war and nuclear bombs in our cantonments and public parks -- the Chaghi hills replicas, tanks and F-16s. It is there in some of the traditions that we are so reluctant to shed - concepts of 'honour' and greed for land, which can provoke blood feuds lasting for generations in tribal areas. It is there in the easy availability of arms and drugs, legacies of Pakistan's decades-long involvement in the Afghan conflict.
The most dangerous form of violence in South Asia is arguably the threat of nuclear war between India and Pakistan. It colours the statements made by the leaders of both countries and underlines the fanaticism of the non-state actors, who feed off each other's thirst for the blood of 'the other'. This threat cannot be dismissed as just so much rhetoric, all sound and fury signifying nothing. In fact, it plays a major role in the escalation of tensions and violence between our countries and within our countries.
As violence becomes part of the daily discourse, it is internalized and becomes more acceptable. Talk of war eventually gives the impression that war is inevitable, that there are no other options, thus reducing the pressure to seek other options. The discourse of violence dictates terms in our region, justifying increased military spending, and diverting finances from vital areas like poverty alleviation, food, housing, healthcare, education and social infrastructures - the real issues that our people face.
It is not just finances that are diverted -- also diverted is the people's attention. As Arundhati Roy said last year in Karachi, when governments talk of war, they force the people to talk of peace. In the process, they are forced to digress from the fight for social justice that they are engaged in, many of them on a full-time basis" -- the fight against big dams and evictions, the fight for the rights of landless peasants, the fight for equality and human dignity.
The rhetoric of war, whether it is by George Bush, Ariel Sharon, Atal Bihari Vajpayee or Pervez Musharraf, gives non-state actors the cue to indulge in the other form of violence that we have all become so familiar with, using the rhetoric of religion, patriotism, or nationalism to justify their actions. There is no religion that preaches violence, or that justifies taking innocent lives. Yet, religion is routinely invoked by extremists on either side of the border who justify their violence on some righteous pretext or other.
A recent horrific example is that of a serial killer who targeted sex workers in Pakistan. In prison now, when interviewed by Geo TV, he showed no remorse. Instead, he justified it by saying that he was only following "Allah's orders" in order totop these women from their immoral way of life. "I did not aim to kill but to disable their bodies," he said, "If any of them died, that was fate - their time had come."
This may be a single example, but it illustrates a particular mindset. Those who raped and killed in Gujarat also found some way to justify their violence, and place the onus on the victim. Those who threw hand grenades in Pakistani churches similarly must have some kind of mental justification to enable them to live with themselves after taking innocent lives.
But violence in Pakistan is not exclusively directed at women and minorities, although these sections of society are undoubtedly more vulnerable - as the recent spate of attacks on churches, and even a missionary school, demonstrate. We in Pakistan cannot afford to console ourselves with the thought that there has never been an attack like the one in India which claimed the life of Australian missionary Geoffery Staines and his three sons, or that a Gujarat-like carnage has never taken place here - anything is possible in this climate of fear and intimidation, where self-righteous frenzy can take any form.
Violence is something that all citizens live with on a daily basis. Some are targeted because of belonging to one or other ethnic group (although ethnic based violence has decreased over the last few years). Some are vulnerable because they belong to the 'wrong' sect of the majority religion and are considered 'kafir' (infidel) by some extremists. Dozens of doctors have been killed over the past year just because they happened to be born into the Shi'a faith.
There is little attempt to address the issue of violence and its impact on society, particularly on the state or government level. When such debates have taken place, they only serve to reinforce negative stereotypes and beat back the voices of reason. One example is the uproar created by an attempt in the Senate (upper house of parliament) during Nawaz Sharif's tenure, to move a motion condemning the cold-blooded 'honour killing' of a young woman in a lawyer's office in Lahore - at the behest of her parents who were against her attempts at obtaining a divorce. The Senators moving the motion were shouted down abusively by those who felt that this was a 'private' matter. Almost four years after the act, her father -- a businessman and former office holder of the Peshawar Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and mother, a medical doctor -- have still not been arrested.
It is such incidents that are far more terrifying than the crude intolerance of rightwing fanatic outfits, which every now and then go on a rampage, smashing television sets and destroying satellite dishes, particularly in the NWFP and Balochistan provinces or take out processions against 'vulgarity'. Their justification for doing so is that cable television spreads 'immorality' because of the 'provocative' images of women that they broadcast - an argument that some feminists might agree with, ironically.
The threat of violence also targets 'real' women, out on the streets, or in their homes. When a section of society believes that women should look, dress and behave in a certain way and is willing to resort to violence to enforce this ethos, any woman perceived of 'transgression' is vulnerable.
A couple of years ago, a rumour spread like wildfire in Karachi, that fanatics were roaming the shopping malls with razor blades or knives to slash the bare arms of women wearing sleeveless shalwar kamiz - the sleeveless fashion had just made a comeback here. There was no truth to this rumour, which was apparently intended to intimidate women into 'covering up. In South India and Sri Lanka, women wearing shalwar kamiz feel threatened and intimidated are because of a pervasive belief that this is a 'Muslim' dress, and that they should stick to saris. In Kashmir Valley, women risk being physically attacked, disfigured by acid or even killed if they ignore warnings by militant groups to wear a burqa. Ironically, the perpetuators of these threats and violence are not just men, but also women who subscribe to that particular world view.
The underlying lesson is that dissent is dangerous, even in such personal matters as dress. Dress codes, particularly for women, have been made into a matter of national and religious honour and identity. Naturally, dissent on other, more 'important' issues, provokes equally unpleasant responses. On either side of the border, those protesting India and Pakistan's nuclear policies and demanding that the two governments dialogue instead of threaten, are routinely threatened.
Members of the Pakistan India People's Forum for Peace and Democracy were verbally abused at a press conference in Islamabad some years back by some 'patriotic' journalists, of all people, whose reaction provoked a physical attack on the PIPFPD members by some religious extremists who were also present. Government functionaries react similarly. Last August, several hundred demonstrators marching to Wagah border to express the Pakistani people's desire for peace and friendship with India, were baton-charged by para-military troops posted there, despite the fact that they had permission from the Punjab government to proceed. Earlier, Karachi police brutally dispersed a peaceful demonstration by members of the Joint Action Committee for Peace.
It speaks volumes for the State's lack of commitment to peace, that such peaceful demonstrations by law-abiding citizens are intimidated and attacked, while the violent demonstrations held by extremist groups, at which effigies and flags are burnt and hate-filled speeches made, are allowed to be held undisturbed.
There is on the whole little effort to deal with the issue of violence and intolerance. Interestingly, and perhaps predictably, it is women-led groups (sometimes including men) that have taken up the issue of violence. In one instance, members of the Women's Action Forum in Karachi tried to address the issue of ethnic violence in this city. They managed to make contact with women who had lost husbands, sons, and brothers to the violence that had been holding the city hostage. Support group sessions were held, some of them very intense and emotional, with women speaking out for the first time about their fear and sense of loss.
Most such efforts though, have largely focused on violence as it affects women, in matters related to domestic violence, rape and child abuse, mostly in Karachi, Lahore or Islamabad. However, there have been inroads in rural areas through workshops and discussion groups. In Sindh, the Sindhiani Tehrik, a women's group associated with a political party (the Awami Tehrik), has managed to reach out to many women in the smaller towns and villages also.
Insecurity of life and limb leads to an increase in depression and other mental illnesses, as well as in aggression. It is a vicious cycle.
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