Not too long ago, women who attended the Aurat Marches held around Pakistan were relentlessly attacked for holding placards that offended the delicate sensibilities of many of the country’s men. Apparently, brandishing a sign telling men to make their own food and find their own socks represented an utterly unacceptable level of discourse, worthy of nothing but the most vigorous denunciation. Such was the reaction to the Aurat March that Orya Maqbool Jan, a man who in a different kind of country would be little more than a neighbourhood crank baying at the moon, devoted a significant amount of time on his TV show to frothily attack women for asking to be spared the ordeal of receiving unsolicited pictures of male genitalia. For Jan and his ilk, the act of sending such images is not nearly as offensive as openly speaking against it, with the twisted logic behind this ‘argument’ being that women possessing the confidence to speak openly about sexual topics somehow represent an existential threat to the moral fabric of society. That this is absurd should go without saying; the reaction to the Aurat March is nothing more than toxic, insecure masculinity lashing out against anything that disturbs the patriarchal order. Indeed, it could be argued that mainstream notions of femininity and propriety are themselves social constructs, rather than immutable categories, designed to induce patterns of behaviour acceptable to the maintenance of the patriarchal status quo.

When expressing opposition to the Aurat March, one of the tropes consistently being brought up was the idea that the March and its participants were representative of a small, liberal, and elite section of society disconnected from the everyday issues and struggles of ‘real’ women. Here, the argument was that concerns related to freedom of expression and movement were somehow less significant than issues such as rape, domestic violence, and poverty. In reality, the Aurat March (and its attendant manifesto) did raise all of these issues and more, just as it also provided space to a wide cross-section of society (although media coverage tended to focus almost exclusively on some of the more ‘sensational’ parts of the protest). Similarly, it is just disingenuous to claim that issues of freedom do not cut across class lines. However, what is most important is to recognize that the men who made these criticisms of the March do not really care about the ‘real’ issues they sought to highlight. If they did, one would expect that they would be the first to rush out and condemn the rampant violence and misogyny that is part of everyday life in Pakistan. In the weeks since the Aurat March there have been numerous incidents of rape, murder, and abuse that should have brought all these people out onto the streets; according to a report in the Guardian, for example, no less than a dozen cases of honour killing were registered in Pakistan in the past two weeks alone (with 2776 such killings reportedly taking place in Pakistan over the past two years). Where is all the male outrage now? Why has Orya Maqbool Jan not spent time on his TV show denouncing those who facilitate, perpetrate, and tolerate these killings? Why is it that when a young woman is killed by her father for not waking him up for sehri, as happened this week in Pakpattan or when a women’s rights activist is murdered by her husband in Badin, those critics of the Aurat March who argued it should focus on ‘real’ issues remain silent?

As it only to be expected in the Land of the Pure, matters are made worse by the tendency to blame the victims of violence and abuse for their travails while simultaneously extending every manner of indulgence to the perpetrators of said violence and abuse. Two recent cases provide a good illustration of this. For the past week, in response to reports of the rape of a 15 year old girl, the usual suspects have taken to social media to attack the character of the victim’s mother, claiming that because the mother was friends with the rapist and had interacted with him socially, she was somehow to blame for what happened to her daughter. In what has become an all too familiar sequence of events, the outrage that should have been directed towards the perpetrator of this heinous act has instead been unleashed on the victim and her mother, all but suggesting that rape is an acceptable consequence for stepping outside the boundaries of acceptable behaviour dictated by society. In a different vein but with a similar dynamic, reports of a student voyeur at Aga Khan University, one of Pakistan’s top medical colleges, have been met with an astounding level of sympathy for the student in question; after he was caught having been caught filming his female peers and friends in secret and without their consent in bathrooms and other private settings, there has been an outpouring of support for the student with people repeatedly arguing that whatever punishment he receives, if any, should not be something that jeopardizes his career! Once again, there has not been a shortage of voices demanding empathy for the perpetrator of the crime while completely ignoring the effects his actions have had on his victims and may have on any patients unfortunate enough to be treated by him should he be allowed to continue with his training. In many countries, this kind of voyeurism is a criminial offence and yet here in Pakistan, not only is it being brushed aside as a relatively trivial thing, the university administration itself has reportedly chosen to take no significant action against the student.

That misogyny is deeply ingrained within Pakistan is not difficult to demonstrate. For years, official statistics and international reports have confirmed that this country is one of the worst places in the world to be a woman and If that is not sufficient proof, the lived experiences of women here provide ample evidence for how bad things are. Whether it is the rampant violence and abuse that takes place all over the country, or the culture of impunity and indulgence that enables men to get away with it, it is clear that things need to change and that women and their allies must be supported in the efforts to overthrow the status quo.