Tarar Square

It's time mothers talk to their sons about respecting women

Women's rights are human rights, and it all starts with the first woman: the mother.

 |  Tarar Square  |  8-minute read |   28-01-2018
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The 2017 and 2018 Women March's in the US and other countries declared that women's rights be considered human rights. "The mission of Women's March is to harness the political power of diverse women and their communities to create transformative social change." Equal opportunities, equal salaries, right to justice, right to speak without shame, women supporting women.

The #MeToo campaign appears to have impacted discourses about sexual harassment and abuse globally, highlighting the phenomenon of silence and shame of females whereas it is male perpetrators who do the shameful acts. In a patriarchal Pakistan, a debate about safety of female children, for once, has become headline news after the horrific rape-murder of a seven-year-old girl.

It seems that everywhere women and even men have started to voice their views about a subject that is as ubiquitous as the polluted air most of us breathe in every day but is still considered a taboo for fear of "shame" - of the female victim/survivor, and her family. In our part of the world, the premise of a man's honour is connected to the anatomy and behaviour of female members of his family, and the rot starts very young, imperceptibly at first, blatantly later. It starts at home. It starts with the mother.

Laws against rape and violence against women exist everywhere. In the West, despite high crime rates in some places, there is a system of law that works most of the time. Nevertheless, the reality is stinging: crimes against women are rampant despite laws, and despite fear of very strict punishments. That is true in India, it is true in Pakistan. The fear of shame culminates in a culture of silence, thus sanctioning an environment where women despite being a societal figure of respect and honour remain vulnerable, becoming victim to crimes of violence, abuse, rape and murder. Crimes against females, of all ages, and even young boys and teenagers, end up becoming statistics, and fading tickers on television screens that consider political games being played for power more important than social injustices that affect lives and sanity of countless people.

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There is no sustained interest, except on some activists' Twitter timeline, in a topic that is never-ending but is as commonplace as the mundane stories of suffering of countless nameless, faceless people.

Debates matter, protests matter, Twitter hashtags matter, keeping the topic under discussion matters. It all matters: media awareness, implementation of laws, elemental sex education, about good and bad touch, keeping children safe, teaching teenagers the importance of remaining safe within their environment, lecturing males on being respectful towards females. Heartening it is to see a continued debate about women's rights globally, in myriad forms, and gradually, there will be changes that make this world a better place for everyone. Until that happens...

Focusing on status of females in my own country, a country that is almost 97 per cent Muslim, I often wonder how the followers of a religion in which men are categorically mandated to lower their eyes - "Say to the believing men that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty: that will make for greater purity for them" (Holy Quran: 24:30) - got it so wrong, so badly, and that too almost their entire lives. Children, teenagers of both sexes and women of all ages are harassed, abused, brutalised and raped. If religion had been the balancing force in the lives of all those who recite the kalima, offer namaz, take Allah's name repeatedly in the course of a day, bring the Hereafter in almost every second discourse about their worldly lives, and hide their acts from men with full awareness that the divine power they believe in is watching, no child or adult would have been harmed in a country that considers religion the essence of their existence.

In Netflix's Mindhunter, a David Fincher show about some FBI agents in mid-1970s conducting a study to understand the psychology of crime, the initial interviews with extremely violent rapists-murderers showed that all of them besides their unmentionable predilection for inflicting pain on females had very complicated, often dysfunctional, relationships with their mothers. And that brings me to my first and most important point: it all starts with the mother. While the majority of the males with bad childhoods do not become psychopaths, sociopaths, serial rapists and murderers, the very fact that even apparently "harmless" males consider inappropriate touching, sexism, misogyny and harassment of women as innocuous acts of their everyday lives, shows there is something fundamentally wrong with our world.

Beyond media debates, conferences on women's rights, social media hashtags, there is a large number of Pakistanis who are toiling to earn a decent living for themselves and their families remain unaffected by mainstream discourses on gender inequality, violence against women/children/anyone weaker physically, inherent misogyny and blatant sexism. And while a majority of them don't go around groping and harassing women and children, those who do will not stop just because there is a debate on TV or outrage on Twitter.

What can be done

Start teaching children - of all backgrounds - on how to be good individuals. While children from financially upper-middle and upper class backgrounds learn to vocalise their issues, and are seldom left completely unattended, children from underprivileged backgrounds are forced to have childhoods that contain shoddy schooling, and long hours in a day without the presence of both their parents. People need to be taught to be empathetic, responsive and aware: you may not have many good things to give your children but you can teach them to be good persons. That way you gift your next generation the best of values.

Here, grassroots teaching must be done: through schools, mosques, media, billboards, door-to-door awareness campaigns. If that can be done for votes, why not for our next generations to be good and decent?

Interestingly, it is mostly people from underprivileged backgrounds that have the guts to report a sexual crime against children and women.

Sexual abusers are everywhere: in homes, schools, offices, homes of people you know, places you consider safe. What needs to change has to come from the very basic: your home. But what can change at any stage: outward sexism, unashamed misogyny and the culture of shame and silence. Males and even females are to be blamed for that. And it starts, I repeat, with the mother.

It starts with the mother teaching her daughter to be good instead of imparting the value of gender equality teaching her son the don'ts. It is about both parents, especially fathers, incorporating wrong ideas of masculinity couched in outward signs of physical power.

It is demonstrated in schoolgirls labelling their class fellows and even friends "fast". It is the existence of female endorsement and participation in the phenomenon of male demeaning of females. It is worsened with empowered women shrugging off their male friends' sexual unscrupulousness as "men will be men". It is further propelled with women "other-ing" females in boxes of slut, whore, home-breaker, man-eater.

It is manifested with women remaining silent or passive when men do something unpleasant during sex. It is reinforced with women's uncommunicativeness about their sexuality and letting men fantasise of unrealistic scenarios where the only thing that matters is man's pleasure - the globally thriving porn industry and its huge viewership in Pakistan are a testament to the power of misplaced ideas of dynamics of sex. It is female conditioning of silence after suffering marital rape, of not opening up about the sexual side of their lives even to their confidants. It is the propagation of the phenomenon of silence about the word that is one of the main drivers behind violence against children and women: sex. That silence is noisy, but only within a victim-survivor's mind.

Whether your son studies at Eton or a state-run school, whether he is a mathematical genius or a football star or both, whether he is being raised like a prince or is a daily wage-earner, the onus of the formation of his early personality is on the mother, and in the absence of his mother, his primary caregiver. Fathers, schooling, friends, external factors and experiences all play a role, but how a man treats a woman starts with his mother. Even in an abusive environment a mother's love and guidance can help a child learn how to overcome the odds. This is what I believe and this is what I practise: teach your son to be a good human being who should be kind to all around him - siblings, cousins, friends, class and school mates, neighbours, people working in the house, in school, shops, restaurants, the underprivileged, and of course animals - and as a man he will not grope, harass, exhibit sexism and misogyny, disrespect women, or inflict violence of any kind on a child or an adult.

Women's rights are human rights, and it all starts with the first woman: the mother. Let's learn to acknowledge one another beyond the labels, beyond the judgments.

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Writer

Mehr Tarar Mehr Tarar @mehrtarar

A former op-ed editor of Daily Times, Pakistan, and a freelance columnist.

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