I was six when I first consciously disobeyed my father. Fetch me the frying pan, he had instructed me, as he shoved my mother down. I stood barefoot in the kitchen, eyeing it, examining the circular ridges on its back. They would leave visible scars she might not be able to explain at work. I stayed in the kitchen, and listened to the thud of his hands battering her, listened to July rain battering Karachi as street drains overflowed and electric wires snapped. I did not fetch him the frying pan.
I was eight years old when I vaguely understood the concept of irony. I lay on my stomach, on my second hand bed, drowsy but awake enough to appreciate the soothing coolness of colorless ointment on my back, appreciate how gingerly he observed the damage, layering each angry scab he had put on me with a soft peck of Polyfax.
I was fourteen when I perfected how to get away with minimal bruising. First, anticipate his movement towards me, then find a corner to crouch in, head bent, hands clasped to my face, face burrowed into the void by my chest, knees drawn up. His chosen weapon those days was a flat, blue, rubber chappal, much softer than his flat, broad hands. Six or seven blows and he would stop and I would not be too badly hurt. Afterwards, I would sneak into the nearest bathroom and check my face in the mirror, turn around and check my back, twist my arms, press behind my legs, making a mental note of each new mark, each blue-green scar, each prick of blood, each invisible patch of pain.
You may ask why I am describing snippets of my story, summoning painful memories I have suppressed over a lifetime in a coffee shop on the other side of the world. I will tell you it is because these experiences are not mine alone. They are part of a familial, communal, national experience, borne exclusively by women. Being assaulted by a male family member is something many, if not most, Pakistani women continue to face in one form or another.
In 2011, a Reuters survey by 213 gender experts from five continents called Pakistan the third most dangerous country for women in the world. Ninety percent of Pakistani girls face abuse at home, according to the survey. In 2013, a study of six urban police districts showed that 4 out of 71 officers surveyed were unaware of the Prevention of Anti-Women Practices Act of 2011 that prohibits violence against women. At least 5,800 cases of violence against women were reported in Punjab during 2013 alone. In 2014, this number had risen to 7,010. However, not every incident is able to become a statistic. Many women never make it to the police station. I know this because my mother is one of them. For the last 24 years, she has survived a violent marriage in silence. For the last 20 years, I have helped her do so.
In spite of these stories and numbers, a network of Pakistani clerics and Islamist political parties are telling the world that there is no need to bolster legal protection against domestic violence around them. In 2014, a JUI(F) female legislator asked us angrily, “Isn’t it breaking up a family if husband goes to jail for beating up wife?” Fazal-ur-Rahman, chief of the Jamiat-Ulema-e-Islam has since continued to caution us. “(The bill) will cause divisions within families and the rate of divorce will increase,” he said. In other words, if women like my mother and I had access to a hotline for domestic abuse and dedicated shelters to hear female complaints of male inflicted violence, it would make men feel victimized and insecure, cause divorce rates to soar and lead to eastern values being defeated at the hands of western idealism. Rahman and his supporters feel that such measures are akin to an addressing ‘the wife as the husband and the husband as the wife.’ In their world, it seems that husbands have a right to violence and wives have a duty towards silence. To introduce legislation into the equation is to upset this fine societal balance.
I grew up listening to the same kinds of questions thrown at my mother. Twice, when she fled to her brother’s house after being assaulted badly, he coaxed her into going back to her husband for — as they put it — the sake of the family. The third time she was attacked, she did not ask him for help. Instead, she drank a glass of dishwashing liquid in a half-hearted attempt to try and kill herself. Our family doctor was summoned. He talked to her calmly by her bed, laughing about “domestic squabbles,” pumping her stomach. I stayed awake that night, looking at the plate of vomited-out yellow Lemon Max mixed with her blood and bile.
My mother and I never had the assurance of legal support. But, like every resilient mother-daughter pair, we constructed our own brand of resistance and found ways to keep ourselves alive. When my father hit her early in the morning, she would still go to work that day. When he ripped her crisp white kurta into thin strips in a fit of rage, the strips were pieced back together into a mini-sized shirt for me. When he shut me in my room after putting the lights out, daring me to switch them back on, telling me this would be the night I would learn what a broken limb felt like, she came to my room to switch the light back on. When he smashed a black forest birthday cake we had selected onto the floor before I could blow out the candles, we wiped the floor together. My mother cleaned the house on Sundays, dusting the same plates and ornaments she was sometimes beaten with, playing her mix of Punjabi music and Lionel Richie on our portable stereo.
I wonder now if our experiences would have been any different if there were a phone number we could dial for help. I wonder if we would have made it to a family court to speak to female officers about the last bruise that was inflicted, the last threat that was issued to us. I cannot reconstruct my past, nor can I speak for my mother who has more courage and tolerance than any human being should ever have to employ. But I do think my father might have thought twice about asking me to fetch the frying pan, if he knew that I could instead dial a phone number and have him arrested. I do believe my mother would have appreciated the knowledge that when other male family members turned her away, there was another roof that could offer us refuge.
A vast majority of victims of domestic violence in Pakistan are much poorer, much more helpless than my mother or me. I always had food on the table and books to read. My mother worked full-time jobs and drove a car she had paid for herself. The irony is that in spite of our comforts — education, access to three meals a day, awareness of social justice issues — we were still regular victims of domestic abuse. If you think most battered women are from low-income, under-educated families, we offer you a good counterargument. Patriarchal violence is never contained to just one level of society. We all need help, some of us more than others.
My mother and I are both following the rebuttals offered by religious clerics to increased protection against domestic violence, albeit in mutual, amiable silence. I have not been beaten up for fifteen months now, and it is perhaps the longest I have gone without verbal and physical abuse. Part of the reason is because I no longer live at home. I am in another country on another continent. My mother is still at home is too sick and weak to be assaulted. It would kill her. She still likes Lionel Richie. She dislikes it when people compare my eyes to hers, because her dark brown now discolored pupils house the kind of sadness that comes with a lifetime of deep pain. Meanwhile, I continue to flinch at loud noises, avoid violent films and substitute “hit” for “beaten” because being hit is not the same as being beaten. I am not beaten. I do not accept defeat.
The writer is a Pakistani student working towards her undergraduate degree in the US. Her academic work focuses on the intersection of gender and politics in postcolonial societies.