Pakistan’s New Patriarchs


Malala Yousafzai during an interview in Nigeria in July. Credit Afolabi Sotunde/Reuters

KARACHI, Pakistan — There is an increasingly popular formula for political TV talk shows in Pakistan. A young, well-groomed and articulate woman introduces one or two or sometimes six middle-aged, gray-haired men, and asks them what they think of this or that. She can interrupt them to announce commercial breaks, she can call up another guest, but her basic role is confined to asking each of these all-knowing men, Sir, your opinion?

Sir’s opinion matters because he is a man. If you are a woman, you’d better be sure your hair is shiny and you can safely lead a bunch of wise men into a commercial break. None of those men ever says, Look, I don’t know, why don’t you tell us what you think?

These shows don’t reflect society. As a middle-aged graying man myself, I have never come across young women who’ll sit and listen with such deference. I once taught a class full of them, and always went in with a trembling heart. When confronted with their raw curiosity and assertive arguments, I would bristle. And then I realized I wasn’t that different from those TV pundits. I, too, am part of Pakistan’s new, well-read, well-heeled, politically correct patriarchy. We respect women, but they have to earn that by deferring to us.

This new patriarchy has been on the march in its full glory recently. Three Pakistani women have made headlines, and been told by a nation of men what was wrong with them and what could happen to them if they didn’t mend their ways.

Ayesha Gulalai Wazir, a member of Parliament, was threatened with having acid thrown in her face and her home burned down after she publicly accused Imran Khan, one of Pakistan’s most powerful politicians, of sexual harassment. She was called immoral and the kind of woman who sells herself for 24 hours. After saying that she would only share the lewd messages she says Mr. Khan sent her with a parliamentary committee, she was accused of playing political games. Never mind that she is a politician.For Ms. Siddiqui, exceptionally, we had sympathy. But that’s because she had scars to show. When women show ambition or political defiance instead, we insist that they produce the dirty text messages or their income tax returns.

The new patriarchy will respect women but it makes subtle demands: First, go get shot, get doused in acid or get raped, and then we will be with you. If a woman demonstrates that the men in a political party, in the army or on a court bench are a bunch of nincompoops, the new patriarchy responds a lot like the old patriarchy: She is asking for trouble.

Ms. Wazir was asking for trouble so badly that she entered politics, joined Mr. Khan’s party, won a seat in the National Assembly and then left the party denouncing its culture of harassment. Has she no shame? And what about her sister who plays professional squash in shorts? Ms. Wazir really has no honor.

Then there is Ms. Jahangir, the old scourge of the Pakistani establishment, who for years has spoken truth to power. While some of the country’s most powerful men have lined up to lick the boots of every new military dictator, Ms. Jahangir’s activism has sent those dictators into impotent fits of rage. What do you do with a character like that? Photoshop her into a witch and accuse her of being a traitor, of course.

The new patriarchy has attended a gender studies course; it knows not to grab a woman in a dark corner. It is happy to bring the kids to school and do the dishes. It is proud of not being a patriarchy. This patriarchy prefers to destroy women on prime-time TV. It wants to know, in all seriousness, why women accuse some of its honorable men. Where is the proof?

Ms. Siddiqui wears her proof on her face, but her path is almost impossible to tread. First, she had the good fortune of surviving 23 stabs to her upper body, then she had the courage to press charges, and then she grew a skin thick enough to withstand character assassination. Yes, she is being hailed as a role model on TV, but really, in a society where all talk about women boils down to their being mothers, sisters and daughters, who wants a role model like that? Shouldn’t women just try to stay safe?

Earlier this year, I tried to help a friend file a criminal complaint with the police in a small provincial city after his sister was murdered, allegedly by her husband and his family. For the first time in my life, I saw a post-mortem report. It listed her wounds. I counted 17 above the neck. The police officers kept saying that my friend’s sister had died of food poisoning, that the report said the 17 wounds hadn’t really been fatal. A gender-sensitive male acquaintance who was trying to help out asked what exactly she had been up to anyway — because, you know, no man would do that kind of thing to a woman without a reason.

Pakistan’s most famous fighter and victim is Malala Yousafzai. Every time the men of Pakistan see her addressing a world forum or meeting a head of state, half of them go into convulsions because they feel dishonored. The other half well up with the tears of proud parents but shake their heads because they believe she is being used by Western powers as a tool for their own political ends. Pakistan’s new patriarchs don’t approve of a girl being shot in the face, but when she survives, they want to decide what to do with that face.