Last week, while reading news online I saw the headline “Pregnant woman, aged 23, stoned to death by own family outside of Lahore High Court”. To most it might sound like one of the million awful stories in the news each day – but for me it struck a nerve in a way that has only deepened since.
I’m one month into a three month engagement of working 4-days a week in Pakistan. The Lahore High Court is just about a mile away from where I stay – where I was comfortably sitting at the moment of the attack.
This proximity was my first thought. The insanity of something so physically near yet based on such incomprehensible logic or morals. Our existence was so close, maybe I’ve passed her on the street, we’re even the same age- but our experiences are opposite sides of a coin in a much realer sense than simply life and death.
For your understanding, the basic points of the story are as follows: The woman wanted to marry a man who she loved (and was pregnant by). Her family wanted her to marry a cousin and so went to the court saying she was kidnapped and raped – trying to get the male put in jail. The woman was on the way to the court with a declaration saying she was marrying the man out of her own free will. When she arrived at the court a cousin tried to shoot her, but missed. Then more than 20 relatives attacked her with bricks, crushing her skull.
After reading a few articles on the event, I spoke with some family and friends, here in Pakistan and abroad, about what happened. What I realized was how quick to disassociate people are, and how if I didn’t have the similarity of space, maybe I too would do so. The idea of “they acting like this” or “their problems” are so easy to consider, what’s more difficult is having this event make us think about the similarity to family quarrels, public violence, and female oppression in our own societies. Once we acknowledge that these issues exist everywhere, and give it a foundation that we too share- we can begin to explore the differences in extremity and maybe talk about solutions.
A large part of this disassociation is spurred on by the media- especially in regards to the illogical links to this event and Pakistan being a Muslim nation. Islam fully accepts “love” (self-arranged) marriages and clearly forbids forced marriages, and so shouldn’t play a part in this story. Why it is used, is to emphasize the difference, making it easier to see the attackers as unfamiliar outsiders.
But pushing beyond this attempt to help our disassociation, we can see the foundation of similarity and how the pulse behind this murder is part of something in every society: sexism and ownership. Why people find it acceptable to be unkind (whether saying bad things or killing) is because they value others less than they value themselves. Women most often get the brunt of this oppression because gender is a dichotomy that exists everywhere humanity does, and because it is an easily discernible difference. In family structures, sexism can take on the role of ownership and modern day slavery- i.e “The daughters’ only value is to the father, rather than to themselves”. When this value was taken away by the woman deciding herself who she wants to marry, the reaction was to devalue her through murder. When a parent sees a child’s value as “family reputation” and then the child comes out as homosexual, changes religion, or gets an awful piercing – often they are devalued by being disowned as a way of saying “you have devalued yourself and you do not exist to us or as a part of us”- a symbolic killing. Or, when a woman in America gets 70% of the salary of a male counterpart, she is being devalued as a contributing employee. It happens everywhere, very often to women, and through this extreme event we can reflect on how we skew value of others and maybe think about how we can fix that.
What sometimes makes this harder to accomplish, and did very much so in this case, is when a crowd or the public is involved. More than 20 people attacked the couple, and more than 30 (including police officers), were onlookers. Are we so afraid to hold different value systems than others in our own community that we don’t stand up for someone when they are being attacked?!
If your initial thought to the question above was that this would only happen “over there” then consider the viral video from a week or two ago that showed an actor passing out twice on a crowded Western street, once in a suit and another time dressed to look homeless. When he was in the suit, representing someone that is valued in society, everyone came to his rescue asking if he was okay. When he looked homeless, and unvalued, not a single person stopped to help.
It’s scary to think about standing up for someone, especially in a violent situation, but what’s scarier is when no efficient system is in place to ensure this happens. I’m referring to the on-looking police – which is where the focus of initial reform should be- in proper laws that protect citizens and a police force and judicial system dedicated to righting wrongs. We need to think about how we can make sure we equally value all persons and also make certain that our governments are doing so; governments should be the role models to their citizens.
Of course, for good story telling, one similarity is usually promoted- that of the victim. Which is why the headlines refers to her age, pregnancy, and the story to her “love marriage”. Promoting this familiarity is obviously good- but we need it on both sides so that we don’t just feel bad for the victim but so that we also work to understand our differences with the attackers. Because only when we deeply consider both, can we truly hope that it won’t happen to ourselves AND make sure we don’t do so to others.
It all sounds good, right? The idea of first finding shared foundations, then understanding the differences, and finally seeing how to bridge those differences to a shared respect for all humanity… but is it possible? How hard is it?
Why this event has caused me so many troubling thoughts is that it’s made me momentarily not so optimistic. I can write and talk on and on about the theories above because I’ve studied them closely and I’ve worked in many communities around the world to promote this in small ways- but can change be had with such an insanely low starting point, with a largely unwilling population, and deep societal acceptability (conscious or not) of hatred for others? Can it be done on a large scale? This situation of course being the same in my home country the USA as well as here in Pakistan and all over the world on various issues.
I ask because this is partly what I’m actually here to be doing, and even more so because it is what I’ve been trying to do the past 6+ years. This murder showed me how hard the battle ahead is – how deeply these (de)values are ingrained in people. Can we change anyone’s mind? Even just a little?
It is the last question that, through these moments of doubt, keeps me going. It is a fight worth pursuing, not one we’ll likely see the finish line of, but one that has rewards with each step. To stay motivated I just have to focus on those small rewards, and be guided by and push hard for the end-state but not expect it of anyone, including myself.