We were never good at taking rejection as a people, but as men, Pakistanis don’t even make it passably human. They retaliate with counter accusations and if that does not match the insult their deified egos faced, they resort to violence. Sometimes even violence is insatiable, particularly when it comes to intimate relationships. In Multan, this one rejected suitor set the woman who said no to his romantic advances on fire. He dosed Sonia Bibi, 20, in a flammable solution and lit a match to her. An act that is as epic as it is barbaric. Half of her body was burned.
What language can women employ to explain a no that spares men the ache and the resultant backlash? As Thomas Hardy’s lead character, a young feisty single woman who rejected her suitor said, “It is difficult for a woman to define her feelings in language which is chiefly made by men to express theirs.” Suppose though that such a language was invented, the problem would still remain – many parts of this country and many a modern men do not recognize the right of a woman to say no. Period.
Our culture supports it. When women are getting married their consent is some of the most downplayed aspects of that marriage. The more silent the nod, the less obtrusive and the more ladylike. If she were sobbing instead of nodding, extra points for that. The stakes are high, she is dolled up and perfumed. Saying no is as unimaginable as rejecting a 5 course Michelin Star meal after the desert is served. Arundathi Roy aptly called this phenomenon of dolling up brides in South Asian culture: polishing firewood. We glorify silent women and demonize the rebels. This is perhaps why last week in Kabul a woman was stoned to death for fleeing a marriage she rejected with a suitor of her choice.
Our professional culture supports it. When men in power situations approach their female subordinates, it is considered fair game because she has already determined there is more to life than achieving the perfectly circular roti. Women in the workplace are constantly harassed though physical advances, work pressure and excessively low remuneration. They have little or no recourse without ruining their career prospects.
Our TV dramas and film culture are equally to blame. Women are not just routinely staked and harassed till they say yes because no means yes, but a slap to rattle them to love their oppressor is pretty routine on shows. When was the last time we saw a man in entertainment who was rejected take it with grace and move on?
So does our socio-religious doctrine. Somehow the Muslim empowered women’s stories have all been pushed back into the cervices of History and we are left with a male-dominated Historical narrative. There is a clear right of refusal women are granted in Islamic culture but it is downplayed with ferocity as if the only legs in a relationship are a man’s.
The stoning and the setting ablaze are indications that we are no longer content with acting out like someone normally would – writing despondent poetry or indulging in masochistic drugs or obsessive prayers for the beloved to have a change of heart. Instead these man are free to act out in passion because society and law recognize his passions. Not hers. Despite the man who set the Multan woman, Sonia Bibi on fire being in custody, we can be sure that a velvet gloved slap on the wrist will follow.
Meanwhile Sonia Bibi has died. Let us be assured she was in anguish and misery, even in her last hours.
Perhaps this is a world where women are only allowed to half live – with their bodies and not their will. It would only be fair to find a way for Sonia Bibi to return to a better world – more humane and less lopsided. It would also be fair to burn down half of the perpetrator, preferably the part where his consent lies.
Almost like the witch burning trials of the 1600s, these ghastly acts on women for expressing what is their command over their own lives is born out of the need to create a patriarchal social order where women don’t step out of line. Thankfully though that line is fading. Women are entering the workforce and getting educated. They have this thing called the free media and the internet. Many of them are relaying that sometimes you end up dead but most of the time men will have no choice but to take your rejection because they have learned to be empowered and protected.
Pakistan needs to be a country where men learn that grace demands the central belief that women are indeed equal and have a right to have desires that don’t include them.