This week on Pakistani news and social media, headlines such as ‘woman allegedly raped by police’ and ‘girl raped by two cousins in AJK’ have, unsurprisingly, caught my attention—as they usually do. On Tuesday, September 8th, 2020, a woman was raped on the Sialkot-Lahore motorway. Her car had run out of gas, and while waiting for help to arrive after calling a relative for assistance, her car windows were smashed by two men, and she and her three young children were dragged out of the car. What followed was a stark and glaring example of patriarchal violence that occurs far too often, a type of violence that has been normalized and established as inherent. The woman was gang-raped in front of her children, and when the CCPO (Capital Chief Police Officer) of Lahore decided to give his two cents on national media; he blamed and shamed the survivor, citing that it was her fault for being out so late, for being careless when it came to checking her car’s gas tank, and suggested no blame on the men who sexually violated and assaulted her.
Read that again and ask yourself: What kind of world do we live in, one where a woman is blamed for the involuntarily violence that is imposed on her body? I, as a Pakistani femme, grew up in a country where majority of its male leaders have suggested that it is a woman’s fault if she is raped; that she “asked” for it, and that her “dishonourable” actions were the cause for being sexually exploited. In 2016, I wrote about Pakistan’s pre-marital sex culture for VICE, labelling the nation’s patriarchal ideology as hypocritical, policing, and antagonistic. I also emphasized the importance of sex education, women’s right to express their sexualities and reproductive health—for female pleasure is just as important as male pleasure, and women are not machines simply for reproductive purposes. I have been labelled as both a revolutionary and a “prostitute” (depending on who you ask). The latter represents a large quadrant of Pakistan’s violent hypermasculinity. Umar Sheikh, CCPO, seems to fit within this demographic of men who perpetuate rape culture.
Fortunately, many were outraged at the CCPO’s mentality and words, and protested to request his removal. The survivor herself, traumatized, has requested Prime Minister Imran Khan for Umar Sheikh’s removal—yet so far, no action has been taken against him.
Rage is a valid emotion, and the rage of Pakistani women deserves to be seen and heard. Through this rage, we birthed the Azadzenana campaign (our translation: ‘freedom of the feminine’) here in Toronto, Ontario, where there is a large Pakistani-immigrant diaspora from different ethno-cultural and socio-economic backgrounds. This campaign is organized by myself, a 26 year-old Toronto-based writer, comedian, and feminist studies major whose work focuses on issues of gendered violence and women’s trauma in South Asia, and my co-organizer and friend, Momina Ali, who is a 25 year-old Toronto-based activist, artist, and scientist. As a survivor of sexual abuse and assault myself, I understand how powerful and uplifting it can be to have your story validated and be supported by other women. We have started this campaign as comrades to remind our sisters that they are not alone, that we will fight for them, and that we hope to accomplish this by garnering international global attention that focuses on Pakistan’s rampant sexual violence crisis, which is a systemic human rights issue and a violation of women’s agency and health.
On Friday, September 25th, we will be outside the Consulate General of Toronto from 4:00pm to 5:00pm, with our demands for systemic reform in Pakistan. Our demands include:
We are stepping up and claiming the agency that is inherently our own, as Pakistani women, and we will not back down until our system acknowledges and upholds our rights.
*All COVID-19 protocols will be observed (masks and sanitizer provided). If you are based in Toronto/GTA or Ontario and would like to attend Friday’s rally but may require transportation from Downtown Toronto to Vaughan, please message me on Instagram @zarahaider.