If there is one thing for which the religious right should thank Aurat March and Mera Jism Meri Marzi, it is that a 17-letter slogan has galvanized them in a way few issues have ever before—if at all.
It is rather odd to see TLP’s Khadim Rizvi, Lal Masjid’s Maulana Abdul Aziz and JUI-F’s Maulana Fazl ur Rehman in agreement and at the vanguard of a human rights and gender equality debate, given the hatred and violence they have instigated, justified, and committed in the past.
The religious right’s opposition to Aurat March has not, however, been limited to just words. The marchers are being threatened with violence online. There are calls to stop the march by force if needed. Jamia Hafsa activists defaced Aurat March murals in an act that was more than symbolic. The Aurat March activists are facing a real threat.
And yet these fears are rarely taken seriously. Women rarely ever see the authorities investigate online threats against them with the kind of rigour reserved for ethnonationalist movements. Violence against women is not seen as the kind of extremism that is as worrying for our society or state, as sectarian militancy is for example.
The Terrorism-Misogyny Nexus
Terrorism, throughout the decades and across the spectrum, sits on a common denominator of toxic and violent misogyny, a deep abiding hatred and prejudice against women. This mindset works by misusing and distorting religious interpretations and cultural values to selectively impose only certain kinds of roles and identities based on gender, while nullifying or demonizing all others—even by force. Especially by force.
What else is the exemplification of misogyny than the act of a man shooting an 11-year-old girl in the head because she had the audacity to speak out against her oppressors and run a ‘smear campaign’ against militancy? Misogyny explains why some of the first actions of militant groups in Swat were to police women, by preventing them from working, to ascribing a dress code, and even limiting their movement.
This is also why militants have specifically targeted women’s education, under the thinly veiled excuse of fighting ‘secular’ or ‘western’ learning systems. The aim has been clear from sectarian terrorists in Balochistan targeting universities to the militant rampage targeting girls schools in KP. They use extreme force to stop the infiltration of ‘foreign’ or ‘vulgar’ ideas into women, even if it involves killing them. This is the face of misogyny.
So we ask: Does this mean all misogynists are terrorists? Of course not. But are all terrorists misogynistic? Consider this evidence:
Philip Manhaus, who stormed a mosque in Oslo ‘with the intention of killing as many Muslims as possible’ allegedly killed his 17-year-old step sister prior to it.
Amiram Ben-Uliel, the Jewish extremist accused of firebombing a Palestinian family home which killed three people, in 2015, was so fixated on his views of female subjugation that he refused to even look at a woman during his trial.
Nicolas Cruz, the teenager who killed 17 people at a high school in Florida, in 2018, was regularly abusive towards his ex-girlfriend, and was expelled after getting in a fight with her new boyfriend, culminating in his heinous attack.
Omar Mateen, who killed 49 people at a nightclub in Orlando in 2016 on the behest of ISIS, physically abused his former wife on a regular basis, and kept her hostage from her own family.
James Alex, who ran his car into a crowd in Charlottesville, regularly beat his mother, and constantly threatened her with a knife.
Salman Abedi, who blew himself up in Manchester Arena in 2017 and killed 22, once punched a female classmate in the head because ‘he didn’t approve of what she wore’.
Rachid Redoune, the London Bridge attacker who killed eight people, physically abused his wife, who eventually left him, and sowed the seeds for his terrorist assault five months later.
Across the world, toxic masculinity is starting to emerge as a critical indicator of potential violent extremist behavior. Researchers noticed alarming patterns in far right groups showing confusion over masculinity, skewed views of gender, feelings of entitlement with regard to women, and systematic targeting of women in the online space.
This has also now made its way to Pakistan, with dedicated groups of young adults trolling, bullying, abusing, stalking or doxing women in the cyberspace.
And yet here, it remains largely unaddressed because in Pakistan, such narratives are couched in the veneer of cultural supremacy and toxic populism.
Cultural Supremacy and the Fear of ‘Feminisation’
The ideology of misogyny within extremists speaks of deep concern over ‘foreign’ ideologies influencing women, compromising our cultural or religious values, and resulting in our literal or figurative ‘impotence’ against foreign cultures. And it’s not just limited to groups within Pakistan, or even Islamist militancy.
While we all looked at the Christchurch massacre as an Islamophobic terrorist attack, Brendan Tarrant’s manifesto didn’t begin with a tirade against Islam. It began with the words, “It’s the birthrates. It’s the birthrates. It’s the birthrates… Strong men do not get ethnically replaced, allow their culture to degrade. Weak men have created this situation and strong men are needed to fix it.”
This fear of emasculation is also at the heart of TTP senior figure Adnan Rasheed, who justifies his attacks on polio vaccination teams, by accusing them of sterilizing Muslim men, and emasculating our people.
In 2011, Anders Breivik killed 69 people Norway in one of the most violent terrorist attacks in recent memory. While the attack is largely viewed as an example of Islamophobic terrorism, his manifesto doesn’t talk about religious narratives. His concern is over Europe “transforming a patriarchy into a matriarchy” that “intends to deny the intrinsic worth of native Christian European heterosexual males.” In his view, the ‘feminisation of European culture’ has reduced men to an emasculated subspecies.
You can draw a direct line between these ideologies and the concept that events like Aurat March are byproducts of a ‘foreign’ agenda that seeks to encourage the degradation of women. After all, isn’t that what the controversy over Mera Jism Meri Marzi is? Despite multiple, multiple attempts to explain what the slogan really means, the naysayers keep coming back to the primitive sexual component, because at the heart of this is the fear of cultural infiltration arising from sexual autonomy.
In actuality, however, this is just another attempt to police women’s bodies and behavior in a quest to maintain our cultural masculinity as supreme. The real irony of this, is that the harbingers of this view attempt to show themselves as the true defenders of women.
Toxic Populism and Masculinity
Campaigns such as Haya Day by Jamia Hafsa are just the latest effort to delegitimize such movements by castigating them or attempting to portray them as foreign agenda driven. It is a tactic extremist groups use often, by selectively “empowering women” within the confines of the patriarchal culture to prove that the most emancipatory action for a woman is to be completely devoted to her functional identity and anything else is nothing short of a cardinal sin or existential crisis.
The tactic is simple: Use the most extreme examples in the West to show how disrespectful they are of women, how sexual liberty actually insults women by commodifying their bodies, how concepts such as divorce and abortion are endemic to our values, etc., etc. In contrast, then showcase how our cultures are respectful of women’s bodies through “haya” and “purdah”, that limits on women’s movement, occupations and education actually promote family values, and that the true strength of a woman in society is through her function as a mother, sister and wife.
It’s a narrative that has enormous appeal, especially amongst the masses. That’s why extremist groups are able to persuade not just men, but also women, to join their cause. It’s also why these groups find a lot of social acceptability, as these views are coated in populist rhetoric to shore up support for their cause.
Daesh took this to a new level with their conceptualization of Jihadi feminism. A study by Europol revealed how the outfit disparagingly describes those who do not defend their Muslim sisters and do not take part in jihad as “effeminate” males. Furthermore, women were to be valued as mothers to the next generation as guardians of the group ideology, or as traditional stay-at-home women who support their families and instilled in them the love of jihad and sacrifice.
The TTP used the same methodology en masse. Fazlullah radicalized women in Swat valley, used them to shame men into joining the movement, and then asked them to send their jewelry to fund the militant outfit.
What Lies Ahead
Rather than confronting these concerns, we have underestimated them at our peril. The regressive and violent attitudes towards women in our society have been normalized, justified (aka victim blaming/slut shaming, etc.), or seen as a byproduct not of the system, but as isolated incidents of madness.
There is a refusal to understand the dangers that come from the policing of women’s behavior and its bodies. Even when an attack does occur, the majority of the attention is on the act: Who were the perpetrators? Who were the victims? Who were the facilitators? What was the trigger event?
But there is no focus on the build-up, the arguments that instill in young men and women the notion to defend religious or cultural honor, even if it means the destruction of lives and property. Toxic masculinity is at the very center of this mindset. It simultaneously invokes an imagined reality through patriarchy, reinforces the need to defend it, and provides the rationale for justifying its defense through violence. It distorts our religion, our culture and our norms, and sows the seeds for extremist violence.
Yet we are still far from recognizing these links. The controversies over Aurat March are still being seen from the traditional and regressive war of genders prism. The dangers these activists are facing, both offline and online, are not being recognized as actions of violent extremists. Men such as Abdul Aziz and Khadim Rizvi have continuously used polemics and skewed religious distortions to carry out heinous acts. Is our society prepared for this? Or is there at best inattention towards this, and at worst tacit approval?
My fear is that if anything untoward happens, it will be seen as a case of both sides provoking violence, reducing these activists to perpetrators responsible for their own denigration.
This isn’t just about Aurat March. This is about the idea of hatred and violence against women, and why our patriarchal structure can no longer afford to have this blindspot, given its proclivity for extremist violence. Our state and society need to consider this issue as a critical threat like countries around the world have, and develop mitigation strategies to cope with it, rather than a wait-and-see approach, which only focuses on the act and not the systemic thinking that caused it.
I hope we are not too late to understand this.
The writer is an Islamabad-based journalist and academic and tweets @zafarsmu