The Pakistani He-Man

Spearhead Research Opinion – 05.09.2016

By Xenia Rasul Khan Mahsud
Research Analyst, Spearhead Research

“In torture, it is in part the obsessive display of agency that permits one person’s body to be translated into another person’s voice, that allows real human pain to be converted into a regime’s fiction of power” – Elaine Scarry

modern_sisyphusSoaring intolerance, relentless carnage, and the stupefying acceptance of both is what the Pakistani political scene has been reduced to. Whispers in drawing rooms, and analysts cutting each other off on talk shows, have all fashioned narratives attempting to explain events and sentiments that make the cut to the red ticker pacing on news channels – demanding attention. What’s missing from this narrative is a gendered reading of Pakistani politics, interpreted through our understanding of notions of femininity and masculinity – both hyper and militarized, and how that factors in in the decisions we make as a people.

In theory

In a feminist reading of gender, masculinism is the preference of masculinity in a society, while the feminine stands in stark contrast and represents subordinated identities associated with feminine values dipping lower along social hierarchies of gendered power. These feminine values are most often associated with a need for protection, weakness, and subservience; the masculine is always aligned with strength, power, bravery, and the need for violence if need be. These ‘values’ are not to be seen through a reductionist range of vision, and are not confined to the sexes, but also encompass the understanding of nations, institutions, oppressed identities, and power structures.

The ‘feminine’ – both man and woman, is feminized through tactics of intentional subordination, which renders feminized individuals inferior to dominant masculinities. Thus, allowing the feminine or feminized body to be seen as inferior. This holds true for groups and ethnicities confined to their fate of powerlessness, where the state turns a blind eye towards their plight, and refuses to grant them agency. To avert this, feminized and subjugated groups resort to violence and militarization as a means to express dissent, and to reclaim their masculinity – in this case, hyper and militarized.

Militarism, in general, as defined by Anuradha Chenoy, is a belief system that sanctions military values in civilian life, and favors the construction of a strong masculinity. For her, this is also an essential cog of state power, through which it exercises its monopoly over legitimate violence to foil dissent. This comes together with notions of patriarchy and nationalism.

History is rife with examples of militarized national masculinities meshed with security discourses. In 1998, after India conducted its first nuclear tests, Pakistan’s prime minister at the time was fired upon by his predecessor Benazir Bhutto in a theatrical speech, where she questioned his manhood and tossed around bangles as a symbol of his weakness. This browbeating went on between the two countries, where President Musharraf insisted that Pakistan’s army and public did not wear bangles and could fight India on its own. In a recent case, after UN’s inaction following Indian atrocities in India Occupied Kashmir, Kashmiri women offered their bangles to Ban Ki Moon in a South Asian fashion to insult his manhood.

Geopolitics went through a major shift following the War on Terror, with religious extremist groups procreating and evolving more rapidly than the policies set out to tackle them. These developments then jolted responses in the form of sectarian and communal politics, renewed patriarchies, jingoist nationalism, and religious rhetoric in politics. Pakistan, too, is guilty of this.

In practice

Pakistan’s political scene is immersed in a rhetoric of religion; Institutions and civilians alike, through their own interpretations, have all become knights of the faith – misusing religion, and manipulating sacred texts to uphold a hegemonic masculinity over the minds and bodies of those considered ‘feminine’.

Honor killings come to mind, where degenerate femininities are completely silenced by the protectors of women and the society at large, and where those with masculine power define morals. Qandeel Baloch fell victim to the religious dogmas of the patriarchal structure of the Pakistani society, whereby her gender and her socio-economic background made her defiance unacceptable – and so she was punished.

It is this patriarchal order, only illegitimate and towards an unacceptable extreme, that tried silencing Malala Yousafzai, who was shot for overstepping her boundaries and raising her voice against the masculine misogynist in charge at the time. While Malala’s perpetrators weren’t your run-of-the-mill torchbearers of honor, as in Qandeel’s case, the Pakistani society didn’t miss a chance to brand her a spy and con artist. Condolences over Qandeel’s murder too came with ifs and buts – apologetic tones wishing she had conformed. In short: she asked for it.

There’s a stark contrast between the two; Qandeel was provocative, Malala upheld the image of a dupatta clad girl – one that Pakistan seems to be obsessed with on a daily basis; Qandeel was killed for honour, Malala was shot for defying the Taliban; Qandeel was loud through her body and her actions, Malala spoke volumes through her words. However, both had one thing in common, and that was their defiance of the boundaries set for them by the patriarchal order, and for hurting the male ego.

It is this jingoist patriarchal structure that silences and feminizes minorities every day, and pushes them further into a corner – unable to own their identity, and religion. Those in support of, or stirring up the discourse against them, are completely shut off. On the other hand, religious clerics sanctioning their killing are given a platform on national television.

These are a few of the many instances when violence, physical and verbal, based on silencing subordinate identities came about. And while these may seem like unfortunate incidents materializing in a pool of politics, if seen through a prism of post-colonial feminist theory, indicates a thinking which allows for the suspension of the rights of the ‘Other’ based on the survival of ‘Us’. This sort of thinking, with catchwords like ‘they are different than us’, allows violence against certain identities considered necessary for the state and society to preserve themselves.

The politics of exclusion

On an institutional level, Pakistan is marred with exclusionary tactics of feminization seeped in notions of patriarchy. This is evident through the Council of Islamic Ideology’s role in drafting bills pertinent to women’s rights, ironically, with close to no women being a part of the organization. This holds true for the ‘model bill’ proposed by the council, which allowed a husband to ‘lightly’ beat his wife – sanctioning violence against women. On the contrary, the Punjab Assembly’s bill to remedy the incidence of violence against women and removing the usual red tape hurdles complicating a woman’s quest for justice by attaching GPS tracking bracelets on the offenders was gravely opposed.

Criticism ranged from claims that lawmakers should be tried for high treason as the clauses in the bill would lead to the break-up of society – as it relied more on violent men as opposed to victimized women, to senior lawyers agreeing that it’s derogatory for a man to leave the house wearing a bracelet. While the law is controversial in nature, what’s interesting to note is that laws granting women agency face criticism, while those marginalizing them (read child marriage, and physical violence) are ordained.

Where the government seeks to improve the situation in this regard, religious clerics with their undue power manage to coerce leaders into taking back their words and decisions. In late November when Nawaz Sharif called for a more ‘liberal’ Pakistan, hue and cry ensued in the religious community, which compelled the Prime Minister’s staff to play down the speech and assure the clerics that Pakistan would become nothing like the West.

Women’s bodies in Pakistan are over sexualized, whereby their gender becomes their only identity. With the CII proposing its own Women’s Protection Bill, urging a ban on co-education schools, along with barring women from partaking in military combats, welcoming foreign delegates, and attending male patients in hospitals, only fosters the belief that women are essentially different than men in their roles, capabilities, and their rights. It is this obsession over the difference between the male and the female sexed body that awards woman a second-class citizen position in Pakistan in comparison to the masculine identity.

Sexism, and intentional subordination tactics are also a reality of the Pakistani parliament, where being a woman warrants insulting remarks and sexist comments. Shireen Mazari fell victim to derogatory remarks made by Khawaja Asif, who later refused to name her in his ‘unconditional’ apology. Benazir Bhutto was referred to once as a parrot, and another time as a taxi, depending on the color of her dress.

Such is the nature of Pakistani politics, where strong women are reduced to their sexuality, and have to focus more on their appearances and casual remarks as opposed to their policies – that is where the men take over.

The boys in fatigues

Pakistan’s national and foreign policy both exude a masculinized rendition of policies and political situations. The country’s bipolar system, in that the civilian government and military go hand in hand, allows for the national and foreign policy to be defined through a military-led-security-tunnel vision, as opposed to ‘diplomacy’ and political solutions – often associated with the ‘feminine’ in the feminist theory of politics.

It is this militarized masculinity that shies away from diplomacy and indulges in military solutions to political issues such as Kashmir. While in recent times, Pakistan has moved closer to seeking diplomatic solutions, not long ago it fought with India through both actions and words over Kashmir. With the perception that the growth of India’s economy is tied to its security and power position, one that would be uncompromising in its approach towards Kashmir, Pakistan has immersed itself in a culture of over-militarization whereby it engages in an arms race with an economically powerful India, and allegedly supports movements in Kashmir against the former.

India’s unwavering stance on Kashmir, its alleged support for splinter groups in Sindh and Balochistan, and its military solutions to the internal turmoil in Indian Occupied Kashmir, is seen by the Pakistan military as a threat to its national security. This enables the military to ask the civilian government from engaging with India and making peace by evoking notions of national honor, and security rhetoric stemming from the fear of the ‘Other’ to protect the motherland. This leads the military to suggest a calibrated response to India to ensure reciprocity and not a surrender under coercion.

The concept of the ‘motherland’, and depicting the nation in ‘feminine’ terms is what helps whip up national sentiment. Security discourse grounded in claims of a ‘nation under attack’ often leads to the nation being conflated with a women’s body under threat of being sullied by the enemy. In one of Altaf Hussain’s recent rants, when he spoke ill of Pakistan, what was more intriguing was how it was conflated with abusing one’s mother. In ‘On the Front’ with Kamran Shahid, when Amir Liaqat tried to make sense of his leader’s remarks, the anchor repeatedly asked him how he would feel if someone abused his mother – implying that slurs against the nation were just the same as slandering one’s mother.

Reclaiming identity

Historical processes entangled with national realities; Pakistan has seen a rise in dissent – often violent in nature. Since patriarchal culture eroticizes dominance, and masculinism plays a role in silencing weaker groups even more so if they are opposed to the hegemons, two things can happen: a) the groups are silenced, b) the groups revolt.

In Pakistan, the Baloch are being encouraged to revolt by creating the perception that they are the victims of a policy of deliberate feminization of populations, stripping them off their rights and resources, and transferring them to the he-men in Punjab. CPEC is also being exploited. Some provinces, claiming that the federal government has given little priority to the western as compared to the eastern route, feel deprived of projects like rail networks, energy, and motorways. Enter: the Balochistan Liberation Army.

The Balochistan Liberation Army is a major stakeholder in this schism, and has resorted to violence as a means of reclaiming the Baloch identity and position of power – masculinizing populations and escaping the straitjacket of feminization. The inadequacy of Pakistan’s leadership, former and present, to quell this resistance through diplomacy has only aided the rigidity and militarization of the group. This can be attributed to Pakistan’s usual policy of waiting till things go down hill, and still not knowing how to talk to aggressors. This policy is witnessed in the case of FATA, and it’s overdue inclusion in KPK; it’s seen operating in the management of the blasphemy law, and nipping the issue of honor killings in the bud, and catering to the law and order situation in Sindh. Some responses from the government have been delayed, while it continues to push the snooze button on others where policy responses remain absent.

Another mutation of hyper-masculinity is the insurgent groups that operate in Pakistan, especially those working under the banner of anti-imperialism, where the line between working against imperialist movements and indulging in Islamic extremism is blurred. These groups tend to mobilize populations through rhetoric of identity-based politics grounded in narratives of ethnic persecution. The use of violence to exert a sense of militant manhood to protect the wives and daughters of the ‘motherland’ by the foreigner is what drives these rampages. It is a patriarchal culture of militarized masculinity that births degenerate masculinities – hyper, armed, and violent; the Taliban man is the prototype for this.


To understand what breeds ideas is to understand the contours of the collective mind that breaks it; intolerance in Pakistan is becoming a habit, and violence is being accepted as a norm. A gendered, post-colonial understanding of Pakistani politics, helps peel away to the center of the heart and mind of the Pakistani man; the ignorance of which will only show us half the picture of what really acts as a catalyst for those oppressing, and those seeking freedom from it.

The insistence of drawing distinctions between a man and a woman, a Baloch and a Punjabi, is what adds to the incidence of these differences being used as a political weapon bent on legitimizing violence against the ‘weaker’ identity through a rhetoric of national security, upholding patriarchy, and categories of us and them. It is through this that the rights of the ‘Other’ are suspended and violence is seen as an acceptable part of every day survival, and to preserve the social fabric.

It is by means of the innate difference of the ‘other’ in terms of his appearance, as well as his religious and cultural values that inferiority is awarded to him. Once state of exception measures are taken, moral indifference or disengagement creeps in wherein a development of detachment from the other begins through his exclusion from the boundary of law and basic consideration. Therefore, any violence committed against the other comes to be seen as a necessary evil. This is Pakistan’s case; a case of a hyper-masculine patriarchal order, seeking to wipe away any identity that doesn’t conform to it. What is required is tolerance, acceptance and inclusivity in our policies.