Reports indicate that suicidal patients in Pakistan are predominantly married women, who cite the source of their struggles as conflict with the husband (80 per cent) and conflict with the in-laws (43 per cent). Domestic psychological abuse is just one part of the very many avenues available in society to belittle women and keep them under patriarchal control, but it is one used most readily.
Cultural norms, societal values and religious affiliations tend to either belittle mental illness, associate symptoms with more ’acceptable’ causes (ranging from unfavorable personality traits to faith-related anecdotes) or simply dismiss its existence as a health condition. The stigma of mental health is rampant in Pakistan, and in more serious cases, it is sustained by popular belief in spiritual cures, exorcising evil spirits, experimenting with herbal cures, or reciting religious verses – which only perpetuates the lack of awareness about the symptoms, causes and cures of mental illness.
In Pakistan, women are twice as likely to suffer a greater burden of mental health than men. Religious, ethnic and societal conflicts, dehumanizing attitudes towards women, the role of the in-laws and extended family systems in the everyday lives of women, coupled with overbearing misogyny in society continue to marginalize women, as the men around them exercise their culturally-accepted rights to control women. UN studies show that while 50 per cent of women are physically abused in relationships, over 90 per cent are mentally or verbally abused by the male figures surrounding them. This abuse includes yelling, name-calling, blaming, shaming, isolation, intimidation and/or any controlling behavior that ultimately chips away at a woman’s feelings of self-worth and independence. It is the habitual pattern of demeaning verbal offence and excessive criticism. In many cases, women are confined to toxic relationships and are unable to escape due to the fear of being stigmatized by the society or ostracized by their community. Abuse is not limited to visible wounds on a woman’s body. Like depression, the pain inflicted by psychological abuse is invisible, yet just as potent (if not more). The scars left on the mind do not fade as easily as the scars left on the body.
Men typically use justifications for their actions as protecting their ‘honour’ and ‘respect’ – perpetuating societal ideals that men are inherently superior to women, and those that are married must conform to the standards set by their male counterparts. Gender roles have been long prescribed within culture. In Pakistan, any woman that stands up against the ‘ideal image’ of a woman, imposed by society and ‘traditions’ of family, including those who stand up to domestic violence, choose not to have children, or seek a divorce, are easily dismissed as being ‘mentally unstable’ – simply to divert the blame away from the actions of others and protect the family’s righteousness. There have been numerous cases pouring out of South Asia, of husbands and in-laws approaching mental health professionals in hopes of getting a diagnosis to label women as unfit parents or partners.
Psychological and emotional abuse, in many ways, has consequences more adverse than physical wounds – it puts women at greater risk for depression, suicide, alcohol and drug abuse, and post-traumatic stress disorders. Because there is a lack of ‘physical’ evidence, many cases of psychological abuse go unrecognized and unreported. At times, victims themselves do not recognize the patterns and instead take on self-blame and guilt. A form of psychological manipulation, known as gaslighting, is commonly used to plant seeds of self-doubt and convince victims that their own memories and recollections of events are false. In an attempt to make the victim question their own realities, gaslighting is often used to regain power and control in unbalanced romantic or familial relationships, or used as a method of silencing the victim and concealing patriarchal abuse.
To those women battling this daily: your marriage or family relationships do not define you. It is important to recognize the patriarchal structures around you as toxic, and not justify them by questioning yourself. Do not be forced to remain in a space that makes you feel vulnerable or unsafe: be that mentally or physically. Women are often told to stay in abusive relationships (ironically, by other women!) as their mothers and grandmothers did, as that is ‘just how society is.’ They are told not stand up to the male figures in the house, but instead to simply ‘let it go’. It is important to recognize that times have changed – you now have access to helplines, to resources and to members of the community that will assist you every step along the way. It is important to find the strength to stand up for yourself whether you choose to do so from within the household or from afar. Do not let anyone dictate your self-worth, and most importantly, stay true to yourself.
Published in the Daily Times on August 21, 2018