Error 400 – failure to parent – Dr Ayesha Razzaque


The string of high-profile incidents of harassment, assaults and violence against women and girls has shocked the nation. On Wednesday, August 25, on the occasion of the Punjab Education Convention 2021, Prime Minister Imran Khan expressed the shame and pain he felt at these incidents.

As a solution to this long running epidemic of violence against women in our society, he reiterated his frequently stated prescription that to address shortcomings in the upbringing of children the teaching of Seerat Un Nabi, the biography of the Holy Prophet (pbuh)is important. I suspect the prime minister is half right; there certainly is a problem in the way Pakistanis are being brought up.

Many incidents of violence against women involve one or a handful of perpetrators. Together with the lack of reliable statistics about the frequency of such incidents, that gives deniers the space necessary to argue that these are isolated cases – that a few rotten apples are not indicative of attitudes in society, that things are worse or just as bad elsewhere in the world.

But the mob at Minar-e-Pakistan on August 14, that left an entire nation’s heads hanging in shame, consisted of 400-or-so men with no (or at least not enough) good men among them willing to put a stop to the hours-long assault. What are the odds that 400 criminals found themselves in the same location at the same time by sheer coincidence? If this sick, entitled mindset was indeed such a rarity, a random convergence of the depraved in such large numbers would be a mathematical impossibility. This goes to show that the view of women as subhuman is widespread, nay, commonplace.

Ultimately, at least the adults among them are responsible for their own actions, but they were brought up by parents or caretakers. The incident at Minar-e-Pakistan is not just a case of 400 broken moral compasses, but also 800 failures to parent. I want to know how these parents brought up their sons.

Contrary to the knee-jerk demands of many that schools do a better job at teaching their students morals, the fact is that values are learnt from families. Schools may help younger children develop some social behaviors but, for the most part, teaching children right from wrong is what is called parenting. This is not a responsibility parents can outsource to schools. In many Western countries, whose moral compasses we so admire from afar, teaching children basic morality is a right that parents fiercely guard for themselves. Parents pass on their family values and traditions in the language of their own histories, beliefs, experiences and religions. In countries with histories of fascism and state indoctrination, the state’s interest for a role in the ‘moral’ development of children is still looked at with great suspicion.

Yet, that seems to be the best solution our state has on offer – add more religious content to school education. Put aside for a minute that according to Article 22(A) of the constitution the only place where such content can be added is the subject of Islamiat. Let us quickly review how much religious instruction children in this country are already guaranteed to receive in the course of their education: in primary school, grades 1 to 5, they take Islamiat as a subject and learn to read the Holy Quran. In middle school, grades 6 to 8, they will continue to study Islamiat and read the translation of the Holy Quran. In high-school grades 9-12 they continue to study Islamiat. When they move to university, they are still legally required to take Islamiat as a subject, and Punjab recently made study of translation and recitation of Quran a prerequisite for graduation for all university students.

This adds up to 16 years of continuous religious education. Of all the countries in the world whose people’s conduct we admire, I am not aware of any that comes even close to us in terms of the amount and duration of mandatory religious instruction. If religious instruction were the solution, madrassas would be the safest places in the country, safe from all incidents of abuse.

On June 15, 2017, NPR published a report titled ‘Why Do Men Harass Women? New Study Sheds Light on Motivations’. The study by Promundo and UN Women was conducted in a country context very similar to ours – Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco and Palestine. Like Pakistan, they have young, predominantly Muslim populations, suffering from high unemployment rates. The study found that of the 4,830 men surveyed, 31 percent in Lebanon and up to 64 percent in Egypt admitted to having sexually harassed women.

Among the standout findings of the study was that young men with a high-school education were more likely to sexually harass women than older men. This was surprising because high-school and college educated men hold more liberal attitudes than their less educated peers. The authors suspect that unemployment, the pressure and inability to provide for their families – which means they cannot afford to marry – are contributing factors to this behavior. Harassing women becomes a way to bond with peers in the same situation and a way to put women in their place.

What is it in so many Pakistani men’s heads that gives them permission to treat women the way they do – worse than their cars and motorcycles, like they are less than human? That is a question worthy of investigation by social scientists, with all the rigor their disciplines have to offer. That would be a study worth conducting. My own sense is that the results of such a study in Pakistan will not be too different from what the study uncovered in these countries.

There is no one right way to raise decent children. I happen to know three children of a family, a young woman going to university, and two boys, one in middle and the other in primary school. I have seen them grow up and they are some of the most moral, respectful, conscientious and loving individuals I know who care deeply not only for the well-being of people but for animals and plants as well. Notably, their personalities were not molded by drilling them with religious lessons. Their values are not rooted in religion, but in a universal sense of fairness and desire for the well-being of others.

The eldest, the girl, is articulate and capable of great introspection. I decided to ask her where she thinks she gets her ethics and morals from. She replied that she got them from (watching and talking to) her parents, her grandparents, her favorite aunts and uncles and from shows on PBS Kids. PBS Kids produces developmentally appropriate TV shows (Sesame Street, Arthur, Clifford, Blue’s Clues, Wordgirl, Barney, Dragon Tales, The Berenstain Bears, Curious George, etc.) for young children of different ages. Her parents had controlled and restricted her media consumption to those programmes. Notice that school did not figure into her answer.

You may not agree with the way these children were brought up, which is the other point I am trying to make. There are many different ways to raise ethical children. Parents have the right and responsibility to raise theirs as they think is best, but they must remain involved and put in the effort. They cannot abdicate this primary responsibility of parenthood and leave the upbringing of their children to the state. If you are unwilling to raise your children, don’t bring them into this world.

Children acquire their values from parents, their families, friends and the community they live in. That is why the old African proverb goes: It takes a village to raise a child. They acquire values not from dry lengthy lectures at school, but by following the behaviours of people in their community. Children are in large part a reflection of their parents and their efforts in raising them. If we want to understand why this country has become such an unsafe place for women and children, it is time for the country’s parents (of boys) to take a good look in the mirror.