An Exposition on Power (in Pakistan)

Sehr Ali DadaDecember 1, 2020Strength and InfluenceInterfaith Connections

“It ain't about how hard you hit. It's about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward.”

In my opinion, no one was able to articulate what strength really is the way Rocky Balboa, the fictional boxer, did. It is not limited to physical strength — its magnitude is determined at all angles by the power and complexity of influence.

A powerless cry for help has been mistaken for weakness for far too long, unfortunately not just within my community, but in the global sphere. Due to the cultural and religious structure that Pakistan is based on, this misconstrued perception runs deep within each individual — whether it be a conscious choice or subconscious behavior that gives credit to the dominant agents of socialization.

Strength is not sought by acquiring more power over another. I find genuine strength in the ability to repeatedly find your legs after a difficult time, in staying true to yourself and not becoming another sheep in the herd, and in defining your own narrative. This is a definition of strength I have acquired over time through years of experience and exposure — polar opposite to the one commonly embraced by my society. I believe this to be true because of the socialization I continuously receive from those around me. My encounters with my close-knit and widespread community are invaluable and have allowed me to open my eyes to the subjectivity of the term “strength” and understand what it truly connotes.

Power dynamics between gender, race, culture, and age are incredibly rampant in my community. The ability to stand up against such biases, no matter how subtle, must be viewed as strength, but is instead construed as dishonorable by many in Pakistan; at the age of 14, in a remote rural village in Punjab, Maryam was married off to a man 35 years her senior, who already had a wife and family. As the second wife, she became a domestic slave in the household, living in the shadows. For Maryam, her marital home was fraught with hostility. She had always felt uneasy around her husband’s oldest son. She doubted herself; after all, society told her such thoughts were “behaya.” “He is from a good family.” But on one unfortunate night, these unimaginable thoughts turned into a hellish reality when her own step-son assaulted her. Despondent and traumatised, she garnered the strength to tell those around her of the incident. She was beaten, chased out the house, and labeled as a promiscuous woman.

She sought refuge at a shelter where she was taken care of and educated about her rights as a woman, even within a non-secular state. Regardless of all the hurdles she faced, she stood firmly in the face of adversity; she was strong. She didn’t brush the truth under a rug in fear of being judged by society. Instead, she donned an armor of resilience, shouting out the truth and knowing when to seek help. Being judged was the least of her concerns: being disowned or even killed by your family are common reactions to sharing undisguised truth. But more than that, it was her self-awareness that led her to seek help from professionals.

Maryam’s story is extremely common in Pakistan, but not all women have the strength that can be seen in her. Most women who are victims of assault never file a police report because of societal labels or abusive husbands. In the age of social media, these stories have slowly started to come out. Pakistan is already a patriarchy, a society run by men, but Pakistan grants them more agency to exploit their power. With rampant corruption and the brutal enforcement of gender roles, men have more leeway than ever.

This is where strength and influence intersect in my society. Influence is when your actions or beliefs can reach a large group of people who then adopt it. Here, people don't tend to be influenced by people who display weaknesses. One has to believe their ideals are superior, and only then do people think that they are “good enough” to adopt for themselves. Possibly because of the youth’s constant strife, what is considered to be “the best” is determined by a herd mentality. This is the status quo — the conventional interpretation of strength in society’s eyes — and we should attempt to adjust it into one where everyone who wants to share their word or their beliefs should be able to do so comfortably and not have to struggle to build up personality traits which form a mainstream “strong” individual. They should be given the freedom to embrace the qualities that empower them.

Women; racial, religious and cultural minorities; minors; and other groups ostracized by the majority culture mostly do not possess any tangible influence over their community due to a deep-rooted and subconscious, extremely widespread superiority complex. Those women who do conform to the conventional perspective of “strength,” which revolves around being physically strong and emotionally detached, are labelled as “too strong,” and those men who don't are labelled as “weak” and are insulted and bullied until they have no choice but to conform. The mainstream majority shield themselves with this complex, and find their “strength” behind this attitude, regardless of merit.

My community has championed the opposite of the image of strength I have attempted to illustrate and that I truly believe in, which embraces individuality. Daily wage earners have experienced an ufathomable amount of discrimination during their lifetime over their gender, religious identitiy, and skin tone. I feel the reason people indulge in such behaviour is because they have the privilege and power to do so. “Strength,” as defined by society, is founded in monetary value or by the luck of being born into privilege. Take away one and you lose the other. This is where my contrasting definition of strength comes in: self confidence, self worth, integrity.

Society has tried to teach me that my privilege is my strength, but I find my strength comes from women like Maryam who choose to speak up: those who set precedents for this country. No one should have to sacrifice or suppress their opinion because of mainstream norms; in fact, as a society we should be encouraging people’s unique personalities and giving opportunities to those who have a story to share to amplify their voices. For too long we have turned the other way when important stories, lessons, or opinions come from someone less influential simply because of this arbitrary fact — whereas it should be them who influence and redirect our community to an open field of storytelling and inclusion of diverse beliefs and opinions. Everyone should be coined an “opinion maker” and receive equal opportunities to become one.

True strength is when one speaks up against all odds and resistance. With privilege, it is easy to share your voice and it is almost always people who possess this privilege who shape narratives, but there is an added responsibility to share that privilege with those who don’t share the same leverage and help them rise to the top. They are true influencers. When we hear about people like Maryam sharing her story, a friend openly identifying as part of the LGBTQIA+ community, or at times even just a stranger raising her voice, we feel the ripple effect of it and are inspired to speak the truth and stand up for what we truly believe in. Together, we can become a society that is fearless and bold in thought and spirit, but only with the help of those whose voices are currently suppressed. They are brave, they are strong, and they are my inspiration. To every individual who has stood up for what was right, to every individual who checks their privilege, to every individual who is not silenced easily — thank you, for you are the strongest and most influential people in this nation, and I stand with you.

Sehr Ali Dada, an A-Level student, is an avid reader and writer from Lahore, Pakistan. In her very little free time when she’s not at the pool, she enjoys pursuing public speaking, watching films, and listening to music.