Pakistan has been plagued by episodes of rape and child abuse over the years. In the aftermath, victims are often treated as criminals or blamed for the assaults. According to statistics – obtained from the Police, Law, and Justice Commission of Pakistan, Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, Women’s Foundation, and provincial welfare agencies – there are at least 11 rape cases reported in Pakistan every day with over 22,000 rape cases reported to police across the country in the last six years. Moreover, only 77 accused have been convicted which comprise 0.3 per cent of the total figure. Police officials noted that only half of the rape cases are registered and the actual number of rape cases in the last five years could be as high as 60,000.
Human rights activists have long said that officials at all levels of the national government have regularly failed to address the issue in a comprehensive way. There have been protests outpouring rage over these incidences and new laws passed to curb the crimes, yet we continue to face this bane in the society. A similar outrage happened in September last year, when the CCPO expressed his “presumption” that the incident took place because the victim “was travelling late at night without her husband’s permission”. The CCPO later apologised for his remarks after the outcry.
Recently, a controversy arose from a publicly televised live session hosted by the prime minister, where he came under fire for making certain comments. When asked what the government was doing to curb the numbers of sexual violence against women and children, he acknowledged the gravity of the issue and pointed towards the country’s laws against rape. He went on to say, “I want to say one thing about this: just like corruption, you cannot eliminate this simply by making laws. If you keep on increasing ‘fahaashi’ (vulgarity) in any society, it will ultimately have an [adverse] effect.” He added, “What is the concept of purdah? It is to stop temptation. Not every man has willpower. If you keep on increasing vulgarity, it will have consequences.”
Rape culture is when sexual violence is treated as the norm and victims are blamed for their own assaults. Women in abayas/hijabs are raped just as those wearing jeans or shalwar kameez. Transgenders, children who go to seminaries for religious education and from a few months’ old child to 70+ women are raped. Women’s corpses are dug out of graves and raped. And last, but not least, incestuous rape mostly happens within the safe protection of a home, by a loved one. We need to look at how children are brought up, how their mental conditioning takes place, do away with ‘boys will be boys’, and making everything kosher for boys/men.
The uproar was swift. It also augmented the conversation by the media and activists regarding the toxic culture surrounding sexual assaults and child abuse, where the victims are weakened and the perpetrators empowered.
Journalist and Director of Uks Research Center, Tasneem Ahmar sheds light on the matter, “I don’t think that the Prime Minister even realised the significance of him, in his capacity as PM, to talk such uniformed and insensitive drivel on why rape takes place, and linking it to lack of ‘purdah’ and ‘fahashi’. What will that reflect on the next generation of young men? Justifying rape due to lack of a ‘modest’ dress code and/or on obscenity being spread by Bolly and Hollywood reinforces the mindset that it is women who need to be properly ‘covered’ and if they are not, then they should be prepared for any sort of sexual harassment. His statement has provided more fuel and strength to the already present toxic mindset of blaming and shaming the rape victim/survivor. And it’s truly absolving the perpetrator of the heinous crime he has committed because of the temptations around him.”
What rape culture looks like in a society?
“When I was six years old, I was raped by a family member,” narrates 30-year-old Zayna* (name concealed). “I didn’t even know what was happening to me at the time, but it wasn’t until later that it hit me. I am scarred emotionally and mentally, but nothing changed for him. The female members of the family, who knew, pretended like nothing happened. When I’d see him at family gatherings, I would not hide my revulsion. And if I was rude to him, I’d be told off because ‘wo baray hain’ (he’s older). They would treat him normally and care for him as usual. I don’t know if it’s fear of him or fear for me in the society but all I know is that he’s roaming scot free.”
Rape culture is when sexual violence is treated as the norm and victims are blamed for their own assaults. It’s not just about sexual violence itself, but about cultural norms and institutions that protect rapists, promote impunity, shame victims, and demand that women make unreasonable sacrifices to avoid sexual assault.
“The number of reported rape cases are only the tip of the iceberg. Hundreds of cases go unreported and the reason is that victims’ or the survivor and her family are scared of the treatment they may receive at the male-dominated police stations. Due to the prevalent mindset of blaming women for rape, they would rather not report than face the repeated humiliation at the hands of these men in thanas. Even at many women police stations, due to no or insufficient gender-sensitisation trainings, women police would be behaving in the same derogatory manner. It is only now that we find some female officers who have encouraged women/families to come forward and report a case,” says Tasneem.
Sadia Mahmood, a professor and Student Advisor at the Mass Communication Department, Karachi University has been teaching for 21 years. She highlights that more than 70 per cent of the students here are girls but the Science departments have more men. However, she observes that over the years, which many people who have studied here would be surprised to see, that there is an increasing trend of abaya and hijab culture. “There is nothing new about insecurity that women feel in a country like Pakistan. I remember when we used to travel in buses as students, if a man came close, we would know that something was definitely going to happen. We were either going to have to fight or have to step aside,” she tells. “The university premises are considered a relatively safe space for students (especially girls). And, in KU, there are many rickshaws that function only inside the campus, taking students from one department to another. There have been at least three incidences, reported to me, where the drivers have flashed themselves to the girls… and these girls are covered in their hijabs and abayas. I am just one student advisor of one department and there are many other departments in KU. I don’t know how many more cases have been reported to other departments and how many have gone unreported,” adds Mahmood.
Now, what changed that these girls have to cover themselves? Where did this idea stem from? Recalling a recent incident, Mahmood illuminates, “The other day a student greeted me at the department and I was unable to recognise her. When I asked who she was, she just laughed and said that she dressed up as she came with her father that day. And on other days she wears an abaya as she has to commute through public transport; even though she doesn’t wear it any other time. And this is the general trend among the girls.
“According to my assessment, they are getting this narrative from the top. Previously, you didn’t get a view like this from the top hierarchy. The leaders, philosophers, public opinion makers weren’t talking about this, but now, they’re getting the idea that if you wear an abaya you’ll be secure. This is a false narrative and the students realise it too. But they give in thinking it’s just a piece of extra clothing that they’ll have to wear, so why not.”
In the same vein, Tasneem iterates, “A woman is brought up in certain manner, and the one lesson that is hammered in her head is that she has to behave and be modest to avoid any kind of sexual assault, hence prevent her family from facing familial and social humiliation. Covering herself up to protect herself from any harm, being timid, not questioning why is there so much of discrimination on how she is raised as compared to her brothers. We need to look at how children are brought up, how their mental conditioning takes place, do away with ‘boys will be boys’, and making everything kosher for boys/men. We also need to educate our boys that they must observe the ‘purdah’ of their gaze and how to respect women. Once this is in place, and it may take years, then there may be some change in the narrative that women invite rape.”
The role of media in countering rape culture
Rape culture is not exclusive to Pakistan. In a 2018 quantitative analysis of rape culture titled, Does Rape Culture Predict Rape? Evidence from US Newspapers 2000-2013, the researchers found that when the tone of the coverage and the word choices can be interpreted as showing empathy for the accused and blame for victims, rape is more likely to occur.
“Insensitivity in rape reporting has always been there,” elucidates Tasneem. “There have been times when newspapers used to not only publish the photographs of the woman raped, but also give all kinds of graphic details. The main reason being that the crime reporters would get the stories from the F.I.R at the police station, and their stories were reflective of the crudeness in reporting the crime. The reporting went to an all-time low when many TV channels started playing sad songs with a story on rape,” she laments.
Highlighting the contribution Uks made with its monitoring, research and interventions, Tasneem informs, “We did play some role in sensitising the media on how to report on the crime. So, now, a large section of the media displays sympathy rather than remorse towards the victim/survivor. But we need to turn this element of sympathy into empathy then only narratives and behaviours will change.”
What is the way forward?
“The main reason behind all kinds of sexual crimes against women is both power and violence. Yes, rape happens through the use of sexual organs, but it isn’t lust, neither is it due to uncontrollable urge or desire. If we analyse the profiles of some convicted rapists, they are ordinary men, not very strong physically, commit the act to assert power and control over their targets and inflict violence, humiliation and shame. Rape does not only violate the victim/survivor’s body but the act is a very affectively used as an ‘honour-based’ crime to limit women within the four walls of their homes,” notifies Tasneem.
“Unlike the solution that is presented in the PM’s statement, here are some facts to recall especially the ones defending the statement. Women in abayas/hijabs are raped just as those wearing jeans or shalwar kameez. Transgenders (men and women), children (male and female) who go to seminaries for religious education and from a few months’ old child to 70+ women are raped. Women’s corpses are dug out of graves and raped. And last, but not least, incestuous rape mostly happens within the safe protection of a home, by a loved one,” she adds.
This culture is perpetuated through the use of misogynistic language, the objectification of women’s bodies, and the glamorisation of sexual violence, thereby creating a society that disregards women’s rights and safety. And, while we have the laws in the country, all we need is its proper implementation so the perpetrators are held accountable for their crimes.
Moreover, we must examine our behaviours and beliefs for biases that allow rape culture to continue. From the attitudes we have about gender crimes to the policies we support in our communities; we can all stand against rape culture.