Tuesday November 28, 2023

When outrage is not enough

September 12, 2020

The writer is a lawyer based in Islamabad.

As a man one can’t possibly relate to the horror endured by the woman who was raped in front of her kids on the Motorway this week. And what one can’t relate to, one can’t fully emphasize with.

It’s not that men aren’t distraught or outraged by what has transpired. We are, but in our capacity as fathers and husbands and brothers. And it is not the same thing. We can’t relate to the trauma she suffered. We tremble in anger and fright imagining what if our kids had to witness such violence or wife or sister had been at the receiving end of such savagery.

It is important to remember and acknowledge one’s role and the source of one’s empathy. Such recognition informs one’s position toward rights’ movements such as Aurat March and women’s right to assert control and agency over their bodies with slogans such as #MeraJismMeriMarzi. Such recognition also allows one to apologize for crimes nurtured by the power and entitlement wielded by one’s gender. If as a man you can’t condemn the barbarous acts of men and of apologists who indulge in victim shaming, you are part of the problem.

Reema Omar rightly pointed out in Report Card on Geo TV that the translation of rape into “izzat lootna” in Urdu reflects a sexist patriarchal society. Our language too endorses the power disparity between genders. The treatment and approach to women as depicted by Simone de Beauvoir in 1949 in ‘The Second Sex’ is true for Pakistan in 2020. The term ‘izzat lootna’ underscores that it is a raped woman who gets tainted, not the rapists. And as a chauvinistic society our focus remains primarily on protecting the shame of women’s families and not women.

The distinction between an individual’s right to dignity – guaranteed by Article 14 of the constitution, making it a state obligation – and the tribal notion of collective shame is lost on us. The right to dignity is an individual right. But the notion of a family’s shame is a collective claim in a culture where women continue to be seen as chattel and not as individuals with agency. When we speak of rape as ‘izzat lootna’ we concede that a woman suffering violence is rendered bereft of ‘izzat’ or dignity and stands transformed into an object of shame for the family.

From this viewpoint, the woman is a repository of family’s shame and as trustee of a family asset she is under an obligation to conduct herself in a manner that doesn’t expose family’s shame to external attacks. She is thus advised to dress such that she attracts no attention and otherwise act with caution to not put in jeopardy a thing of value (ie the family’s shame) for those she is associated with. Till such time that women are seen as repositories of shame of family’s men, we will have CCPOs blaming rape victims for inviting attacks due to their conduct.

This Motorway Rape and thousands of similarly revolting incidents that transpire everyday and go unnoticed reflect our state’s depraved face. The CCPO Lahore spoke as he did not just because we are a patriarchy but also because the distinction between the roles and responsibilities of citizens and the state in their mutual contract backed by the constitution is lost in our polity. While a private citizen is at liberty to consider precautions she might wish to take, state officials must only focus on discharging state obligations to protect guaranteed rights of citizens.

The distinction between freedom of private conduct and the mandatory nature of public responsibility seemed lost on ministers and police officials who spoke after the Motorway Rape. A police officer responsible for provision of security, endowed with watch and ward duties and investigation of crime, is not at liberty to assume the role of a well-wisher pontificating on what private choices might have reduced probability of a crime suffered by a citizen within his jurisdiction. He is obliged to account for failure of the state to protect the citizen’s rights.

That our Shahzad Akbars and Asad Umars fail to understand why the words and conduct of the CCPO Lahore were so odious and fuelled the outrage felt by hapless citizens explains the sense of entitlement one acquires being part of echelons of power in our post-colonial state. A police officer who believes that it is a citizen and not the state that is responsible for the safety and dignity of citizens ought to be held liable for dereliction of duty. If citizens are to fend for themselves, do we need a police force and other nincompoops holding public offices and lording over us?

Why is it that Shireen Mazari and Asad Umar’s response to the CCPO’s words is so different? This is where empathy based on sharing of concerns rooted in common identity comes in. As a woman Ms Mazari understands the sense of fear or panic women feel in a patriarchy that Mr Umar can’t. Had the CCPO Lahore been a woman, would she have come out swinging against the victim of this crime and tragedy? If prime police investigators in rape cases were women, would the starting point of their investigations be whether or not victims asked for it?

Would the Supreme Court’s decision in the Mukhtaran Mai case read as Justice Saqib Nisar’s ruling did had it been issued by a bench comprising female judges? Representation of women in positions of authority is important because one cannot claim to be insightful and objective in relation to things one can’t relate to. Our justice system is broken. It supports and entrenches the powerful at the expense of the vulnerable. This is true whether it is a contest between the state and citizens, or between rich and the poor or between patriarchy and women.

Those who prescribe quick fixes such as public hangings or floggings or extended detention periods and discretionary arrest powers or model courts churning out rulings in days are as much an obstacle to changing the status quo as those who see nothing wrong with our moth eaten justice system. If the murderer of the Quetta constable is to be brought to justice or the perpetrators of crimes in Sahiwal or the Motorway Rapists, our only option is to fix all components in the lifecycle of the criminal justice process (police, investigation, prosecution, courts and prison).

The most effective deterrent is certainty of punishment and not its severity and our Motorway is proof of that. People obey speed limits on the Motorway not because they are flogged if found speeding, but because of certainty of imposition of penalty irrespective of one’s station in life. No doubt, we have many problems as a state and as a society. But we can either hold the state responsible for fixing society, or we can blame society for nurturing a dysfunctional state. The latter serves the power elite and preserves the status quo.

Let us resolve to transform our outrage over the Motorway Rape into action. As men, this is time for introspection. We must ask ourselves what is it that we can change in our private lives that will help transform this patriarchy into an egalitarian society where the other sex feels equal and empowered. And as citizens, this is a time to hold state officials to account. It is not okay for public office-holders to refuse to assume responsibility for broken systems and for failing to take remedial measures. Let us not wait for saviours.