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September 13, 2020

To be a woman is not to be


September 13, 2020

Living in Pakistan, you must learn to bear pain and grief. Again and again, your peace of mind is shattered by tragedies that remain incomprehensible. This week, there is something that is unbearable. The more you think about the motorway gang-rape, the more your heart sinks.

Let me not dwell on the reported details of this soul-destroying incident. It belongs to a horror movie, recounting the deeds of devils incarnate. Yet, what happened to this woman who was driving with her three children on the motorway from Lahore to Gujranwala during the night between Tuesday and Wednesday was real.

And the two rapists-robbers who emerged out of that desolation are very much a product of this society. They belong to a brotherhood of sin that has its tentacles spread across dark corners. That is how we have little children sexually abused and then brutally murdered. That is how young lovers are hacked to death by their own families in the name of honour. That is how perversions of different shades lurk under the torn fabric of our society.

Yes, this motorway rape has shaken the country. It has the potential of becoming a catalyst for change, though similar acts of barbarity have repeatedly sunk into the quagmire of out apathy and spinelessness. What is different this time is that this incident is riding the crest of a wave of calamities and social turmoil.

For instance, the rain-ravaged Karachi has become the arena for a tussle between the Sindh and the federal governments. With the rape and murder of a five-year-old girl in Karachi in the headlines, there have been a number of similar crimes in other parts of the country. The story of the disappearance and the return of a senior official of the Securities & Exchange Commission of Pakistan (SECP) is yet to be told. Things are heating up on the political front.

I would particularly underline a development in Punjab – a bureaucratic merry-go-round – that has dovetailed into the motorway tragedy. The spotlight is on a rumbustious police officer named Umar Sheikh, appointed as the CCPO of Lahore. So adamant has the PTI leadership been to appoint Umar Sheikh as the head of the Lahore police that it cast IG Punjab, Shoaib Dastgir aside because the IG considered Umar Sheikh unworthy of the post. In the process, Punjab was gifted its sixth IG in two years of PTI rule.

In any case, the PTI thus surrendered to the ‘purana’ Pakistan. Here is an officer who, though bypassed for promotion, boasted that he was the best police officer in the country. His posting almost overlapped the motorway rape – and he made his triumphant entry to put his foot in his mouth.

Playing his patriarchal card, he blamed the victim for taking the motorway at that late hour. This naturally caused an uproar. There were calls, including from a few federal ministers, for his removal. But he apparently speaks for a section of public opinion that has been nurtured by our rulers. Increasingly, our society is not safe for women. It is another tragedy we have to suffer that a party that initially attracted educated and empowered women has allowed the rise of an orthodox, misogynistic mindset.

One aspect of this social regression is this government’s onslaught on the freedom of the media. On Thursday, the Human Rights Watch issued a statement on “Pakistan’s hypocrisy on press freedom”. It said: “Last week, Prime Minister Imran Khan asserted that there is no media crackdown in Pakistan and that he and his government are far more “unprotected” than the media. Mir Shakil-ur-Rqhman, editor-in-chief of the Jang Group, the largest media organisation in Pakistan, and who is in pretrial detention since March 12, would likely disagree”.

This lack of freedom of expression, including on campuses, is bound to restrict the growth of progressive values and, importantly, emancipation of women. There is a contrary surge of religious obscurantism and intolerance. In fact, dark passions that instigate violence are bubbling under the surface.

It is against this backdrop that we have to contend with the motorway rape and other similar crimes. There is so much talk about public hanging of the culprits to set an example – another sign of a lack of understanding of the dynamics of a civilised community – but there is no informed debate on why this Pakistani society is generating so much deviant behaviour.

As for Imran Khan’s own leanings in this context, there is this example of him inviting Maulana Tariq Jameel to offer ‘dua’ as part of his Ehsaas Telethon in ApriI in which preventive measures against the pandemic were also discussed. The Maulana suggested that Covid-19 was ‘azab’ for the manner in which the women dressed and indulged in “behayaai”.

The point simply is, as the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) said, that “the horrifying gang rape of a woman in the motorway incident is a grim reminder that Pakistan has become an increasingly dangerous place for women”.

If there is any doubt about the low status of women in the Pakistani society, we have the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2020, released in December last year. It benchmarks 153 countries in progress towards gender parity in such sectors as economic participation, educational attainment, political empowerment and health and survival.

We may recall that Pakistan is placed at 151. The shame of it is deepened by the fact that Bangladesh is high above at 50, even higher than the US (53). Other South Asian countries have all figured better than us: Nepal is at 101, Sri Lanka is at 102, India is at 112, Maldives is at 123 and Bhutan is at 131.

One only wonders if they get to think and talk about these things when they sit on the table of authority in that citadel of power. We do have to be concerned about national security. But national security also depends on the empowerment of our women. And the first step in that direction would be to make this society safe for them.

The writer is a senior journalist.

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