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September 13, 2020

Dark days


September 13, 2020

These past few days have been heavy. The kind of dark Pakistani Days where numbness waxes and wanes over an agony that is all too familiar. Where rage and resignation flare and fold into one other.

In this country, just when you think things can’t descend any further, you’re being pushed off another cliff. For a week that began with a five-year-old girl being raped and set on fire, that is saying something.

But, try as we might, men can only feel the smallest fraction of it. Our fears remain, at best, vicarious. We may carry heavier hearts back out into the world; but the world remains the same, and it remains ours. A dipping fuel gauge will remain, for us, an inconvenience. Reassuring location updates remain for women to send and men to receive. Men remain the subject, not the object. When it is a man who is threatened, the threat is almost invariably another man. When a man tells a woman to be careful, he means: be careful of other men.

For women, there is horror, but not shock. As activist Nayab Gohar Jan points out, in a particularly poignant video, are these not exactly the kinds of things we have been warning women about for generations?

This, women tell us, is exactly what they mean when they seek ownership of their own bodies. When they proclaim ‘mera jism meri marzi’ – those four words that cause grown men to spontaneously combust. That bring them to tears on national television. Four words that have the power to do what even the rape of a mother in front of her own children cannot do: bring men out into the streets in rage.

“For Haya”, they said, as they hurled bricks at women, earlier this year in Islamabad. But Haya, it seems, is a seasonal priority – a season that coincides rather closely with the Ides of (the) March. When it came to organizing a countermarch, throngs of men flocked to Islamabad’s Press Club, squeezing the women out into the shadows. But when the women of the Jamaat-e-Islami announced a protest against what happened on the motorway, man and brick were nowhere to be seen.

And so it is, women take to the streets, once more. Foreign streets that grow a little more familiar with each adamant attempt to own them. Fresh cuts, old scars.

To those most fond of asking if Aurat March has “issued a statement on this”, they have. Oh, but now, you are politicising the issue, they are told. This is bigger than you and your ‘agenda’.

The real solution is blood, they bray./ Hang them publicly, they say.

Buy a handgun; learn jiu-jitsu;/Just don’t take the motorway.

Listen to our story of how Zia ended rape with a single public hanging, they urge. What we need is one big, bloody spectacle.

That violence begets violence is not a sound-bite; it is a statistically evident truth. That the death penalty deters rape is not backed by the data. What is backed by the data is that it reduces the rate of reporting, and increases the chances that victims will be murdered afterwards.

In any case, we have the death penalty for 33 crimes already, including rape. Little Zainab’s rapist was hanged at Kot Lakhpat two years ago. As others have pointed out, what we need is not harsher laws, but certainty of punishment. That is harder work than a live stream of the gallows.

But punishment is a long way out. Punishment comes after a trial. A trial requires a prosecution, and an investigation, none of which can begin if the victim decides they would rather pick silence.

Enter the chief of Lahore’s finest. Between cretinous hot-takes and choking on his own gravitas, Lahore’s CCPO Umar Sheikh has caused irreparable damage. In his first television appearance, he expressed bewilderment that a woman would expect his force to do its job. In his second, there was awe that she would believe the state had any ‘writ’. And so it went, a third, fourth and fifth time.

‘Unnecessary’, but not ‘illegal’, says Asad Umar. What grounds do we have to proceed against him? Perhaps if the same standard were applied to the rest of the police force, Punjab wouldn’t have cycled through a half-dozen IGs in a single season.

Also, he is wrong. On the very first page of the Police Order of 2002, Section 3 regulates a policeman’s interactions with the public. It is an uninspiring read, but messrs Umar, Buzdar et al would do well to take a look. Then, again, his entire appointment was illegal to begin with, being in violation of Section 11(2). Then, of course, there are the IB reports that list him as both morally and financially ‘corrupt’. Odd coming from a party that offered police reform as its poster-child.

But of course, you can only lead a horse to the water.

By the time this goes to print, promises will probably have been made. It is, after all, the bare minimum. But the promises will mean nothing. The men who did this have been caught. But it is important that we remember all this. All that was said, and all that wasn’t.

This was an outlier because it happened on the motorway. Because we heard the story in such detail. Because not even the presence of her children saved her. But it is a tale that, in so many ways, we have heard before, and we will hear again. These men will return, with different names and different faces. They already have. As of the time of this writing, her tale is already competing for space with women from Taunsa Sharif and Multan; and a seven-year-old in Rawalpindi.

To the women who march, we have failed you. In Pakistan, you really are on your own. To men who don’t join in, you trade your absence for silence. And to all those who ask why women march: this is it. Listen closely.

The writer is a lawyer.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @brainmasalaar