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September 20, 2020

No country for women


September 20, 2020

The writer works as a development practitioner for a local consultancy.

You know you have hit rock-bottom when the responses from your country’s top leadership to a most heinous crime range from victim blaming to calls for public hangings. The fact that these insensitive statements were defended and supported by multitudes on social media and people in general leaves one wondering if there is any hope for betterment.

On September 11, 2020, a day after the Motorway tragedy, the CCPO of Lahore gave a statement that can only be defined as repulsive. Far from owning the failure of not protecting a citizen under his jurisdiction, he had the audacity to question why the woman was travelling in the middle of the night without a male guardian. The argument being that even one of Pakistan’s safest cities isn’t safe enough for a woman to traverse on her own. Hence, she has no one to blame but herself. As if this wasn’t repugnant enough, he went on to endanger the victim’s privacy by publicly sharing her personal details.

This from a man that the government has done its utmost to keep in power; from overlooking his tainted record to the extent of removing his boss despite the former’s insubordination. It was no surprise then to find Asad Umar downplay the statement by simply calling it ‘unnecessary’.

In a civilised world, such callous disregard for a rape victim would have resulted in immediate dismissal, as demanded here by many progressive voices. Not in Naya Pakistan, though. Here such words are brushed off as if they were describing a child’s tantrums in a toy-store. Asad Umar’s claim that the officer had not broken any law and hence could not be fired was extraordinary.

The dejection is compounded when you find people agreeing with the CCPO’s statement; arguing that what he said was right, he just should not have said it on live television. One is only left shell-shocked at the nonchalance with which such deplorable remarks are uttered. Then again, look back to 2005, when every high-heeled urbanite’s favourite dictator had this to say in the aftermath of rape victim Mukhtaran Mai’s case: ‘You must understand the environment in Pakistan… this has become a money-making concern. A lot of people say if you want to go abroad and get a visa for Canada or citizenship and be a millionaire, get yourself raped.’ Today it is Mai who lives in Pakistan, runs free schools for girls and provides legal aid to victims of violence, while Musharraf lives abroad in flats bought by those other champions of women’s rights – Arab Sheikhs.

For someone who does not waste a minute in furious tweeting the instant he sees a photo of Nawaz Sharif strolling in London, Imran Khan broke his days-long silence following this crime by calling for more violence in the form of public hangings and chemical castrations. According to him, it’s unfortunate we cannot take this route since our GSP-Plus trade status with the EU might become jeopardised. One would be appalled, if not for his history of making the most superficial and populist calls.

As if all this was not shocking enough, the leader of the opposition decided to upstage everyone and make the most tone-deaf comment so far, in a week full of them, by giving credit to his party for building the motorway on which this tragedy occurred. In what world does taking credit for building the site of a horrific crime make any sense? What is it supposed to convey?

Aside from a few honourable exceptions, our parliamentary class of 2018 was not to be left behind in this strikingly callous reaction. While the PML-N members thumped their desks vociferously after their leader’s statement, the federal cabinet gave a resounding endorsement to Khan’s call for public hangings

and chemical castrations. Such is the mindset of our current and most recent leadership.

The problem lies not just in our leadership; we are all to blame for this wretched state of affairs. Our brutalised society propels these strawmen to vile heights. Despite years of violence suffered at the hands of terrorists and religious extremists, the daily dose of edicts to kill one or the other member of an opposing sect or religion, and constant abuse suffered by the weak and disenfranchised, it is astounding that our appetite for violence has still not whetted. We continue to hanker for mediaeval era punishments under a terribly misplaced belief that the only solution to end barbarity is by indulging in greater barbarity and sanctifying it under law.

A warped understanding of history contributes to this vengeance-based thinking. Those claiming that General Zia’s era of brutality led to a reduction in the number of rape cases are either horribly misinformed or deliberately obfuscating. Zia introduced the Hudood Ordinance that put the onus on the victim to prove the crime had taken place by bringing four eye-witnesses; while the failure to do so would result in the victim being charged with adultery. Rapes did not end after Zia’s barbaric law. It was the impossibility to bring four witnesses and the fear of getting killed for adultery that prevented rape cases from even being reported in the first place.

This ‘hang the rapist’ position stems from a refusal to accept that violence against women is a systemic problem. As a judgment on a rape case stated, such violent solutions fail to treat the social foundations of rape, which is essentially about power, not lust. Numerous studies have provided substantial evidence to prove that capital punishment does not prevent or deter rape; rather turns violence into a spectacle and satiates the baying public for a limited time.

Seven-year-old Zainab’s case is a very recent reminder of the failure of capital punishment. Despite the fact that her rapist and murderer was hanged in 2018, according to child’s rights organisation, Sahil, there was an upsurge of 11 percent in reported cases of child sexual abuse that year.

When it comes to crimes against women and those of sexual assault in general, no amount of cruel and unusual punishments against the perpetrators will help. We need widespread reforms in our education, police, and criminal justice systems to counter what is inherently a systemic problem. Our penchant for seeking quick-fix solutions to every issue will, especially in this scenario, only serve to brutalise an already violent society where the impulse for revenge outweighs the desire for justice.

We need to ensure our children are taught about sex education and that consent is made a permanent part of school curriculum. We cannot continue to uphold taboos that exist around discussing sexuality in our homes and at educational institutions. Our children need to learn that the only person to blame for rape is the rapist; that it has nothing to with the victim’s attire and everything to do with the criminal’s sense of power over the victim and the knowledge that he can get away with it.

We are quick to blame victims for their choice of clothing or behaviour but conveniently forget that such criminals do not even spare minors and those in abayas. We clamour for violent retaliation but fail to reform a criminal justice system where only four percent of reported cases reach conviction – that too after years in court. Years of torture, humiliation, mental anguish and trauma for the victim.

Most cases go unreported because of police, legal and societal problems. We need to reform our police and justice system; train them to properly investigate and prevent crime. As long as those who are supposed to uphold and enforce the law fail to find and prosecute offenders, predators will continue to operate with impunity.

At the same time, our public offices and private businesses need to incorporate regular gender sensitisation training programmes. According to the Global Gender Gap Report, Pakistan is the third worst country in the world for women. This is not an indicator that can be improved overnight with savage executions. As many have already stated, Pakistan has a rule of law problem. It is not the severity but the certainty of punishment that prevents crimes. But in a country where the sum total of arguments from leaders of various hues ranges from victim blaming to violent reprisals, what structural reforms on crimes against women can we expect?

Twitter: @ShahrukhNR