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September 20, 2020

The state of our society


September 20, 2020

A society that is as deeply wounded as ours would naturally yearn for peace and tranquility. But those who govern it have prescriptions that are likely to enhance its intensity of pain and anxiety. That is how we have to contend with this hot-blooded chorus for public hangings of rapists and perpetrators of sex crimes.

We are familiar with the tide of public outrage that rises after every major instance of brutality and ignominy. The motorway gang-rape of a woman in the presence of her three children stands out in the context of its specific circumstances. It is something that people cannot really comprehend – and this may be a reason why so many of them find the easy excuse of passionately crying for revenge.

Essentially, the dominant mindset is orthodox and intolerant and congenitally misogynic. It has been sustained by a consistent refusal to accept modern, liberal values. Emancipation and empowerment of women is at the core of these values. Apart from a fringe, the vast majority is bound by tribal, feudal or traditional ways of thinking.

In fact, the lack of civility in our public behaviour is remarkable. And ordinary, disadvantaged people are considered less than human. Violence, verbal as well as physical, is rampant. There is no dearth of news of very respectable individuals coming to blows, or even going berserk, for trivial causes.

One measure of this broken society is its power structure and its criminal justice system that protects those who have influence and wealth. In many cases, disputes are settled with the use of force, in an extrajudicial domain. Absence of social justice has pushed the lowly into a civilisational wilderness. And there must be reasons why sex crimes are endemic.

Even the political idiom is devoid of any grace or deference to democratic niceties. This has been so for a long time but the PTI brigade has taken it to a higher level, which should not be necessary for a ruling party. The ruling party’s leading spokespersons have their daily routines to dispense hate and venom for opposition leaders. It is all done in the name of accountability, which is also being conducted as a revenge.

Their recklessness is personified by Faisal Vawda, who had once been insisting that if 5,000 persons are hanged in public and their bodies dragged on the streets, society would be cleansed. There would be no corruption after that. By the way, according to the FBR’s 2018 tax directory for parliamentarians, released on Friday, Faisal Vawda paid no taxes in 2018. That he is fond of flaunting his wealth is something else.

In this environment, it is difficult to argue that capital punishment or public hangings are not the answer for the spread of heinous crimes in the country. It would be futile to give examples of other countries. Let me just note, in passing, that according to Amnesty International, 142 of 193 countries have abolished the death penalty in law or practice. The list includes Turkey.

But these are matters that we cannot take up in a rational debate. A major issue at this time is the suppression of media freedom. A multi-party conference, organised by the Pakistan Bar Council in Islamabad on Thursday, deliberated on “Superior judiciary, accountability and civil liberties”. Civil liberties include fundamental human rights and on this front, the situation in Pakistan is very depressing.

Unfortunately, there has been a surge of news about rapes and abuse of children in the wake of the motorway incident. It is its own kind of a pandemic. Why has Pakistani society fostered these perversions? This is not an easy question to answer. But it requires a serious reflection on how this society is designed and governed and how it must now be reimagined.

Meanwhile, our prime minister has an answer. In his TV interview on Monday, Imran Khan called for the public hanging of those involved in the sexual abuse of women and children. He also said that habitual rapists should be physically or chemically castrated. He expressed his shock that sex crimes have been increasing in the country.

To quote from a published report, he said: “World history tells when you increase fahaashi [vulgarity] in society, two things happen: sex crimes increase and the family system breaks down”. Citing an example, he said the divorce rate in England shot up 70 percent at present as vulgarity increased there. Compared to the West, our family system is intact. If our family system breaks down, we will not be able to build it. New Delhi had become the ‘rape capital’ of the world due to obscenity in Bollywood.

Even though I am very tempted to do that, let us not go into the many ironies that are embedded in these comments. In any case, it is hard to refer to ‘fahaashi’ when it comes to the sexual abuse of children, a crime that has a long history in Pakistan. There is also a hint here of how the victim is stigmatized. It is good that the new CCPO Lahore, Umar Sheikh, had to apologise for his insensitive remarks. But he has the support of his prime minister.

It is instructive to recall another gang-rape that was reported internationally because of how the survivor had the courage to stand up and demand justice. Yes, it was Mukhtaran Mai, who was gang-raped in June 2002 in a tehsil of Muzaffargarh on the orders of a ‘panchayat’, as punishment for her younger brother’s alleged illicit relations with a woman of a rival tribe.

Mukhtaran Mai is still there, as a social activist for women’s rights. But she did not get justice. There was also the story of Dr Shazia Khalid, who was raped by a masked intruder in the Sui tehsil of Dera Bugti in January 2005. She had to seek asylum in Canada. In time, the present tragedy will also recede in our memory. But every new catastrophe will pose questions about the state of our society that we are not able to answer.

The writer is a senior journalist.

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