The outrage culture masks a landscape of pervasive abuse

September 27, 2020

Understanding cycles of sexual violence will help us break them

Volcanoes of outrage and grief erupt when a particularly heinous case of sexual violence emerges in Pakistan. But such cases are only the tip of the iceberg as their exceptional horror grabs our attention, amplified by social media.

The culture of rape goes beyond individual or isolated incidents. Sexual violence is a universal experience that cuts across divides -national, religious, ethnic, class and gender. It’s a crime of power, committed by those who can. Typically, not strangers in dark alleys but those the victim knew and trusted. Exceptions like the motorway incident are just that – exceptions, enabled by a wider landscape of acceptance for transgressions against vulnerable communities and impunity for perpetrators.

The earliest such outrage I remember arose over the “Nawabpur incident” in 1984, when women of a carpenter’s family were paraded naked as a punishment for an alleged transgression by a male family member. The public flogging meted out to the perpetrators under the dictatorship did not prevent more of such incidents from taking place.

Behind each case that causes public outrage is the widespread phenomenon of child sexual abuse, enabled by the linked notions of rape, shame, honour, and silence, and the idea that women are not full humans.

What is changing is that these concepts, while still powerful, are slowly eroding.

Regardless of gender, everyone I have spoken to about the issue was either molested or sexually abused as children or knows someone who was. The perpetrators are typically people they know: fathers, uncles, cousins, brothers, family friends -even grandfathers, and teachers, including those imparting religious education, and domestic servants.

When children try to talk about a transgression, adults typically hush them up or shame them.

That is what happened when as a child, filmmaker Arshad Khan tried to tell his mother about the servant who was sexually abusing him. Years later, he learnt that two of his other five siblings too had similar experiences, an uncle in their case. In their cases, too, their mother did not try to protect them.

But Khan doesn’t blame her.

He saw that she had scribbled over her face with blue marker in all her childhood photos. When he asked her why, she shrugged it off as a childish act after getting angry with someone. So why didn’t she try to scribble over the face of the person she was angry with? She didn’t reply but he suspects the answer lies in the shame associated with being sexually abused.

The way to get past that is to have open conversations, remove the taboos, and empower children to be aware of their bodies. Help them protect themselves by giving them the vocabulary to say “no” and teaching them about “good touch” and “bad touch”.

That is what Khan has tried to do in his ground-breaking documentary Abu (2017). The memoir film is proving to be a crucial conversation-starter, with discussions at each of its 70 screenings highlighting the universality of the rape culture. Screenings have taken place in Pakistan too but privately, even though there are many who would like it to be shown openly.

Arshad Khan

At the Chagrin Falls International Documentary Film Festival, Ohio, when a woman in the audience said she “didn’t realise this was such a big problem in India (sic)” – meaning South Asia - a man jumped to correct her. He cried while relating how a “close family member” in their small town in middle America had regularly sexually abused him until he left home at age 16.

Child abusers are themselves usually victims of child abuse and unaddressed trauma in the first place, as Arshad Khan noted when we spoke on the phone after a recent online screening of Abu at Tufts University. “We know all these relatives and their children. Getting them punished is not the answer”.

This is why Khan chooses not to name names or try to shame perpetrators in his documentary, which he says is about reconciliation.

Arshad Khan

He has a point, punitive actions may satiate public opinion but long-term goal needs to be to reduce instances of rape and sexual violence. This is where the concept of restorative rather than retributive justice comes in, acknowledging the victim’s trauma while recognising how the event has affected the community.

Meanwhile, women who report rape continue to face further indignities and re-live the trauma as their cases drag on - police investigations, the justice system, the media and society. The implication often is that she must have provoked the attack because of what she was wearing, or saying or where she was.

Not surprisingly, rape convictions are lower in Pakistan than elsewhere. And it is here that a top-ranking police officer who blamed a rape survivor is allowed to keep his job.

In the long term, what’s needed is a systemic change to tackle a systemic issue.

The author is a senior journalist and can be reached at @beenasarwar and

The outrage culture masks a landscape of pervasive abuse