Rape in neoliberal times

September 27, 2020

The power of neoliberalism is its anonymity and its key driver is the logic of the market, not the human condition


undreds of consultancy reports on gender violence gather dust on NGO shelves. The recent rape of a woman off the Lahore-Sialkot motorway has confirmed their irrelevance. The state continues to blame victims and is uncommitted to improving legal recourse; political parties pass laws but tolerate harassment and sexism in their own ranks, whilst some of the ulema lobby for gender apartheid and public hangings. Like the devotees of 5thgenerationen warfare, social media activists insist that shaming the government and society for injustices in their online battles, is a game-changer.

Victims of sex crimes in Pakistan are stuck between a rapacious neoliberal era that drives the vulnerable to utmost precarity and old-world prejudices that continue to stigmatise them. Both conditions crystallise into demands to privatise rape by blaming the victim for it and/or, to hyper-publicise it via the spectacle of public hangings.

Neoliberalism is used as a political slur for those who want to be on the left, but without specifying its contradictions. Economic globalisation has liberated choice and availability of goods, services, art, and ideas but at the cost of environmental and urban degradation, and grossly unequal class and gendered relations. The power of neoliberalism is its anonymity; its key driver is the logic of the market, not the human condition.

There is privatisation of public resources and state responsibilities like health care, education, water supply and security. Even, wombs are now sold or rented. Wealth disparities condemn the poor to social peripheries and, unsafe slums, factories and transportation subsidise the opportunity cost of gender violence.

The concentration of power and wealth in the hands of the one percent and abdication of responsibility result in blaming the poor and the powerless. The mantra of ‘educate yourself, don’t be corrupt, be pious, have savings, don’t marry young, have fewer babies or, don’t be in-the-wrong-place-at-the-wrong-time’, is the neoliberal logic of self-reliance.

For women, this means dependency on those very communities and families that subject them to sexual violence in the first place. Trapped under multiple burdens of unpaid home, care and reproductive work, and low-waged employment, they are also carriers of male debts, blame, entitlement and disposability. The only returns offered to women are abstract/ non-material ones – respect, lust, piety, honour, beauty.

It stands to neoliberal reason that men, as the more powerful gender, and the privileged classes with their wealth and ability to buy immunity, will treat vulnerable women and gendered minorities as disposable, replaceable commodities or sexual surplus.

The fruits of movements for labour, civil and women’s rights by previous generations have been swallowed by the neoliberal turn that lured protest off the streets to NGOs, and now, to Twitter and Instagram. Social media is a neoliberal tool – a pseudo-public market space where individuals function as brands, consumers and endorsers who click, like and re-tweet. No-one questions the ethics of methods used or the veracity of tangible, sustained results.

Following the motorway rape, unverified and inexperienced chatter on rape culture, the law, punishment and Islam flooded the online marketplace of opinions. These were not debates or the views of collectives but of individuals or fan-based sites driven by the digital market; the very definition of fragmented individualism.

To trend is straight out of a corporate manual but for now defines a form of protest which claims to benefit human rights causes. For decades, Pakistani women activists struggled to detach rape from adultery as compounded by the zina laws and remove its euphemistic covers such asziyadati and izzat lootna. Despite this history, in the motorway rape case, the survivor’s violation was digitally erased altogether by the trending hashtag, #motorwayincident.

There are no audits for the helplines and mobile phone apps promised as a panacea to violence, or accountability from consultants, government, donors and NGOs/technocrats who introduced these at high and untested costs.

There are no audits for the helplines and mobile phone apps promised as a panacea to violence, or accountability from consultants, government, donors and NGOs/technocrats who introduced these at high and untested costs. The Zainab Alert app is a mere political trophy, often flashed without evidence of its efficacy. A cost-benefit analysis must decide if funds are better diverted into effective measures like well-lit streets, cameras, road side emergency phones, and for urgent correctives in the medico-legal-judicial processes.

Online scorning of individual conservatives is a useless indulgence since the religious-right is a powerful representative of a mass constituency. These right-wingers don’t hate women’s freedoms - they oppose the concept of sexual freedoms and prevention of child marriage; some of them prescribe complete gender segregation as the solution to rape and some support the notion of marrying the victim to the rapist and; some refute the concept of marital rape, all based on a ‘consensus’ of what comprises the Islamic sexual order. So why aren’t ‘authentic’ activists, who claim to reject what they label as ‘liberal western enlightenment feminism’, engaging and counter-reasoning with the pious right on these core differences?

Previous generations of feminist collectives were not invested in popularising their politics but in democratising and feminising the state, supporting survivors of violence, setting up shelters, fighting cases, changing laws and policies. There is little effort today towards expanding or strengthening these practicalities or insisting on sex education.

In the game of performative protest politics, even celebrities are rivalling with activists today – splintering clarity or collective movements. The marketplace of activism has resulted in periodic competitive outbursts of outrage but not for working on cases or building consensus on prevention, punishment, or sexual freedoms in an Islamic Republic.

The deafening, contradictory, and self-promotional noise over sexual violence is neoliberal activism at its best. Half-baked remedies, without radical changes in activist methods, state responsibility, sexual autonomy, and confronting religio-cultural tribalism, will simply sustain the neoliberal way.

The writer is the author of ‘Faith and Feminism in Pakistan: Religious Agency or Secular Autonomy?

Rape in neoliberal times