A woman subjected to rape is a victim twice over: Once when the crime actually takes place, and then again when she decides to speak out about it. According to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, 350 women were raped and 445 women were gang-raped in Pakistan in 2008. But many incidents of rape go unreported since women are scared of speaking out about a crime which will likely go unpunished but which will certainly stigmatise them for the rest of their lives – making it difficult for them to marry, get a job or even live as a respected member of society.
The rape victim faces a mixture of pity, scorn and being ostracised. Almost invariably, the first response to a recent well-politicised rape case in Karachi was: What was she doing out that late at night? Similarly, in 2006, Ghazala Shaheen was raped and later denied a teaching spot because the school said its reputation would suffer.
In Pakistan, it is not rape that is treated as a crime, but the act of speaking about it. The release of Mukhtaran Mai’s accused rapists has been interpreted as a judgement for breaking the silence on rape. Why else would those celebrating the release of the accused rapists curse Mai ‘for her bad deeds’?
A report by the Pakistan National Commission on the Status of Women says that “an estimated 80 per cent of women” in jail in 2003 were there because “they had failed to prove rape charges and were consequently convicted of adultery.” Little wonder then that many victims commit suicide rather than live with the ‘shame’ of having been raped. Laws need to be strengthened but even more importantly, our collective mindset needs to be overhauled. At present, there is a silent endorsement of rape as a means of punishment and revenge, and this is made possible by the objectification of women. The media and NGOs can change attitudes at the grassroots level by shifting the focus away from the victim and towards the unacceptability of the act.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 6th, 2011.