Apologists and the second sex

When men and women condemn the subjugation of women yet fail to take action, they render themselves silent accomplice.


Miranda Husain July 01, 2011

In a newsroom at the end of last year, a couple of chaps were fuming at the on-air sexual harassment of television VJ Mathira by male callers. “I wish she hadn’t been Pakistani,” said one, “because Pakistani women suffer more than women anywhere in the world.”

I firmly believe that such a categorical declaration is meaningless unless one has walked in the shoes of women the world over. But I was, nevertheless, heartened. I thought this acknowledgment that Pakistani women suffer generally, although not exclusively, at the hands of Pakistani men would indicate an individual commitment to ensuring that women in one’s immediate environment get an easier ride. Unfortunately, this seldom happens. I still remember this former colleague lambasting the prevalence of sexual harassment in the workplace. Yet his only response had been to advise female friends against working in certain newsrooms.

When men — and women — condemn the subjugation of women yet fail to take action, they render themselves silent accomplices; easily accused of merely seeking a strategic shortcut to showcasing their so-called progressive credentials. Even worse, this inaction implies that nothing can really be done; that Pakistani culture is inherently anti-women.

Baroness Warsi, Britain’s first-ever Muslim cabinet member, has taken up the issue. Following Pakistan’s recent shameful ranking as the third worst place for women in the world, she spoke out against Pakistani women being denied the rights their religion afforded them over a century ago. Unfortunately, she also stressed that her Pakistani cultural heritage and Muslim faith bestowed legitimacy upon her criticism.

Such an approach, admittedly, can yield short-term benefits, such as avoiding accusations of imposing what can, at times, be all too conveniently dismissed as alien diktats. Yet, in the long-term, the culture card ultimately does a disservice to women everywhere by giving way to apologist rhetoric that often, and inadvertently, exonerates women’s oppressors.

This has proved a problem not just in Pakistan but in Britain too, with the phenomenon of so-called Asian sex gangs targeting underage Caucasian girls. Crimes include repeated gang-rapes, enforced prostitution and sex trafficking. Since 1997, 56 men, with an average age of 28 years, have been convicted of such charges, involving girls aged 11-16 years. Only three offenders were Caucasian. Fifty were Asian Muslim, with the overwhelming majority being of Pakistani origin. Nearly all the victims were Caucasian.

According to one police chief, the biggest barrier to tackling this specific problem is that no one wants to treat such attacks as race crimes, despite the men often shouting ‘white bitch’ during attacks. Again, this has allowed the discourse to be cushioned in an apologist narrative. One MP has said that, culturally, the men might not see their crimes as of those of a paedophile since it is not unusual for men in Pakistan to be married off to girls once they reach puberty.

While the government has launched a national enquiry into the matter, Lord Nazir Ahmed remains the only Muslim public figure to have called on the Muslim community to address the problem. Yet even he has resorted to highlighting the predators’ cultural background — describing the crimes as a fallout from British-born Pakistani men having, at a young age, arranged first-cousin marriages with girls from back home. He believes these men have nothing in common with their wives. Thus they go out looking for fun elsewhere to make up for not having been able to sow their wild oats in the same way that their non-Muslim peers do. And, while Lord Nazir has called for an end to such marriages, sex crimes against young girls can never be synonymous with playing the field with consenting adult women.

In Pakistan, this apologist rhetoric has made a mockery of the country’s much-touted return to democracy. In Britain, it has allowed hate preachers like Anjem Choudhry to insist that the ‘evil culture of the West’— and not the rapists — are to blame. In both cases, women continue to suffer.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 2nd, 2011.

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COMMENTS (10)

Tughral T Ali | 9 years ago | Reply | Recommend The matter of the suppression of women is a fairly serious one in Pakistani society, where as a nation we rush to confuse the issue the minute its brought up. We tend to hide behind conspiracy theories (the west is trying to defame Pakistani society, Islam, our Culture, Felix the cat etc), thus completely losing sight of WHO the victim is in this whole matter. The victim, permit me to remind everyone, is not Pakistan's image, or Islam etc (or even Felix the cat). The victim is the woman and its HER who needs the protection. Jingoism really doesnt help, neither does making excuses for the perpetrators, cultural, religious or otherwise. Pakistanis have an abhorrent hypocrisy built into their national character (nurtured deliberately over decades), where we tend to treat women differently depending on how we judge them (amongst many other injustices). We look at appearances and decide on character of the woman. Any woman who has worked in a Pakistani office can tell you stories of how male colleagues can make her life difficult with passive aggressive attitudes and unsolicited flirtations. We need a massive change in attitudes in this country and also to protect women from violence. Lets start by at least acknowledging there is a problem here. And that NOTHING, not culture not religion nor national identity, can justify treating a woman with disrespect or as a lesser being. Civil society and Government need to be loud and clear on this.
Mirza | 9 years ago | Reply | Recommend @Miranda Husain: @SOLONE: @Habiba Younis: Dear all, thanks for telling like it is. I do not have a blog; I only started writing in ET. The other papers are not honest enough to print anything that I sent to them. I am just an ordinary man who is trying his best all my life to return "mitti ka karz" back to the society. I want to leave the world a better place when I leave. I hate to an apologist, naysayer or an attack dog to hide our inhuman traditions and bad habits. The Asian gangs in the UK are praying upon the local naïve girls is true and understandable. I have known many Pakistanis who have come to the US alone as young men. Their first or only objective was to fine a local naïve woman who can get them green card by means of marriage. Their attitude was to get the card and who cares after that. As they were new here and did not have many assets they had no fear of losing any money either. After doing everything these same guys go back to Pakistan and get married to a “more pure” woman who would follow their orders like their moms did. Some apologists still try to defend the behavior of gangs and try to shift the blame to the west. Why did these “confused second or third generation” not pick the good habits of the West, like equal rights and treatment of women? Why would these Asians get the “worst of both worlds” and not pick any of the good habits? The simple fact is exploiting of “white bitches” is not bad at all and I grew up with this same thinking or lack thereof. In Pakistan I have never understood (like many) the significance of one’s birthday. It was un-Islamic and a reminder of getting older by one more year, hence no reason to celebrate. I carried this same attitude albeit with less intensity for three decades in the US. A few weeks ago there was a commercial on TV, showing a happy birthday sung for an old lady, and then a voice came in “more birthday means less deaths due to cancer”. It was from American cancer association! Without much debate it at once gave me the significance of birthdays. The point is at any age we can learn and understand good things if we keep our eyes, ears, mind and heart open and honest. It is a shame that women are still paraded naked in Pakistan, gang raped as punishment by the “Muslim elders of the town” and then told them to shut up by the mullahs. After the story of M. Mai was published I was very much disturbed and wanted to apologize to her. Finally after Mush’s govt gave her passport back she came to the USA. I made sure that I go there and when I got the chance I stood up and told her: You are as pure and pious as my late mother, my sisters and my daughters. I am ashamed of being a man particularly a Pakistani man, I beg you to please forgive me.
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