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.