It takes a lot to shock us. This is, perhaps, a natural consequence of living in a brutal and brutalised society. Yet, every so often there is evil, not merely a crime, not an atrocity, but pure unadulterated evil which stares us in the face. The gang rape of a five-year-old child is that undiluted evil. After, every high profile case of rape, there are apologists, who insinuate that maybe the victim should have been more careful, covered herself a little more, been less social. Yet, how do you make an excuse for the gang rape of a five-year-old. You don’t.
Everybody responds with outrage. “The perpetrators cannot be humans”, “It is a disease” etc. In short, that this is an abomination, something so out of the ordinary that stunned shock is all that we can muster in response. As if it was the first child that was gang raped in this country. As if we do not know of the perpetrators. The standard headline in the Urdu paper and television news bulletin is always “Na zameen phatti, na asmaan gira” (Neither the earth imploded nor the sky fell). As if, it was for the cosmos to respond. As if, all we can offer is passive outrage.
There can arguably be some debate on whether news outlets should name the rape victims or not; here there is none. Horrific tragedy sells, mikes shoved in the face of the mother of the victim, even the victim herself. Intrusive and repulsive questions are asked on air. PEMRA is toothless, but the gallant warriors of the free media decided to maintain silence on the conduct of their colleagues and their own organisations. There are old stories about Fleet Street reporters on Foreign Desks who would stumble upon scenes of carnage and inquire, “Anyone here who has been raped and speaks English”. The papers after the Lahore gang rape have woken up to the idea that rapes (even better if gang rapes) need not be tucked in a three line story in the inner page. In the coming few days, we might see rape stories more prominently featured in newspapers and television programmes, till the next controversy strikes. Then we move on. The next controversy is always around the corner. I am not in any way qualified to talk about rape with any authority however, the “rapists are not from us”, and “they are not human” trope is identical to “these people blowing innocent people up cannot be Muslims”. Syed Munawar Hasan is very human, very Muslim and in addition also the chief of Jamaat-i-Islami. He believes that rape should not be reported because it strikes at the moral fabric of society. Bear in mind, it is the ‘reporting’ of it and not rape itself that is irksome. The members of Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) are fine specimens of mortality and piety. They believe that DNA evidence should not be admissible as primary evidence in rape cases; we are told that they are willing to reconsider now. However, they believe that the Women Protection Bill 2006 is un-Islamic and unnecessary, since of course women are sufficiently protected here. On a separate note, the august body also feels that old people homes are a heathen practice. The flip ideological side of the Jamaat-i-Islami chief (at least, in superficial terms) is the patron saint of enlightened moderation; General (r) Pervez Musharraf who said that by talking internationally about her rape, Mukhtaran Mai was “washing dirty linen in public”. Senator Israrullah Zehri, while commenting on women being buried alive observed that it was a part of his culture. Rape, misogyny and chauvinism seem to transcend ideological barriers in Pakistan; it is where the polar opposites converge. Satire (or what passes in its name) in primetime television is cheap shots at all successful women in public life.
The establishment of this country felt doubly threatened by Shaheed Benazir Bhutto; firstly she was braver than all of them combined and she was a woman. They never forgave her. They are no mood to forgive Ms Asma Jahangir either. Talking about Malala or Aasia Bibi brings the worst in us. Outrage is good; it can lead to a movement, at least, an organised response. The shameful series of incidents in India and the response to them illustrate some of this. However, outrage is a limited resource. The roots of misogyny are religious, cultural and institutional. The courageous women activists have fought the good fight for years; however, without the consistent support of most of us, whose involvement is periodic and short-lived outrage. Article 17 of the Qanun-e-Shahadat (Evidence) Order 1984 stipulates that in certain financial transactions the testimony of two women is equal to one man. The Hudood ordinance is notorious enough. The Qisas and Diyat laws brought to light by the Shahzeb Khan case haunt the victims of honour killings daily, where the killer, the killed and the heirs are all from one family. The fight has to be assailing these laws; laws do reflect society’s prejudices but also shape them. One example is the practice of Sati and how the British did not wait for the requisite societal support to abolish it. The prohibition on Sati gradually decreased the social acceptability of it (while being aware that a colonial state has the leverage to take unpopular decisions, the precedent and the historical process still has some value). Burning women or killing them is nobody’s culture and if it is, the state has a responsibility to eradicate it.
Asking for public executions of the perpetrators is the gut reaction; it is also the easy reaction. These laws and practices will have to be fought one by one, specifically and consistently. We are miles away from abolishing them. Yet, let us at the very least acknowledge that these rapes and killings are done by fellow countrymen, completely human, living in our culture which enables this. Syed Munawar Hasan can and should be boycotted by all decent people till he apologises. Media houses can be compelled to change their policy by a critical mass shunning the rape apologists, chauvinists and sensationalists; because at the end they do care about ratings and profits. If we are finally outraged; let it not go to waste.
Post Script: Writing about rape, misogyny in Pakistan one is already aware of the helplessness, the repetition of clichés and the futility. Yet, reading a recent news report of five sisters attempting suicide (four of them dead) by jumping in a canal because their father could not afford the dowry to get them married, the spirit sinks along with the four women. If this judgment on the state, on us as a people does not really shock every fiber anymore, the battle may already have been lost.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 22nd, 2013.