A few days ago, a jirga in Sindh saw it fit to convict a 10-year-old boy of having an affair with a woman in her thirties, and ordered him to pay a fine to the ‘aggrieved’ party. Frankly, the verdict isn’t that shocking. Far more ludicrous decisions have emanated from Pakistani tribal courts. What is disappointing is the absence of condemnation from political representatives, human rights workers and the public.
The rationale for this lack of protest lies in the generally accepted belief that men are not as sexually vulnerable as women (irrespective of age or other factors evidencing weakness), and therefore unworthy of the same protection. The law imbibes this prejudice too. Section 375 of the Pakistan Penal Code provides that an act of statutory rape occurs when “a man” has sexual intercourse with “a woman” “with or without her consent when she is under 16 years of age”. The idea that rape can be committed upon a boy-child, albeit by another man, is not recognised. To contemplate the existence of a female instigator of rape would be unimaginable.
This double standard has emerged from the traditional notion that women are not sexually autonomous beings. Their sexuality has never been considered a weapon, capable of causing harm to another person’s izzat. Thus, where an older woman engages sexually with a young man, it is sexual initiation, not rape. Rape is gendered, and evolved as such due to the traditional convention of the male initiative juxtaposed with offering consent as the female’s control over sexual activity. As two American academics, Shafer and Frye, worded it in their essay “Rape and Respect”, “rape is a man’s act … and being raped is a woman’s experience …”. To be raped, then, is a female experience, irrespective of the victim’s gender; it is a social condition, rather than biological, where the weakness at play means the victim is feminised. The trouble arises when this characterisation prevents legal and social support being offered to a male victim of rape.
The universally accepted definition of rape contributes to this injustice. Rape equals intercourse with force and without consent. However, in reality, force need not be aggressive (especially where the aggressor is an older, motherly figure), and absence of violent coercion does not ensure presence of the victim’s control. Furthermore, the victim (especially a young one) may over time become conditioned to passive receptivity, connoting that meaningful consent will not exist in the sense of free choice under equal bargaining positions. The fault lies in defining rape in terms of violence and not sexual, an act which projects a person’s physical strength onto their sexual interaction. From the male victim’s perspective, strength lies in a social sphere, not physical.
In a Pakistani context, the justification for the prejudicial mindset is obvious. The law inconveniences women, social norms consider them the subservient sex; they are employed as marriage vehicles to end tribal feuds, killed for their immoral behaviour, gang-raped to restore a family’s honour. To reconcile that with the image of an aggressive instigator of rape? Difficult.
Simultaneously, there is also the reality of unchaste teenage males sexually assaulting adult women. To accord the protection of statutory rape to such young boys would result in the paradox of an older female victim of rape being held liable for the crime of statutory rape. But to offer no protection to vulnerable young boys is equally damaging.
In 1996, a teenage American boy, Nathaniel J, was ordered to pay child support to his 34-year-old female statutory rapist, when her crime resulted in a daughter’s birth. Remarkably, the court stated, “victims have rights. Here, the victim also has responsibilities.” Male victims of statutory rape are culpable because they are always seen as perpetrators of sex, no matter how young. After all, they should have kept their trousers up. Isn’t this what was always said about female victims of sexual abuse?
Published in The Express Tribune, June 27th, 2015.