Ask a hundred people what they think of rape and not one will claim to be in favour of it. No matter what perverse morals and desires they might keep hidden, everyone — a random feudal politician or two excepted — will get indignantly irate if you so much as suggest they might be indifferent to the plight of rape survivors.
Question them a bit closer, though, and you will soon hear that dreaded weasel word: But. Of course she shouldn’t have been raped but did you see what she was wearing? I think rape is evil but why was she alone with a boy? Rape is a horrific crime but our girls today have loose morals.
Politicians, police, press — all have reacted to the gang rape of a young woman in DHA, Karachi, as if they have suddenly contracted a nasty case of on-the-other-hand fever. Normally immune to nuance, they are now discovering the benefits of equivocation at the cost of a rape survivor who has had her character and moral judgment dissected.
It is not enforcing political correctness to insist that there is a correct way to speak about rape survivors. And provincial information adviser Sharmila Farooqui said all the wrong things. In naming the victim, Farooqui snatched her prerogative to decide if she wants to publicly identify herself. She also succumbed to one of the oldest sexist tropes, describing the victim as “hyper”, never considering that staying cool, calm and collected may not be possible after being raped.
The she-was-asking-for-it brigade, apart from their moral failings, exhibit a clear ignorance of the nature of rape. A desire for power and control are a far greater motivation for rape than sexual urges. Grouping rape survivors by class, lifestyle and choice of clothing would show that they represent a crosssection of Pakistani women. This should be blindingly obvious. After all, what do Mukhtaran Mai and the survivor from DHA have in common, other than the crime committed against them? But we, as a nation, keep demonstrating that we need to be reminded of basic truths ad nauseam.
Whether through moral blindness, callowness or unfamiliarity with the issue, by treating rape as a provocation rather than an act of aggression we allow this attitude to diffuse throughout society. Think of how many times you have used rape as a punchline to a joke that nobody should laugh at, but too many do. Date rape and prison rape jokes are so common that they have spawned entire genres at the cinema and on television. One such joke may seem harmless but collectively they contribute to make rape seem like something less than a violent crime.
A blasé attitude towards rape leads even progressives to wish it away. When WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange was arrested for rape, too many liberals treated the charges as a distracting sideshow. They were understandably keen to protect his image as a whistle-blowing hero. That should not have led several commentators to dismiss the accusations of being nothing more than ‘sex by surprise’, a phrase meant to be dismissive, but which is just an euphemism that tries to whitewash rape. Certainly, it would have been fair to wonder if the timing of the accusations were politically motivated, but to reject that the allegations amounted to anything worth taking seriously was a shining example of reflexive misogyny.
In the days to come, there will be many worthy criticisms of the way the police collects evidence, how politicians dodge the topic and how the media sensationalises everything. Let’s look at our own language and rhetoric before that.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 23rd, 2010.