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Pakistan’s gory rape apologia – KUNWAR KHULDUNE SHAHID

A Pakistani-French woman was raped in front of her children after her car broke down on the Lahore-Sialkot motorway on Wednesday. While suspects were arrested as outrage over the incident grew, the comments of the Lahore Capital City Police Officer (CCPO) Umar Sheikh regarding the rape have further enhanced the gravity of the heinous crime by laying bare the mindset in-charge of the citizens’ safety.

The focus of Sheikh’s response to a TV channel’s queries regarding the incident was to question the choice of route, timing of the journey, failure to check the fuel tank, sprinkled in between implied irresponsibility as a woman and mother. When asked by another channel for clarification of the remarks, CCPO said ‘Pakistan is not France’ and hence it was the victim’s fault if she mistook the area under the CCPO’s jurisdiction as such. As condemnations grew, and the CCPO was asked to apologize on another TV channel, he further doubled down on his comments and disconnected the phone line.

Where opposition parties with a similarly wretched record of inaction over violence against women are queuing up to demand Sheikh’s resignation, the government’s own nonchalance traversed the nadir even for Pakistani politics.

When Punjab Chief Minister Usman Buzdar was asked to comment on the CCPO’s remarks he dodged the question multiple times saying that the media is “reporting more than necessary”. Buzdar didn’t quite clarify which part of the brutal rape of a woman on a national highway, and the ensuing uproar over the police head’s callous misogyny, should not have been reported.

A similar dismissive approach has also been exhibited by other members of the Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI) government with Shehzad Ahmad, the Prime Minister’s advisor on interior and accountability, choosing not to hold the CCPO accountable and instead accused the media of ‘making his remarks controversial.’

Where the police turmoil linked to the newly appointed Lahore CCPO, and his malpractices, would require another piece altogether, the highlighting of his rape apologia is to delineate the extent of gory sexism marring Pakistan. This was best illustrated, inadvertently, by the Federal Minister of Planning Asad Umar defending the government’s inaction against the CCPO by saying he hadn’t said or done anything illegal.

It is true that rape apologia doesn’t break any law, let alone Pakistan’s—the same law that until 2016 didn’t consider DNA tests admissible in rape cases, which as late as 2006 didn’t differentiate between rape and consensual sex outside of marriage, sanctioning death for the latter. It also explains why granting women some of the rights that men enjoy in Pakistan was deemed historic and met with Islamist uproar.

Islamist parties have long asked raped women to keep quiet, if they cannot fulfill the humanly impossible, and apparently divinely sanctioned, task of providing four male witnesses to their torment—only one word can be used for those being able to provide such testimonies: gang.

Before 2006, and then 2016, any attempts to challenge these grotesque absurdities were openly struck down as contradicting the Quran and Sunnah and hence blasphemy—another antediluvian law sanctioning death in Pakistan. That similar arguments continue to be given to suppress women’s rights, underlines how Pakistan codified violent misogyny through Islamic sharia, which upholds the ghastly rape apologia.

Those demanding sharia often equate raped women with sheep asking to be slaughtered. Among the many repulsive juxtapositions shared to justify rape, perhaps the most frequently used is the lollipop fallacy—almost as insulting to men by synonymizing them with insects.

Therefore, inevitably any discussion surrounding rape horrifically becomes a measuring tape of the victim’s dress, a societal verdict on her character, and a wholehearted condemnation of  her choices, all centering around the targeting of the independence that women in our neck of the woods continue to strive hard to achieve.

Peddlers of such a narrative also fail to take into account that victims of sexual abuse include men, children, elderly, and animals. Immediately after the motorway incident, the region echoed with rapes of a five-year-old and an 86-year-old. On Friday, yet another mother was raped in front of her children in Taunsa.

Hence, anyone engaging in a discourse blaming women for the violence committed against them—and unfortunately a significant percentage of the population does—isn’t just an apologist of rape, but also an accomplice. For, by condemning the decisions and choices made by a rape victim in the immediate aftermath of her ordeal, we’re laying the ground for that brutality to take place when another individual makes any of those decisions or choices. 

Indeed, such a mindset isn’t limited to the Islamist groups. From serving prime ministers—including the current—to chief justices and army chiefs have openly expressed sexism ranging from claims of inferiority of women to deplorable belittling of rape. There’s a long history of alleged rapists connected to, or members of, political parties going scot-free.

High courts in Pakistan have nullified perfectly legal marriages because women exercising their own will brought ‘dishonor’ to their families and the society. This dissects the prevalence of so called honor killings in Pakistan even today.

The dominance of Islamist sexism, varying presence of misogyny in local cultures, and the fact that the world as a whole is still a long way away from coming close to achieving gender equality, combine to illustrate Pakistan’s fixation at the bottom of all women’s rights indices. It also underscores the colossal challenge posed to Pakistani feminists and their struggle to challenge the narratives on violence against women.

Violence against women, which in Pakistan can the shape of honor killings, forced conversions, domestic abuse, acid attacks, and other forms of assault, is entirely rooted in the ideas that maintain, or imply, the inferiority of women and/or different sets of rules for the genders.

Whether rooted in religion, culture, tradition, or any code—scribed or otherwise—it is the ideas that underline inequality between men and women that would need to evolve—or make way—for gender equality, and not the other way around.

There can be nothing more sacred than upholding of absolute equality in human rights—and hence women’s rights. This includes the right for women to be treated equally regardless of their independent choices.

Anyone digressing from the core principles of egalitarianism would inadvertently find themselves somewhere on the broad spectrum of rape apologia. And it is the elimination of this apologia, more than any individual rapists, which will help Pakistan win its war over violence against women.

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