No country for women
Mehr Tarar | 25 Sep, 2020
(Illustration: Saurabh Singh)
IT HAPPENED SO long ago, it is a nightmare I remember only in its scariest bits. A story that I repeated to a few people over the years but is one of those things that I wish I could completely erase from my mind. I thought I had. Worse things happened to me before and after that event, things that created a storm so devastating within me, I became a different version of me that was never really me.
One day, I will write about those things. Maybe not. Some things remain locked in that half-forgotten part of the mind. A survival tactic, perhaps. An unvisited place covered with dust, cobwebs, white covering sheets. One day, it will be completely invisible.
It was a forlorn hill station in a cold month, barely any tourist anywhere. I was there with a couple of friends for a night. The place we were staying at was one of those government-run guest houses that seem unfriendly even in the nicest of lights. It was the first part of the 1990s. I was in my mid-20s.
Waking up early, we had some breakfast in the room. Or was it just tea? My friends left to get something from some nearby place; one of them told me to lock the door. Feeling comfortably sleepy, I didn’t move. Suddenly, I felt a presence. A guest house staff member was inside the room. Whether he had lightly tapped at the door or had simply walked inside the room, I couldn’t say. Harshly, I asked him to get out, saying that I would call the reception to have the breakfast dishes removed later.
He left the room, I slid deeper into the blanket for a few moments, or was it a few minutes, I couldn’t say. Just as I was about to get up to lock the door, I felt as if someone was standing at the foot of my bed. I opened my eyes. It was the same man. He was looking at me with a strange empty expression that alerted and scared every sleepy bit of me.
As I shouted at him why he had come into my room again, unannounced, he moved. He attacked me. Trying to grab me into a fold that in no vocabulary is definable as an embrace, in a matter of a few seconds, I was screaming and cursing and even threatening him of dire consequences if he didn’t stop, still on that bed trying to keep the blanket on me with one hand so that my bare calves remained hidden, and fighting him with the other hand.
I don’t remember how long it was. Suddenly, he ran out of the room. I froze. Slowly, I stepped off the bed. I locked the room. Shaking uncontrollably, I waited for my friends to return.
That man had not touched anything in the room. Not a few thousand rupees lying on the mantlepiece, not anything else. He had entered that room to assault me. To rape me? He knew he was recognisable, being an employee of that guest house. He still attacked me. After running out of my room, he apparently vanished from the guest house. I don’t know what happened to him after that.
There was no police report. It wasn’t that I dreaded the attention of an investigation, the unease of answering questions about the intention of that man, where he had touched me, what I was wearing, who I was, what I was doing there, should my family be informed. It was just that I didn’t even think of filing a report. Sexual assaults are kept a secret. Even the most violent ones. I learned that as a teenager. I relearned it in my 20s.
For days, I had the half-circle of his steely fingers on my throat, the kind of marks that appear when someone is trying to choke you. The upper part of my right arm was bruised. For weeks, even the tiniest sound startled me. For months, I half-slept, terrified. For years, I remembered his eyes when I saw him standing at the foot of the bed.
A legal system such as Pakistan’s with its systemic weaknesses is unable to justify the absolute, the strictest punishment. A legal system that appears in almost all cases to be impotent to prove the guilt of a defendant beyond all reasonable doubt, shouldn’t even talk about public hangings, chemical castrations
The gang rape of a woman, mother of three, on September 9th, in Lahore, has taken Pakistan by its drooped shoulders, shaking it to its barely alive conscience. In a country where a number of women are murdered under the awful connotation of ‘honour killing’ every year, the outrage over every case that for one reason or the other catches media attention is almost hypocritical. The recent kidnapping, rape and murder of the five-year-old Marwa of Karachi, and the violent rape of the motorway victim in front of her children are merely two images of a gigantic landscape that is so horrific that there is an almost helpless need to camouflage it in the outcry over public hangings and chemical castrations.
The motorway gang rape and dacoity would have gone unreported if the police had not finally arrived to the recuse of the woman after a passer-by made a call to the emergency police number 15. Her calls to the motorway emergency number were not responded to. The victim/survivor would have kept her pain to herself and her family, whatever little I could decipher from her comments to one female journalist whom she spoke to with the promise not to reveal her identity. Now that journalist regularly posts updates of the victim/survivor’s condition and her questions to the police and government.
The highest officials of the Punjab police and the office of the chief minister of Punjab are in constant touch with the victim/survivor.
Why the victim/survivor did not want to report the rape, only she knows. Most rape victims whose cases become public go through multiple trials: the unimaginable horror of rape, media reporting of rape, police investigation, and a trial in court. Familial and societal judgements become scarlet letters.
So much of that is under a noisy debate in Pakistan these days. The grief and anger over the motorway rape are mixed with outright fear: if this could happen to her, it could happen to anyone. This time, the victim/survivor is not a woman from a backward area. She was not raped in a dark room. She does not belong to that underprivileged part of society that despite its reluctance to make its ‘shame’ public, is forced to file a report when the violence of the rape makes immediate hospitalisation mandatory. The educated, the privileged, the independent-thinking Pakistan is justifiably traumatised that someone from their world was raped on a motorway after being dragged from her car, after being viciously beaten, after her children were threatened and beaten.
No one is safe. Not the five year-old-Marwa who went to buy sweets from the nearby shop at 7am, or the mother of three after her car ran out of petrol around midnight on a dark and deserted motorway.
No words suffice for even coming close to imagining the pain of the five-year-old Marwa who was abducted, raped and killed. I cannot begin to imagine the pain of the woman who was beaten, saw her children getting beaten, and was raped in front of her children by two men in the darkness of the forest off the motorway. I cannot begin to imagine the pain of any child, girl or boy, or a female, who is raped, and is killed, or is left alive to live with an invisible part of them dead forever.
A suspect in the Marwa case is under arrest. One of the two suspects of the motorway rape case is in police custody, while efforts to arrest the other are in full force.
The Lahore Capital City Police Officer Muhammad Umer Sheikh’s comment on the gang rape sparked anger and elicited condemnation from the government and the opposition as well as almost every Pakistani who has a voice via social or electronic media. The CCPO, his words dipped in carelessness, talked to a TV channel expressing his ‘surprise’ why the woman decided to travel at night with her children, and that too without checking her petrol gauge, is a microcosm of mainstream societal mindset: it is a woman’s responsibility to protect herself from getting raped.
Prime Minister Imran Khan’s idea of a punishment of chemical castration for serial rapists is a knee-jerk reaction at a time when Pakistan has one overarching dilemma, circa september 2020: safety of children, female and male, and females of all ages
The darkly jaded system of victim blaming is unchanged. She-asked-for-it is regurgitated in its many twisted forms. It does not have any expiration date. Only the names and the faces of perpetrators change, the same snigger, the same blame shifting, superimposing on one another in a blurry morality. The convoluted system is at a loss of pretexts when the victim is a five-year-old girl, an eight-year-old boy, a woman in her 70s, a woman who is with her children, a woman who is dead.
The CCPO has apologised for his insensitive words.
OUTSIDE THE WORLD of Twitter, the words of the CCPO come in the form of muted rebukes, as the loud exclamatory lament of almost every Pakistani: may Allah have mercy on everyone, why was she travelling so late at night? Why did she go out at night alone? Myriad questions, all manifestation of that etched-in-stone acceptance of male depravity and female ‘majboori’ to exist in a world in which men do bad things and will do bad things, making it a female’s ‘obligation’ to always ensure that she is ‘safe’.
Who is safe? Which place is safe? What time is safe? What clothes are safe? What age is safe? Which environment is safe?
Member of National Assembly Shandana Gulzar, of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, the ruling party, said on a prime-time talk show on September 14th: ‘[You know what] the ugliest thing is… The NGO, War Against Rape, gave the statistics. When we tackle this issue in Pakistan, it will bring a revolution, [it will] produce resistance. Gynaecologists ask girls: who raped you? Eighty-two per cent of the perpetrators are father, paternal uncle, paternal grandfather, maternal grandfather, maternal uncle, aunt’s husband, [victim’s] brother. The mother brings the girl to the gynaecologist instead of taking her to a police station. The mother says that the father [of the victim] raped her, but that she can’t leave her husband. So what does the mother do? She gets the pregnancy aborted. And the girl says: ‘my father did not remove my dupatta [sign of her honour]’.’ That her rapist father kept her ‘honour’.
Should I re-ask: Who is safe? Which place is safe? What time is safe? What clothes are safe? What age is safe? Which environment is safe?
Much needs to be said, a great deal is being currently discussed. Much is to happen. All in the category of must, not should. Deeper inculcation of values at home. Parents as good role models. Sex education at a young age. The idea of consent taught at home. Stricter laws. Special courts. Strengthening of the legal system for prompt justice. Guarantee of convictions in open-and-shut cases. Gender-sensitisation courses for all law enforcement agencies. More female officers, doctors, lawyers, judges in every rape case. The state to be a party in a rape case to rule out the option of an out-of-court settlement, a forced pardon. No legal room for a pre-arrest bail for an alleged rapist. National sex offender database. Psychological and scientific evaluations and long-term studies of sexual offenders. Nationwide inclusion of courses on consent for pubescent boys. A national helpline, one number for the entire country. Mandatory immediate response of police to a distress call of a female.
The brutality of rape is mixed with the idea of ‘honour’ and ‘shame’ of a female and her family in such a deep mix of religious ethos, cultural mores and societal binaries of the reportable and what-must-never-be-revealed that most cases of rape remain not just unreported but un-talked about. The brutalisation of body becomes a secret of ‘shame’. It is never to be revealed. Not even to the people closest to you
Not much will change until the mindset changes. The government promises justice. The blatherskites of the opposition spout big words to underscore the government’s inability to provide protection against rape. The populist demand for public hanging is an understandable reaction to a heinous crime, but it is morally and legally a non-starter. Despite my categorical repudiation of capital punishment, I empathise with the demands to have the strictest punishments for the most heinous crimes.
My objection is simple: in a country like Pakistan with its systematically flawed legal and justice dynamics, absolute punishments make little sense. A legal system such as Pakistan’s with its systemic weaknesses is unable to justify the absolute, the strictest punishment. A legal system that appears in almost all cases to be impotent to prove the guilt of a defendant beyond ALL reasonable doubt, shouldn’t even talk about public hangings, chemical castrations.
Prime Minister Imran Khan’s idea of a punishment of chemical castration for serial rapists is a knee-jerk reaction at a time when Pakistan has one overarching dilemma, circa September 2020: safety of children, female and male, and females of all ages.
Prime Minister Khan, addressing a joint session of parliament on September 16th, said: “[Most] sex offenders are repeat offenders. The suspect Abid [of the motorway gang rape] is on the run. He was convicted in an earlier gang rape. Whatever punishment he was given was obviously not Ibraat-naak, and ergo, he raped again. This rape is reported. How many such crimes he committed between his two reported gang rapes that were unreported? A very small number of rape cases are reported. Child abuse cases in which children are brutalised, and in rape cases of women, we can imagine the trauma and grief they [the victims/survivors] go thorough. We are preparing to legislate a bill that has an Ibraat-naak punishment. People should be scared. That if they destroy someone’s life, it would have consequences. Insha Allah, in a few days, we’ll present the bill.”
Ibraat-naak, loosely translated, is a punitive action so stringent, it becomes a standard for deterrence.
Castration of a few rape convicts will not end the occurrence of rape when the majority of rape cases are not even reported. The privileged, the upper class, the upper middle class do not report rape. The brutality of rape is mixed with the idea of ‘honour’ and ‘shame’ of a female and her family in such a deep mix of religious ethos, cultural mores and societal binaries of the reportable and what-must-never-be-revealed that most cases of rape remain not just unreported but un-talked about. The brutalisation of body becomes a secret of ‘shame’. It is never to be revealed. Not even to the people closest to you.
The Sisyphean dilemma of making this world a safer place for children, for females, exists in its eternal loop.
I see it all around me. Women are defined in terms of daughter, sister, wife, mother. A female’s body, since birth, assumes the connotation of a family’s honour. A woman’s character is narrowed into the barometer of a family’s shame. The idea is protection of a female as a daughter, sister, wife, mother. Females must be respected because they are someone’s daughter, sister, mother, not for themselves. The worst expletives have the words ma (mother) and bahen (sister) and the threat of sexual violence to them, turning their anatomy into points to assail and denigrate. Safety of females is tied to their relationships that describe them. Love and respect of women take a backseat to ‘protection’ of women. Millions of good, decent men become irrelevant when millions of men have selective morality vis-à-vis their behaviour towards females.
The Lahore capital city police officer Muhammad Umer Sheikh, his words dipped in carelessness, talked to a TV channel expressing his ‘surprise’ why the woman decided to travel at night with her children, and that too without checking her petrol gauge, is a microcosm of mainstream societal
mindset: It is a woman’s responsibility to protect herself from getting raped
Roving eyes; hands moving to thighs, backs of females seated next to them; sexual innuendos in normal conversations; trivialisation of sexual crossing of lines; gaslighting; slut-shaming; victim blaming; looks-shaming; body-shaming; categorisation of females in brackets of ‘good’ and ‘bad’, ‘pious’ and ‘fast’; fake confusion about consent; the first comment about any female focusing on her looks; trivialisation of sex, there is so much that is so much a part of our societal fibre, it is not even seen as a deviance.
Having written about crimes against children and females for a few years, I feel a deep sense of redundancy in my words. What gives me some strength is our youth. When I talk to my son, my nephews, their friends, I feel there is hope in this world. Gender equality is not a debate for them, they take it as a given. Sexual or any other form of violence towards females, anyone in a vulnerable, weak position, is a red line their minds accept as a part of their DNA. Their stances are unequivocal. They consider females their equal, not a weaker being who needs protection. They reject violence. They reject capital punishment. They reject punitive measures. They believe in the concept of moral rehabilitation. They believe in changing the world without adding more violence to avenge violence.
My niece, whom I love more than the daughter I don’t have, knows she is loved and respected. She does not need to be protected. She talks about her pain. She shares others’ anguish. Her empathy for every female in her world and beyond is her strength. The only armour that she proudly wears is the knowledge that her loved ones are always there for her. I want to believe in their idea of the world, their ideals of existence.