October Issue 2005

By | Opinion | Viewpoint | Published 15 years ago

“You must understand the environment in Pakistan,” Musharraf added. “This has become a money-making concern. A lot of people say if you want to go abroad and get a visa for Canada, or citizenship, and be a millionaire, get yourself raped.”

The Washington Post, September 13, 2005

rape-1-oct05General Pervez Musharraf’s remarks, quoted above, stunned Pakistan’s entire public, women activists in particular were smitten to the marrow. Quite a few international figures, such as the Prime Minister of Canada, were equally shocked and outraged. Subsequently, General Musharraf asserted that that he had been misquoted, while The Washington Post issued a statement reaffirming its original text. President Musharraf has returned to the subject more than once and official spokesmen are threatening organisations (un-named) that they accuse of maligning Pakistan before international audiences.

Unfortunately, neither the President nor his spokespersons have cared to support their fulminations with evidence. It would have simplified matters if they had given the number of women who have gone abroad by presenting themselves as rape victims and of those who have made money. As far as human rights activists are concerned, they have not sought visas or cash grants for any victim of rape. Indeed there is very little support in civil society for the practice followed by some of Pakistan’s leaders under which cheques are issued by government by way of compensation for rape and other forms of trauma. The government alone is responsible for making human suffering a commodity for sale.

The issue now is not the words and phrases actually used by General Pervez Musharraf while referring to rape cases in Pakistan. The issue is the establishment’s mindset which is closed to reason and sanity. The totalitarian rulers’ intolerance of criticism is proverbial. Their feeling of lack of legitimacy makes them hypersensitive to any suggestion of deficiency or shortcoming on their part. But that never alters reality.

Violence against women is endemic in Pakistan. Incidents of rape and gang rape are on the increase by all accounts. The issue is much too serious to be disposed of in casual rhetoric. The issues framed by General Musharraf are, firstly, that rape of women in Pakistan is not as serious a problem as it is in many other countries of the world, including such advanced countries as France. Secondly, Pakistan is maliciously singled out for criticism on the basis of rape cases. Thirdly, NGOs that highlight rape cases in Pakistan are working against the national interest. Lastly, the present regime has done everything for victims of rape. For example, the help extended to Dr. Shazia to go abroad. All these issues can be discussed without taking leave of the norms of decent discourse.

General Musharraf’s anger at his favourite punching bags on the ground that they malign the country before foreign audiences is equally misdirected. Much before any NGO raises its voice against a rape incident, the world comes to know of it from newspapers and the electronic media. Some of the most widely publicised incidents, such as the cases involving Mukhtaran Mai, Dr. Shazia and Sonia Naz, were reported first and extensively by the media. All leading newspapers of Pakistan are available to the world via the internet. Does the government of Pakistan propose to tell the newspaper proprietors to stop putting their newspapers on the internet because by broadcasting stories of rape in Pakistan they are maligning the fair name of their motherland?

rape-2-oct05Official rhetoric about Pakistan’s image and circumstances in which Pakistan can suffer loss of reputation demand a longer rebuttal than space constraints permit at the moment. The fact which the authorities must try to grasp is that report of any crime in a country does not bring it as bad a name as does the absence of response to violations of human rights by the state and civil society. If the national media and the much maligned civil society organisations do not take notice of brutal treatment of women and children or members of minority communities, Pakistan will invite greater opprobrium than offences against women alone, because civil society will be accused of conniving with the wrongdoers. Similarly, the state invites less criticism for what is done by criminals in its territory than for its failure to create adequate and effective redress mechanisms. In the final analysis, therefore, a state wins kudos or attracts censure by its own acts of commission and omission and does not need any assistance, benevolent or malignant, from civil society.

During the debate on the incidence of rape in Pakistan the government has tried to defend itself by cataloguing what it considers acts of great favour to Pakistan’s womenfolk. The flaw in this approach is obvious. No good acts that might have been done to promote the interest of women can erase the anguish and the shame that incidents of rape cause to Pakistani people every year. It is like telling a hungry and jobless young man to stop complaining because the government has built a motorway that runs close to his village. In any case, the government’s record leaves little to write home about.

The government can claim credit for increasing women’s seats in the national and provincial assemblies and for reserving seats for women in the Senate, although some of the credit has been washed away by its retreat, as evident from the reduction in women’s representation in the local bodies.

The government, unfortunately, cannot claim any credit for adopting what is called the karo kari law because the law presents no threat to those who kill women for a variety of reasons and then claim that they have done their duty by taking the life of defenceless creatures for the sake of honour. So long as the government continues to beg the issue of compoundability of murder this measure will remain ineffective.

It is quite amazing to find the government putting Dr Shazia’s case in its credit column. References to this case betray the government’s inability to finalise its brief. On the one hand, non-government organisations are castigated for sending Dr. Shazia abroad and, on the other hand, the government demands credit for facilitating her exit from Pakistan and for giving her a considerable amount in dollars. Why did the government give her money? Will it be able to give similar amounts to every victim of rape? What was the hurry in sending her abroad? Everybody knows how difficult and time-consuming any effort to secure government funds for a citizen in distress is. What is it that persuaded the government to complete the expulsion of Dr. Shazia and her husband from Pakistan within a few days? Dr. Shazia’s desire to leave the country is being used against her quite shamefacedly. It can be shown that Dr. Shazia’s decision to leave the country was based on the shabby and oppressive treatment she received not only from the lowly minions of the state but also from the high authorities after her story had broken. Who doesn’t know that she was kept in virtual detention and denied contact with supporters and sympathisers or with anyone who could commiserate with her. Pakistan’s rulers stand firmly indicted for making the country unsafe for victims of the worst forms of violence and thuggery.

That rape is one of the most serious issues concerning Pakistani women can easily be demonstrated. Statistics gathered from newspapers alone show that during the first eight months of the current year, at least 135 women had been raped and 134 subjected to gang-rape. The number of victims is by no means small. There may be countries with higher incidents of rape but that’s no consolation to Pakistani women, especially those who have had the misfortune of suffering the trauma of rape. What makes the situation more intolerable is the considerable evidence that the evil is spreading and is justified by powerful groups. The incidents of rape are no longer confined to underdeveloped rural areas as cases are being reported from urban, and semi-urban areas where such incidents were not known to occur earlier on. Besides, cases of rape and gang-rape under the order of a jirga or panchayat is a very recent addition to the history of crime in this country. Feudals in other countries of the world are also known to have caused women to be ravaged by their henchmen, but it is difficult to cite the example of any country where such atrocities are now sanctioned by recognised bodies. Thus the basic cause of concern in Pakistan is not merely the incidents of rape; the real question is that the factors contributing to this crime are multiplying.

One of the factors contributing to the incidence of rape is the strengthening of feudal values in the country. These values have been bolstered by the consolidation of the patriarchal system in the name of belief. Anti-women biases in society have been strengthened by the rise of the conservative clergy and a visible decline in the efficacy of the system of justice. Finally, some of the changes in the penal laws, supposedly in response to ideological obligations of the state, have emboldened the criminal elements that could earlier be checked through strict compliance with reasonable laws.

The nexus between increased incidents of rape and declining public confidence in the system of justice is quite obvious. Considerable evidence is available to show a growing public preference for informal forums of settling disputes. The jirga/panchayat system which in the past was limited to a few districts has appeared in many districts where it was not known before and now these forums have become active in metropolitan centres too. All jirgas are strictly male affairs and are steeped in feudal norms. They cannot understand the woman’s point of view and have difficulty in recognising her as a citizen entitled to enjoy fundamental rights. Thus, despite all the campaigns by the civil society and some effort by the judiciary and administration to curb vani and swara customs, women are still given away in forced and unreasonable matches to settle disputes. The plight of families that approached jirgas/panchayats is known.

The most essential fact is that Pakistani women cannot be guaranteed dignity of person and protection against violence without commitment to a process of society’s transformation so as to ensure women equality of rights with men, especially in terms of social and economic independence. Instead of looking at women’s problems separately, they have to be viewed in the context of Pakistan’s needs for social regeneration. Justice for women is impossible in a period of feudal resurgence and appeasement of conservative clergy. Authoritarianism itself is incapable of appreciating women’s concerns just as it is incapable of appreciating the demands of federalism or social justice. Anyone who wishes to be fair to women must be at the barricades against feudalism, exploitation of belief for political gain and authoritarianism (especially the variety sold in democratic wrappings).

However, to say that women cannot be promised any relief till the whole of Pakistan society is reformed is blatantly unrealistic because women should not be considered merely as prospective beneficiaries of social change. Their right to define the objects of change and to work for their realisation cannot be denied.

The strategy to wash the stigma that the high-profile rape figures bring to the country must involve simultaneous work on several fronts. The laws that offer any protection to women need to be enforced, and new laws made to cover areas that have not received attention so far. There must be some way to ensure that these laws are duly implemented. It will be necessary to sensitise not only the judiciary but also a large body of policy makers and moulders of public opinion. And if those in power cannot manage civil expression while referring to women who are victims of gross violence, they may try to discover the virtue of violence.

Mr. I.A. Rehman is a writer and activist living in Pakistan. He is the secretary general of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan Secretariat.