By Zubeida Mustafa
The story doing the rounds these days is a shocking one about a girl and three or four boys, one of them her brother, studying in a school or a college of Karachi. It has kept the mothers of young girls awake for several nights. The general reaction has been one of fear and anxiety. Is this what our society has come to, it is being asked.
Women talking in whispers at parties, in offices or anywhere they come together are narrating what they have heard about the girl who was gang raped by her fellow students who gained access to the ladies’ room where the heinous act occurred after bribing the maasi. The last boy to enter happened to be the victim’s brother. He has gone into a coma from shock after he discovered that his sister had been assaulted by his friends. The girl is dead. A massive cover-up operation has been launched by the school and the boys’ parents who are very influential. The media has been bribed and so this is not being reported.
Mind you, I am not saying that this incident actually took place. I am only reporting what is being narrated and is creating near panic in parents. Since it has been impossible to verify the incident, because no identifiable source is ever given of the story, one can only hope that this is one of the “urban legends”, which seem to crop up periodically. Remember, how it was being widely reported -–– by word of mouth only —– a few years ago how syringe throwing maniacs were trying to infect women with the HIV virus. When after investigating, I had written about the unlikelihood of the stories being true, readers heaved a big sigh of relief and soon forgot about the whole episode.
In this case, too, I tried very hard to get to the root of the story but failed. I have not met anyone so far who can tell me of a person who personally knows any of the people said to be involved ––- the rapists, their families, the victim and her family. Everyone who comes out with the story says she heard it from either a friend or from a stranger in a group. Even those who identify the person who narrated the story can go no further because the narrator ends up by giving a vague source. Nothing from the horse’s mouth.
The other strange feature is that broadly speaking the story line -–– if one may describe it as such ––- is the same but the details vary. For instance, sometimes the scene of the crime is a school (different elitist ones are mentioned), sometimes it is a college (again two institutions have been named). Hence the age of the children involved varies. Their numbers also change ––- though the victim is always one. We have been hearing about this for the past two months and yet it is always said “it happened last week”. The fate of the girl and the boy also differs in every version.
What is one to make out of this? Personally, I think until the veracity of this episode is established conclusively by someone who actually knows the families involved and allows some investigation, this should be taken as an urban legend.
What is this new phrase which has gained currency of late? In the good old days we just called a story that had no basis as a “rumour”. Today it is termed an urban legend. In fact a film of that name was produced in 1998.
The Wikipedia defines it as “supposedly-true stories circulated primarily by word of mouth” and, in recent years, “distributed by email”. People frequently say such tales happened to a friend of a friend — so often, in fact, that FOAF has become a commonly used acronym to describe how such reports are rarely first-hand”.
Although the Wikipedia claims that such reports are sometimes repeated in news stories, that is generally not the case in the responsible media because there is no reliable source for them.
What is significant about urban legends is that they are readily believed by people ––- quite sensible and rational otherwise ––- who unwittingly pass them on by voicing their concerns about them. Invariably these legends touch those aspects of our lives in respect of which there is widespread fear and an intense sense of insecurity at a given point in time.
And what are our (especially women’s) present concerns which the urban legends are preying on? If one analyzes the present story being narrated again and again by FOAF the general fears and insecurities are pretty obvious. In a nutshell they are: * Women, even young girls, are not safe in this society. The fear of rape lurks in every woman’s mind, conscious or subconscious. Those with daughters fear for them, too.
* Corruption has seeped into every strata of society and one can pay a bribe and get anything good or evil ––- even the moon, if the bribe is big enough.
* If one is powerful and influential enough, one can cover up the most heinous of crimes and keep it out of the media.
One woman who was narrating this incident, which we don’t know if it actually happened, even brought up the Sui rape case and the president’s defence of the army captain. She said this was a message to other men with evil intentions ––- go ahead, you will be protected.
The more serious cause of concern is that women should be feeling so vulnerable in Pakistan. It is this aspect of the situation which needs to be addressed.