A ploy to send the women home?

By Zubeida Mustafa

THERE are obscurantist elements in our society who would love to send the women packing back to their homes. They have tried it before but failed. Remember Dr. Israr Ahmed and his preachings that it was a sin for a woman to work outside the home. How the woman power of Karachi had to be mobilized to make the ‘venerable’ doctor ineffective. Women mustered courage to collect signatures against what Dr Israr had to say. Woman power won and the number of women in the workforce has grown.

A new strategy has now been adopted to scare and scandalize women. It is more insidious and therefore more disturbing. Plant a rumour here, a half-baked gossip there and the job is done. How else would you describe the reports of syringe-wielding sadist elements (even women) attacking women, pricking them with HIV-infected blood and “welcoming them to the AIDS Club.” When these women went for a blood test a few hours later, they tested HIV positive, thus the story goes.

No doubt this is frightening. But what is intriguing is that in spite of repeated efforts for the last few weeks we have not been able to trace even a single person who has actually been attacked. Invariably it is a case of someone coming declaring with great confidence that he/she knows of someone who has been attacked.

Aids and needle prick scare          

One young lady from a women’s college even came and reported to a colleague that her friend had been attacked within college premises – she asserted that six cases had taken place there – and her friends had not been attending college for a week. When we asked if we could speak to the girl for details on promise of confidentiality she admitted that it was not her friend but her friend’s friend. When we further insisted we were given the name of the student who was attacked. “The principal even visited home,” they young lady declared. “I myself heard the principal warning the students to be alert because such a case had taken place,” she added.

We decided to visit the college and investigate. The principal herself was worried, not because of any such case which had taken place. She was upset at the fact that the rumours just don’t seem to stop despite repeated assurances to the contrary. No, she had never visited any student at her home, neither had any parents come to her to report an attack. Yes, she had warned the students that such rumours were doing the round and they should be careful and not believe them or indulge in any pranks. The crowning glory of this story is that no student by the name of Arjamand (the person identified as the victim) was on the rolls of the college!

Other versions also came to light. On asking to be put in touch with the victim, we were told that it was the friend’s friend’s friend and so on. The family didn’t want to talk. One person who claimed to personally know four victims could not help because he was going out of Karachi and would tell us more when he returned. He still hasn’t.

Someone else spoke with absolute surety about a case in a college which had to be closed down because of the panic it caused. When we called a friend who teaches there, she said the college was open and nothing had happened there. It is interesting that the cinema where the Titanic is being screened has also been identified as another venue of attack.

Our findings: people have become not only unwary victims but also unwitting accomplices in this criminal campaign of sensationalizing and disseminating alarmist stories to spread terror in the city. In this scenario, accuracy which has never been our people’s forte has been the first casualty. Have you ever noticed how an account of something which may have happened is distorted as it travels from one person to another? Someone plants a rumour and the mill starts grinding.

Jamil Yousuf of the CPLC exploded, “Rubbish!” when I asked him if he had been informed of anyone having reported such an attack. “People trust us so much that they confide in us even in rape cases. Women have helped us in solving kidnapping cases. Yet it is strange that not one victim of these syringe attacks has come to us,” Yousuf said. He is willing to offer a reward to someone who can actually establish that such incidents have taken place.

When we wanted to know from Dr. Haroon Ahmed, a leading psychiatrist, why people are so prone to believe rumours, he attributed thus to the growing sense of insecurity in Karachi. “When something really bad happens to a person very suddenly, his first reaction is that of denial. His mind refuses accept it. But over a period of time when he is exposed to growing insecurity and crime, he comes to believe even the most horrible thing he hears – even if it is not true, “Dr. Haroon says.

“Women have been subjected to greater insecurity in our society. Especially after what has been happening to women in Tailban held Afghanistan, the women have become more receptive to reports of the worst treatment which can be meted out to them,“ he adds.

Dr Haroon Ahmed says rumours have a dynamics of their own. When there is no truth in something, the human mind invents it.

After having failed to locate anyone who had actually had this horrible experience, we contacted Dr.Mujib at the JPMC who is in charge of the AIDS programme. He said that not a single case of this nature had been brought to his notice. Surprising, isn’t it? Here is the only hospital in the city which has the tests to give conclusive diagnoses of a person testing HIV positive and not one of those victims who come under attack were taken there. Dr Mujib also said that it takes three to six months after a person has been infected for it to show in the blood test.

What he found most intriguing was that from where can one obtain so much infected blood to carry on this campaign. Most significant is the fact that a simple prick is not enough to transmit AIDS. At least 0.1 ml of blood must be injected to transmit the virus. Studies conducted in the West on health workers looking after AIDS patients found that only three out a thousand such workers had contracted the disease because of pricks/cuts.

So we are still waiting for someone to come and tell us the true AIDS story, if there is one.

Meanwhile women in low-income localities, who would not know so much about AIDs, are being told about men in shorts with well-oiled bodies who are entering girls’ colleges and people’s homes and molesting women. When anyone tries to catch them they slip away, we were told. Added to that was the story of headless men roaming the streets and attacking women. Had the pangs of hunger not been stronger than the scare which is devouring these uneducated women they would have stayed home.

Source: Dawn, 22  October 1998