By Zubeida Mustafa
ON SEPT 5, a six-year old girl in Badin was abducted as she was walking down to a neighbourhood store, raped, tortured and murdered. Her grieving father, Abdul Haq, came down to Karachi when he learnt that a demonstration was being held outside the Press Club last Friday.
More than grief was the acute sense of injustice that had weighed him down since his daughter’s brutal murder. The rapist had been caught but was bringing pressure on the police to release him in lieu of some monetary compensation. The aggrieved family was demanding justice. There the matter stands.
Justice was also the demand of the 200 or so men and women who had gathered at the gate of the Karachi Press Club, a spot that has emerged as an island of free speech in a besieged city. They were protesting against President Pervez Musharraf’s reported remarks on rape. The Washington Post of September 13 carried an interview with the president in which he described rape as a money-making concern in Pakistan. He went on to say, “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.”
Coming from him and on foreign soil, these words shocked people, not just in his own country but also in Canada. Prime Minister Paul Martin, who spoke to the president on the sidelines of the UN Assembly, told a news conference televised live in Canada, “I stated unequivocally that comments such as that are not acceptable and that violence against women is also a blight that besmirches all humanity.”
When the uproar set in, President Musharraf retracted saying he was wrongly quoted. The denial came a whit too late because two days had elapsed since the interview was published and reactions had already set in. Later, Glenn Kessler, Washington Post staff writer, in an article in his paper on Sept 19, wrote : “The interview was conducted by three Washington Post reporters and was tape-recorded. A review of the recording…confirmed that Musharraf — who was surrounded by aides who took notes and also recorded the interview — was accurately quoted.”
It might be recalled that only a few months ago the president had ordered that Mukhtaran Mai be placed on the Exit Control List. Mukhtaran is the woman from Meerwala who has made history by standing up against her jirga-ordered rapists. President Musharraf didn’t want her to leave the country on the invitation of an NGO in America. He explained that his concern was that she would bring Pakistan a bad name abroad.
It is strange that despite his obsession with a soft image for Pakistan, the president didn’t remember to mind his own language. Hasn’t he himself sullied the country’s image by making such allegations to a nationally circulated newspaper in America at a time when 160 or so world leaders had gathered in New York for the millennium summit? And since most of these countries consider rape to be a “blight” that they all have to address, the public rebuke from Mr Martin was not unexpected.
The Joint Action Committee for People’s Rights which brings together 21 NGOs — some of them umbrella organizations under which a number of organizations operate — gave the call for Friday’s demonstration saying, “We strongly resent these remarks of General Musharraf against the women of Pakistan which reflect a patriarchal attitude. It is deplorable that instead of offering justice to innocent victims of violence, General Musharraf has labelled them as racketeers and money-makers, thereby encouraging the perpetrators of heinous crimes against women.”
President Musharraf’s contention is that rape is a crime which takes place in every country. So why should Pakistan be singled out? To prove his point he called a regional conference in Islamabad on violence against women earlier this month ostensibly to trumpet his government’s “pro-women” policies in a world that is universally known to commit violence against women. But what shocks one is the president’s inability or refusal to comprehend the essence of the problem in Pakistan. As in the case of Abdul Haq whose little child was raped and murdered in Badin, it is the injustice coming in the wake of rape that compounds the hurt and anger of the victim.
Take the case of Mukhtaran Mai. Having suffered at the hands of members of a socially powerful caste which had the backing of a jirga, Mukhtaran could never have obtained a trial for herself without the publicity she received in the media and the support of civil society — another term for NGOs who also stand condemned by the government for their role in highlighting the human rights violations in the country. No sooner had the media attention flagged a bit the alleged rapists were let off. The pressure had to be kept on constantly. In Sonia Naz’s case, the police are the alleged culprits and she can never hope for the normal course of justice.
The most worrying aspect of the problem of violence against women in Pakistan is that in a patriarchal society where men consider it their right to keep a tab on women such an approach places the onus on the woman to prove that she did not invite the rape. The impression conveyed is that if women are raped, they themselves are to be blamed. As a result the perpetrators feel absolved of all responsibility for their crime. This only encourages violence against women as our society, including its leader preaching enlightened moderation, regresses into the pre-women’s liberation age when women were universally expected to protect their honour and were held responsible when they failed to do so.
Western societies, where, as President Musharraf pointed out, rapes are still committed in their thousands, do not accept the inevitability of rape. They consider it a “blight”, to use Mr Paul Martin’s words. Besides they do not pin the guilt of being raped on a woman. Thanks to decades of the feminist movement, the police, the judicial system and the administration provide protection and support to the victim.
After all the research that has been done on the subject, rape is regarded as a legacy of a patriarchal society where men use gender violence to perpetuate their dominance over women. Even in societies where women have won a measure of liberation and gender equality underpins the concept of human rights, rape has not been eliminated. In Pakistan, all the power structures — the family, religious institutions, landownership, entrepreneurship, government set-up, defence and police forces — being patriarchal in their mindset, it has been an uphill struggle for women for their emancipation.
There have been positive aspects of this struggle, though. The silence has been broken and what was once considered a family matter to be brushed under the carpet has now been brought into the open. This is the result of the consciousness raising campaign launched by the Women’s Action Forum 24 years ago when it came into existence to seek justice for women victimized by the Hudood Ordinances. There is no going back on this issue.
The second positive aspect of this struggle is the involvement of a large number of men in it. They have been sensitized to the indignities women are subjected to in our society. They are conscientious people who feel they have to come forward to demand equal rights for women. For them rape is as much a man’s issue as a woman’s issue. Rape is not a personal matter which happens to an unfortunate woman. It is a political issue — primitive man’s expression of power over women. That is why in wartime armies not only kill people they are fighting against, they also rape the women. This happened in Bangladesh in 1971 and in Bosnia in the nineties. It is a sign of progress that many of our men have outgrown this mindset. In the demonstration on Friday, there were more men present than women.
It is, therefore, time that these men should also mobilize their ilk in an effort to change their psyche. It is happening in many countries where men’s anti-violence projects have mushroomed and men are emerging as the strongest allies of women.
As Jonah Gokova, a member of the Zimbabwe-based Padare, says, “It is important for men to sit down and interrogate themselves and identify a new man within themselves whose identity does not thrive on conquest or on the use of violence against women.”