A culture of rape

Rape culture in Pakistan is the embodiment of a constant and carefully nurtured power struggle, which disdainfully disregards that female wounds are deeper than male ‘desires’.

Last month Pakistani media was flooded with an upsurge of rape cases. The body of a 10-year-old girl who had been raped and murdered was found in Islamabad. A 22-year-old woman was gang-raped by three policemen when she was out for sehri with a friend,in Rawalpindi. A 3-year-old girl was kidnapped, raped and murdered in Sialkot. A 15-year-old girl was raped by a bus guard outside Lahore. A 32-year-old woman was gang-raped and attacked with acid in Layyah.

There is no common link in the ages of the victims, the relationship between victim and perpetrator, nor in the location of the crimes. There is, however, one link between the cases. 

The way we, as a society, responded to them.

When the family of the 10-year-old victim, approached police to file a missing persons case, the first question law enforcement agents asked was: “Are you sure that the 10-year-old did not willingly elope with the man?” In the case of the 22-year-old victim, the first question we, as a society, asked was what she was doing with a na-mehram at 2am. The only conclusion we collectively managed to draw was that her personal choices led to her fate. For the 15-year-old victim, we questioned whether the girl had perhaps consented to sexual intercourse. After all, she was ‘of consenting age as per Shariah’ and was traveling ‘alone’ in public spaces. For us, as a society, this was enough evidence for her ‘loose character’.

These views, apologetic to say the least, are not the exception to the norm. They are testament to prevalent narratives in society which tell women ‘not to get raped’ instead of telling men ‘not to rape’; which consider a woman saying no as her meaning to say ‘convince me’; and which see women as objects of sexual desire and not as autonomous human beings.

While researching for this piece, I came across a publicly available article written by one Muhammad Al-Ashari, titled “The Solution to Rape Problem of Third World Countries”. Intriguing. I opened the document hoping for a divine revelation. Al-Ashari’s article was premised on a comparison between male sexual desire and biological hunger. For him, rape is a biological problem, not an ideological one, because: a) men think more about sex; b) their libido is more responsive to drugs; and c) men want (and need) more sexual partners.

He justified the latter by claiming that the Quran, too, agrees with his premise, which is why polygamy for men is allowed under Islam. His solution to the “rape problem” is therefore unsurprisingly straight forward: implement a dress code for women, ban promiscuous display of women’s bodies, promote social marriages through crowdfunding if necessary (this one was especially confounding), and encourage polygamy to ensure “every woman has a family and a protector.”

Theoretically, enacting laws which signal ‘good values’ should, over time, be internalized by citizens because they are meant to create a basis for shame. However, the efficacy of possible attitudinal change does not necessarily follow the signals sent out by relevant legislature, especially in the case of Pakistan’s rape laws.”

Al-Ashari’s arguments, if they can be called that, are aligned with four predominant concepts linked to victim-blaming within the rape culture in Pakistan: Women enjoy rape — they say no when they really mean yes; women provoke rape, they do this by the way they dress, or by going out alone; only certain kinds of women are raped (unrespectable, promiscuous women); and women make false accusations of rape, for revenge or to protect their reputation.

These narratives find their roots in mainstream media and are pervasive in public discourse surrounding sexual assault and violence. In the aftermath of the Aurat March, a movement arranged across the country on International Women’s Day in solidarity with the rights of women, including restorative justice against sexual violence and harassment, a video of a well-known Islamic cleric made the rounds on social media platforms. The cleric was visibly furious about an Aurat March placard that read “Mera jism, Meri marzi [My body, My choice]”. Consequently (and ironically), he threatened women with rape. His logic was that if women can claim the right to their bodies, then men can also claim that right to rape women.

If social media comments are anything to go by, the cleric’s notion corroborated in society. In one example, a Twitter follower commented on his post stating that she couldn’t ‘believe men allowed their women to partake in this vulgar march.’ The irony of that statement is surely lost upon them. On social media, supporters of the movement were routinely and conveniently dismissed as a threat to Islamic values, they were called ‘prostitutes’ and considered ‘worthy of being raped’.

Victim-blaming is easily and successfully reproduced in social and legal settings because it neatly fits into the predetermined frameworks of sex and gender, nurtured by patriarchal hierarchies where female sexuality is seen as passive, and subsists purely to be of service to male desires.

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Al-Ashari’s article justified its premise on an (unverified) Islamic quote from Imam Jafar As-Sadiq, which states that “Successive looks at women plant seeds of lust inside the heart of men and constitute a seduction that causes the seer to slip [commit sin].” Al-Ashari indicated that third world countries do not have the ‘pervert freedom of sexuality’ so the masses accordingly resort to crimes of opportunity such as rape, and ‘the burden of guilt is incorrectly thrown on rapists who are men, whose sexual nature is different from females,’ and therefore justified.

When it comes to cultural narratives in Pakistan, it is difficult to distinguish where society influences religion and where religion influences society; we find ways to justify even the most heinous acts stemming from prevalent ideas and beliefs. Introducing legal remedies for such acts is universally seen as a means of changing attitudes and behaviours, based on the presumption that once institutions and legislation is in place, they create normative feedback loops to gauge and encourage citizens with a sense of what is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’.

Theoretically, enacting laws which signal ‘good values’ should, over time, be internalized by citizens because they are meant to create a basis for shame. However, the efficacy of possible attitudinal change does not necessarily follow the signals sent out by relevant legislature, especially in the case of Pakistan’s rape laws.

The Hudood Ordinances, introduced by Ziaul Haq as part of his Islamisation scheme in 1980 comprised of five criminal laws, including the Zina Ordinance which dealt with rape, adultery and fornication without distinguishing between the three acts. It defined rape as “sexual intercourse (against the will or consent of the victim) with whom he or she is not validly married”,instead of defining it as the lack of consent in sexual intercourse, as it is internationally recognised. The ordinance not only completely denounced the possibility of rape within marriage, but was also inapplicable to girls under 14.

Under the Ordinance, even though rape, adultery and fornication were all considered as Zina crimes, the burden of proof allocated for each was different. To prove a woman was raped, she needed to provide four male witnesses as evidence that she was not engaging in false accusations of rape; a requirement which in practical settings was close to impossible. To make matters more discriminatory, a law of evidence amendment meant that women were no longer allowed to testify in certain cases, unless it was corroborated by the testimony of another woman. Two female testimonies were therefore made equivalent to one male testimony. In other words, a woman complaining of rape was guilty until proven innocent.

Victim-blaming is easily and successfully reproduced in social and legal settings because it neatly fits into the predetermined frameworks of sex and gender, nurtured by patriarchal hierarchies.

The Women’s Protection Act of 2006 amended relevant sections of the Zina Ordinance and Pakistan’s Penal Code to define rape as a man having sexual intercourse with a woman under the following circumstances: against her will; without her consent; with her consent, when the consent has been obtained out of fear of death or of harm; with her consent, when the man knows that he is not married to her and that the consent is given because she believes that the man is another person to whom she is or believes herself to be marries; with or without her consent when she is under 16 years of age.

Rape was now seen as separate from adultery and fornication, no longer requiring witnesses. The victim’s testimony was considered a part of evidence for the crime. These changes were primarily enacted to restore ‘innocent until proven guilty’ within the courts of law and move the burden of shame from the victim to the perpetrator.

Yet, our societal responses to rape crimes continue to reflect otherwise. Laws are largely ineffective because they are policing behaviours, not the beliefs that underline those behaviours. Laws, in and of themselves, are insufficient if we are unable to change the culture that allows sexual assault and rape to happen in the first place.

Socialization into strict, primordial gender-binary norms, with patriarchal values overarching Pakistan culture, ensures that society continues to perpetuate victim-blaming as normative. We justify and promote sexually aggressive behaviour among men, legitimize the rape culture and teach men to dissociate themselves from responsibility for their sexual actions. Men are socialized to be the sexual initiators where sex is often viewed as a challenge, and women are sexualized objects to conquer.

Ultimately, rape culture in Pakistan is the embodiment of a constant and carefully nurtured power struggle, which disdainfully disregards that female wounds are deeper than male ‘desires’. 

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