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The father of taboos


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Being young and being a woman can be a handy combination, especially in my line of work.

I wear jeans and shalwar kameez with equal comfort and frequency. I do not use any make-up or perfume at work. I smoke publicly and frequently, but responsibly towards others. I have the qualification and demonstrated commitment for the work I am doing. My work requires meeting total strangers and having meaningful conversations with them. I talk openly and fairly, and listen objectively. I get total attention and trust, even veneration of my subjects, almost like I am their mother – the smart, youthful, professional, confident, smoking, and attentive mother they never had. In short, I am the kind of psychologist whose subjects open up most willingly about things they wouldn’t want their closest buddies, partners and especially fathers to know.

I work for charities and donor-funded projects to do with eradicating child abuse in Pakistan. I do get a lot of exposure to abused children but that is another subject for another time. The bulk of my working time is spent with adults, and of my own interest, mostly men. I meet them in small and big groups, in the office or in a public place and we talk about the one thing most important to parents: how to keep our kids safe.

The objective of my job is to learn from and return to the society. I work with entire communities but my best learning has come from men. Women may be lax in their strategy and execution but they have a vested interest in preserving and nourishing the child. They are my natural allies. It’s the man who is so spectacularly ambivalent on this subject. He knows there is abuse in the society he lives in but he finds talking or reading about child abuse distasteful. He knows kids are being molested and abused in his locality but he will insist upon watching over his daughter all the time, leaving the son to face the street realities. And if his son does go through sexual abuse, he’ll use everything in his power to stop it from becoming known to others, or he might die of shame.

I had no idea how big a deal male rape is. Men are creators and victims of a culture where man is essentially the giver and woman the receiver. An abuser, as much as a protector, is seen as a he-man because they are both doing the manly thing: giving. Women fit the passive victim profile just as men are only expected to do the manly thing. When males become victims of sexual abuse, it’s therefore a double shame – surviving abuse as a human, just like women do, and being treated as a receiver, a she-male. The latter is by far more damaging of the two. It takes the air out of his long and stiff male ego. It’s the ultimate humiliation that marks the survivor as a stamped slave of the abuser and the laughing stock of other men and boys, sometimes for life.

There is an old and well-known joke in men’s circles that I recently heard and found revealing of male psychology towards sodomy. Two old men are caught having sex. The concerned sons of both of them rush to the police station and ask for details of the incident. The one whose father was found to be on the receiving end of the act, is devastated. He pleads with the police not to register the case but is told this is not possible. He then offers a hefty bribe to the policeman: ‘If you must write the report, make my father the one on top’.

This is the reason you never hear of male sexual abuse, even when female abuse is being reported, and condemned, in ever increasing numbers. I hear it all the time though. The case of a male abused child is more unlikely than a girl’s to be reported and recorded, and yet, one third of the raped/sodomised/killed children last year were boys. Other forms of abuse, that are much more widespread and much less reported in case of boys, include touching, fondling, kissing, oral penetration, exhibitionism, and showing or taking photographs of naked children.

I hear it from adult males more than boys though. They tell me about their school teachers and Quran teachers, uncles and neighbours, aunts and strangers, who molested or tried to abuse them. They tell me of the rampant molestation in crowded places and in the queues for paying utility bills. They tell me of the impotent rage, burning frustration, loss of trust in elders and the loss of capacity to love. They tell me of a male-dominated environment in which sexually harassing a younger or weaker or prettier boy in public is a norm. Growing up with some kind of exposure to abuse is considered a necessary rite of passage. You have to survive abuse to become a man.

A majority of survivors turn into child abusers. Research establishes that at least six out of 10 abused children go on to abuse others – through sexual means or physical or psychological violence. This self-perpetuating and multiplying phenomenon makes our society ever more tolerant and hopelessly resigned to abuse; more so with males than females.

What cannot be empirically stated is the size of the problem. I have been employing an unscientific but personally beneficial method of quantifying male abuse during my stays in the communities – and by ‘communities’ I don’t mean slums. In Islamabad’s terms, my work is spread from the I to E sectors and France Colony in between.

First, I explain to the group, the range of behaviours considered abusive and that it can be physical, emotional, verbal or even psychological. I don’t get surprised any more when grown boys look genuinely puzzled when they are told what they are going through is actually abuse. They have been conditioned from a very young age to accept sex as normal, even fun activity, but one that requires utmost discretion. Then, I ask them a question that needs to be answered with a yes or no, and to deposit the folded piece of paper in a basket. There is no way for anyone to know what anyone else has written. After giving them assurances of privacy and telling them that my colleagues and I present there will also be participating in the exercise, I ask the question: Have you been abused, at any age, in any way mentioned above?

Women, without much fuss, write ‘yes’ in 95 per cent cases. Men come in two distinct groups. There are a couple – more in Punjab and Pakhtoonkhwa – in every group who loudly protest at being asked a stupid question and then write the ‘no’ answer in full view of others. In my opinion, they are not merely abused, they are bruised and possibly still bleeding. Of the rest, around 80 per cent answer in ‘yes’.

I have done this exercise for many years and along the length and breadth of Pakistan. Allowing for vanity on part of my respondents and error of judgment on my part, it is safe to deduce that almost all women and a vast majority of men – rural and urban, rich and poor, illiterate and university graduates – have been molested, if not violently abused as children or young adults. We are a nation of parents who have been child molesters, or the molested child, or both. More worrying is our refusal to see that now our children are being raped and molested. The two are linked.

Until I can dispassionately analyse the abuse I suffered, recognise the symptoms of psychological damage it’s done and seek remedy, and until I can face my perpetrator with inner strength, I cannot exorcise myself of the ghost of abuse much less save mine or someone else’s child. As a quiet spectator, I am just being an agent for perpetuating abuse.

Acknowledging the presence of abuse of a girl and boy child in our society, in our neighbourhoods, in our homes, in our own lives is only the first but essential step in our journey to make our children safe, healthy and happy. I’ll keep counseling the abused children in my care, but frankly, the solution lies with adults, especially men. Until they heal their own wounds of abuse, they will not only fail to see abuse around them, they might also find themselves participating in it and taking the cycle of abuse to the next generation.

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Masud Alam is an Islamabad-based writer, columnist and journalism trainer. He can be reached at

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (42) Closed

Imran Jul 26, 2013 07:06pm

Good to read about a subject, we like to keep under cover. A sexually repressed society, like any in the muslim world will have to talk about and expose the causes of this sickness. I am not saying that such abuse does not happen in non muslim world, but it is far less than in our society where there are no 'legal' (red light district with legal papers for operators) outlets for sexual needs.

A. Khan Jul 26, 2013 07:08pm

"Being young and being a woman can be a handy combination, especially in my line of work."

Sorry for going off topic but I am confused : are you male or female ?

On a more serious note, child sexual abuse is a very serious topic that is brushed under the carpet in Pakistan. It is extremely prevalent, much more so than people realize but without the recourse to legal justice system that is present in Western countries.

We are not as much "land of the pure" as we claim to be.

Arqum Jul 26, 2013 08:21pm

I like the 'joke' you mentioned :-)

BRR Jul 26, 2013 09:55pm

Thanks for writing about child abuse. The very same people who talk about morality are often found abusing children. Ignorance is definitely not bliss. Hiding the ugly warts of society is not salutary in any way. There is nothing more devastating to a child than child abuse from an authority figure.

Bashir Mirza Jul 26, 2013 10:26pm

Excellent article. This is an ugly truth which Pakistani people neither admit nor want to do anything about. We need more people like Masud who can shake us out of our disgraceful apathy towards the safety of our children.

Frank Jul 26, 2013 10:35pm

Excellent article. I wish the Muslims and Pakistanis recognise the evil committed against the children. The first thing is we must be prepared to talk about it. Then we can have some hope to deal with it. If we are so stubborn and so selfish that we dare not speak about this evil; then how will help the people who suffer in silence. How will we as society take our responsibilities.

anis Jul 27, 2013 12:14am

Thanks god that we still have people in our society who have the courage to muster their pen for such topics.

Passer by Jul 27, 2013 12:44am

Mr. Alam, Thanks for sharing your experiences and interactions. I applaud your efforts as this is a major problem in our close-minded society. Being a victim of sexual abuse as a child, I can imagine many other victims who had to conform to the silence to avoid social injustice and judgement of others. Please continue to do your hard work so there are less of me walking around with mental scars. Awareness and education is the key to tackling this issue. Aside from that, the taboo surrounding coming out and disclosing the abuse should be the focus, followed by some sort of psychological rehabilitation. Wishing you the best of luck.

qamar Jul 27, 2013 12:46am

Masud bhai i realy do appreciate you for your work....this is a serious problem in our society which is growing day by day...unfortunately no 1 wants to talk about it...plz keep it up...ow some work..

Irfan Mehr Jul 27, 2013 02:54am

Well said. It's an issue too big now to leave it ignored anymore than we already have. It is a widespread very silent disease too sickening for both social and moral well being of our society. Silence is no longer an option. The taboos must be broken, specially this one taboo of silence against child abuse. But, even bigger than that problem I believe is that we are a people suffering from psychopathic blindness to realty. No matter what the issue or problem, may it be minor or major, social or civic, moral or religion, reality is too glaring for us to see. We rather create taboos to blindfold ourselves. We love to survive in denial of every social, moral, political, religious and even health related issues until the problem hits us in the face like a brick. Even then we have a readymade taboo to pass the buck: Western conspiracies against us, something that we are too impotent to stand up against.

Zulfiqar Ali Jhammat Jul 27, 2013 05:33am

Excellent...a good research work,,an eye opener,,highly informative.

Rafay Bin Ali Jul 27, 2013 06:16am

Are you sure the correct author is attached to this article?

Mansoor Khan Jul 27, 2013 06:24am

A well written and balanced report on sexual abuse in Pakistan. It seems like nothing has changed in 40 years when I was a teenager. I hope Pakistanis openly start discussing these taboo subject to find solution to these problems instead of deflecting the issue as a western societies problems.

faisal Jul 27, 2013 06:38am

i greatly admire n appreciate the courage of Masood Alam for writing an article on such a topic. this kind of abuse is very much penetrated in our society and in some areas like KPK and Southern Punjab adult think it as a matter of proud if they score more children and young adults. it is a group thing. and mostly children don't report it to their parents because first they don't know what is happening to them n how to describe it n secondly if they even want to they simply just cannot because conservative thinking of our society and parents in most of the cases blame the child in return that he must be wishfully involved in it and punish and torture them mentally and physically. our society and parents are just not willing to accept it as a perpetuated problem . first we all as a society need to agree that it is a problem then some solutions can be thought of and in that respect i appreciate the author courage and effort to bring forth the issue.

Khan Jul 27, 2013 07:37am

Congratulations to the writer for writing on such a taboo subject which is sadly a reality in Pakistan but no one want to acknowledge or talk about it. It is such a huge problem but gets no attention and you are right , it has created a generation of victims and abusers. A few things:

a) towards the end of article you mention " until they heal their own issues" - - and you stop there without writing on "How" they can heal. Since you have taken a step in this direction, I encourage you to write another piece on "How to deal with this situation" both from the perspective of treatment also highlighting what in your view has caused this problem in the society so that we can work on eradicating it at the root level to protect future generations.

b) Please refrain from referring to smoking. c) That Joke in your article, although fitting, does take away the attention from this very serious subject. But overall, a brave step and keep it up please.

HMK Jul 27, 2013 09:02am

Why people don't want to comment here. Embaressed may be. but this is a every day reality on our streets.

AHMAD NAEEM Jul 27, 2013 09:10am

Depicting reality.....a child passes through jungle of abuses.......and cannot speak.........strange environment

Dixit Jul 27, 2013 10:44am

I liked your truthfulness in this writing. I also feel we should not try to hide our wounds rather we should go for right treatment and this is what you are trying to say.

najeeb Jul 27, 2013 11:00am

Such write ups can break the myths that ours is a pious society compared to western societies.

Anoop Jul 27, 2013 12:10pm

These violent tendencies exist in all societies, but what a society can do is to bring in laws and system to check these tendencies and punish anyone who violates the law.

In order for that to happen you need an open society, which is open to discuss private matters with authorised people and not to forget educating young and the old alike about the important issues.

In conservative societies like Pakistan the victim is harassed and humiliated. No wonder the perpetrator gets away with it. Most victims do not share their experiences with others for the fear of being outcast.

This will result in lower registration of rapes against men and women.

USA, if you go by statistics alone, is the most violent country when it comes to sexual crimes, but its also an open society, where there is nearly 100% case registration with the Police.

In India too victims are coming out more and more and speaking out against their attackers. Hence, we see a lot of media attention and rightly so. This only helps.

Pakistan is a long way away from all this and is quite shocking.

Shery Jul 27, 2013 01:36pm

Thank you for highlighting this very crucial issue. We as a society, need to understand more on child protection and sexual education. Too long have we swept this issue under the carpet.

Hammad Baig Jul 27, 2013 02:44pm

The lack of comments on the article just goes to endorse the writer's word. It's a sad sad situation and totally unacceptable. I wish we could face our demons as a nation.

Usher Jul 27, 2013 03:04pm

eyes wide shut

MJ Jul 27, 2013 04:42pm

I would like to say that, in my opinion 90% of the molestation takes place because of the blind trust parents have on their relatives and friends. i am 20 year old girl who was not exactly molested but i'd say harassed by my uncle in my early age, now that i am a grown up whenever i look at him, i feel total disrespect for that man. he thinks i don't remember anything but yes i do! surprising is the fact that i finally gathered the courage to share this with my cousin who told me she went through the same. And, I belong to an upper class strata of society and am currently living abroad. Most of my female cousins were victims of the same man everyone welcomes in their house. why ? why are our parents so silent? if this is the case with a posh family liek mine, i can hardly imagines what goes on in lower areas

Aditya Bondyopadhyay Jul 27, 2013 08:08pm

Thanks for this excellently written article. I have worked with men myself for most of my life, especially with feminised men, transgenders, and sexual minorities. And the phenomenon that you describe, of the epidemic of sexual abuse, is the very same in India as well. And the shame associated with it, and the patriarchist notions of hegemonic masculinity always stops one from redressing it or seeking recourse to professional help for healing it.

independentthinker Jul 27, 2013 10:09pm

I think the other reasons this problem keeps growing and goes unreported is a) we tend to put much emphasis on girls being victims - rather than boys and b) the punishment if convicted, is not severe - either due to corruption or our relaxed laws. The victims are afraid of repercussions, when the perpetrator is released. In the West, with all the tough laws they have in place, I cannot say that they don't experience sexual abuse with young children - but I can confidently say it is at a much smaller scale and if the perpetrator is caught, he/she faces the fullest extent of the law. They could face life in prison with no chance of parole and the victims are awarded huge monetary settlements. It will be very hard to see that happening in Pakistan - with its corrupt police and judicial system. Until we rid ourselves of the corruption, I see very little hope for the victims.

Parvez Jul 28, 2013 02:21am

I am glad u have touched upon the subject. We need to educate the parents to protect their children.

Rob Jul 28, 2013 04:09am

Aahh..this explains much of the behavior or Pakistanis and their nation!

Khanm Jul 28, 2013 10:25am

Even the journey to the moon starts with the first step... you have taken that first step Mr Masud Alam.... It is a long road with many windings turns... they arnt heavy cos they are our sisters..... It may be hard for an egg to turn into a bird: it would be a jolly sight harder for it to learn to fly while remaining an egg. We are like eggs at present. And you cannot go on indefinitely being just an ordinary, decent egg. We must be hatched or go bad.

tahir malik Jul 28, 2013 11:50am

male sexual abuse is as rampant globally as is female sexual abuse - in many forms. the writer has correctly pointed out the factors, the response, and the outcomes.

in a male dominated hujra culture society, release (a natural need) leads to many men and in many cases women, become bi-sexual.

we often hear muted stories or servants, teachers, aya's, taxi drivers who take children to school and back, and class fellows 'playing and experimenting, not getting serious' and honor prevails for women, but not for men, and the justice is with the male of the society.

i wonder if we will become open, and talk of these issues from a rational, emotional and healing aspect, not from a religious and taboo angle.

Ahsan Jul 28, 2013 05:47pm

Well written - but author should have been a lady

pk surendran Jul 28, 2013 09:52pm

excellent article. Masud has hit the bull's eye. Adult male abusing boys is often covered up, thinking it a shame. But this only helps further humiliation. I faced this while in Army. when I reported to the superior he laughed it off and tried to do the same saying it is but natural adult men hungered after young boys! feeling of male superiority as provider, is to blame. in this world, especially in Muslim community, this stupid belief should be demolished. both male and female is only a biological division. Both are humans with equal rights and duties. look at another stupid societal belief-- a man never cries in public. bunk all these nonsense, world will be a better place. demolish male ego is my advice

AJ Jul 28, 2013 10:47pm

@MJ: I think it is the time you and your cousins should let the cat out and expose him to your families and put stop on his movement for the sake of other children. I am glad you shared your experience with ever so sheltered society of ours.

Talha Jul 28, 2013 10:50pm

Masud Alam you really have written a wonderful piece of writing depicting the grim but factual based picture of Pakistani society. I can guarantee you that hotels in Peshawar serve young boys in place of girls to their customers. Let me name few cities considered as a hub of child abuse in Pakistan...Peshawar and Bannu in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Quetta in Balochistan , Tonsa Shareef in Punjab and Dadu in Sindh.....................Keep on writing on this sensitive issue and if possible bring in the constitutional aspect and the punishment imposed in our Constitution to people............

Pradip Jul 28, 2013 11:16pm

This is not really surprising - the fact that this happens. All cloistered societies that have access to females restricted by social or religious dogmas, have had this happen to them. Since no religion can control the life force, as manifest by the sexuality of ours, there has to be a breach somewhere.

It is a whole different matter - the question of children but many Islamic societies also allow for very young brides without any social opprobrium which too needs to be looked askance.

Interesting to see so few comments...must have touched a raw nerve!

Babar Jul 29, 2013 03:42am

I was a child long ago. I went to school in various cities including Peshawar. I was also a very good looking boy. Yes, I noticed many men and women look at me and those who knew me always giving me ahug and even a kiss or holding me tightly but was it abuse? I never thought of it as such. yes when we were in lower classes we experimented amongs friends but was that abuse? I do not think so. I am notsaying that it does not happen. But I do not think it is as prevalent as the author is making it out. I think affection from older to younger cannot be condiered abuse . Abuse is when there is a psycoloical or physical damge to the child.

NK Jul 29, 2013 04:08am

@HMK: In schools, neighbours,mosques, etc is a common occurresnce. Some males take it as affection by an elder and some are too shy to speak about it. Lack of propper education on the subject.

Ahmad Jul 29, 2013 06:21am

A very good article which highlights a very serious problem faced by children in our society. During my student life, I have observed that my friends who had studied in boarding schools/cadet schools had more knowledge about this matter. They had a lot of stories to share about such affairs between seniors and juniors or between students and staff etc. As writer mentioned, majority of their jokes were centered around the same topic. So it gives me this perception that this thing is prevalent is such environments. The harsh thing is that after sending their kids to such places, parents become complacent that they have sent their kids to right place and his future is secure academically but they overlook the abuse which is common at such schools. If you could analyse this particular scenario, I am sure you would get a lot of useful knowledge about this problem.

Salman Khalid Jul 29, 2013 09:35am

Congratulations to the author for writing about a topic which is not only largely ignored in our society but people do their utmost to prevent such incidents from getting public. The "joke" which the author referred to is more an eye-opening stuff than something to laugh at!

Milind Jul 29, 2013 10:03am

@Anoop - "These violent tendencies exist in all societies"

These exist more in Muslim societies which frown up mixing of the opposite gender and promote segregation. There is not outlet to express one's admiration or attraction to the opposite sex (which is natural), which results in frustration and these acts.

mohan Jul 29, 2013 11:52am

Children have to be educated about good touch and bad touch. And the best place for this to be done ,is in school. The pupils can approach teachers, if incident happens at home or parents, if incident happens at school. Sticking our heads in sand ,like ostrich, will not make the problem go away!

chand Jul 29, 2013 12:02pm

@Rob: If you think this is confined to Pakistan you are seriously mistaken. just because it is not in the open it doesn't mean it doesn't exist.