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The father of taboos

July 26, 2013

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.