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Hearings from hell

October 03, 2018


The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.

IT may have seemed a circus to many Americans but it was a spectacle that a lot of the world was watching. On Sept 27, 2018, a woman named Christine Blasey Ford, an ordinary woman living, until recently, a very ordinary life, testified in the United States Senate Judiciary Committee against the Republican Party’s nominee to the US supreme court.

Her accusations against Brett Kavanaugh, who is already a judge, with a lifetime appointment, in the US district court of appeals in Washington D.C. (the second highest court in the land), were difficult to hear. Blasey Ford spoke about how her life has been upended by her decision to publicly accuse the judge of sexual assault, the constant harassment by media and reporters, not to mention Kavanaugh supporters whose death threats have forced her and her family to go into hiding.

Then she spoke of the assault. According to Blasey Ford, the man who was interviewing to be one of the most important men in the US judiciary, pushed her into an empty bedroom and then tried to rape her. She was only 15 years old at the time. She says that she feared she would be suffocated to death when the then 17-year-old Kavanaugh put his hand on her mouth to prevent her from screaming. Blasey Ford was able to escape only when another boy, also in the room, jumped on the two of them and everyone fell off the bed. She shut herself in the bathroom until she was able to escape, but she took the scars of what happened with her and she would be carrying them with her several years later.

It is difficult to imagine a sexually abused woman in Pakistan speaking up publicly about her ordeal. She would be harassed and hounded.

Even in a forum that has become a hotbed of political posturing during the tenure of the Trump administration, Blasey Ford’s testimony had a tremendous impact. The Republicans were dejected because they worried that the Kavanaugh nomination would be dead on arrival.

The afternoon when Brett Kavanaugh took the stand was as different from the morning as one could imagine. Here was the ‘he said’ in what was termed by all involved as a ‘he said-she said’ battle. The ‘he’ was a terribly furious and indignant ‘he’, who also resorted to whining and weeping about what the nomination was doing to his family and then angrily and belligerently defending his love for beer.

At one point, Judge Brett Kavanaugh called the allegations against him a ‘farce’; at another, he screamed, “I worked my b--- off for this”. All of it showed an ‘entitled’, angry man who could not believe that the accusations of an ordinary woman, without all the power that he had amassed for himself, now threatened the chances of his appointment to the highest court in the United States of America.

It is true that in the era of Trump, it is tempting to shake one’s head and tut-tut at the decline of America. At the same time, crude as some of the statements and references at the hearings were, they also revealed a tremendous cultural transformation taking place in the US, and arguably in the rest of the world as well. Christine Blasey Ford, a woman who is a research scientist at Stanford, said it well herself; she did not choose to do this, but she felt she had to do it in order to be true to her civic duty.

The world, and particularly US voters, needed to know that the man who was asking for their support was someone who had treated women poorly, had actually even tried to sexually assault at least one.

Beyond the question of whether Kavanaugh is confirmed in his appointment to the supreme court is an issue of shame and silence that is imposed on victims of sexual assault around the world. For American women, the courage of Blasey Ford became the basis on which they could share their own stories of assault. If she had stood up, so too would they. Two such women accosted one senator in the elevator and told him that his vote to confirm such a judge would be a message to all sexual assault survivors that their pain simply did not matter. The senator in question, Jeff Flake, decided to demand an FBI investigation before the confirmation vote.

Pakistani lawmakers, politicians and others have been implicated and accused of sexual harassment and sexual violence in many instances. But one cannot remember a time when a woman who had allegedly suffered was permitted to testify publicly before the whole country. In today’s Pakistan, such an event — one that would show other women that being victimised should not be a reason for lifelong shame and silence and suffering — is impossible. A woman willing to relate her ordeal would be harassed and hounded by reporters and others; it is also likely that she would face serious threats to her physical safety.

In his rebuttal to Blasey Ford’s testimony, Kavanaugh was loud and belligerent, unable to believe that a woman could be permitted to possess the ability to potentially derail his nomination. To support him, many other old white men were also loud and angry, yelling at everyone present. It was just this last bit, angry men yelling and full of rage, that felt very much like Pakistan or any other place in the world where patriarchy continues to dominate.

Men who insist that women are liars, that they are making up allegations, are the same whether they are in the US or in Pakistan. One is quite sure that many of them, even in response to this article, will insist that it is men who are in danger, men who stand at risk at having their lives ruined, men who deserve first and foremost to be believed. The strength and truth of one woman, Christine Blasey Ford, may soon prove them all wrong.

The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.

Published in Dawn, October 3rd , 2018