THE BBC reported recently that a lawyer for George Floyd said at the memorial service for the African-American that a “pandemic of racism” led to his death. Floyd had been killed by a white policeman in Minneapolis using the ‘knee-on-the-neck’ technique said to have been developed by Israeli policemen.
Judging by the global protests that followed Floyd’s killing one can at least take heart from the fact that there are people around who have a conscience and do care. But what matters is how many people can be mobilised and how much they care. Is their number big enough to make an impact that will bring about the social change that is needed? Changes in the law help but they are at best just the beginning. More difficult to change are attitudes and mindsets without which society remains mired in prejudice and an abusive psyche.
Take the shocking case of Zohra Shah, the eight-year-old ‘housemaid’ who was beaten to death for releasing some exotic birds from their cage in her employer’s home. When I read the details of the brutality meted out to this innocent child my heart bled in anguish. But what is worrisome is that such horrific acts of inhumanity against children have been on the rise. Only two years ago, I was apologising in a letter to ‘dear Zainab’ for “having let you down”. I had written, “I wasn’t the one to hurt you. Yet I plead guilty because I failed to create the secure environment that every child needs.”
And now comes Zohra’s case. It is a shame that over the years the public has been so desensitised that when a horrendous crime is committed like the one that took Zohra’s life the silence is deafening. Yes. This is silence compared to what Karachiites witnessed on a cold winter day in February 1978. That was the day Karachi protested because a girl of eight called Tarannum Aziz. She had been kidnapped, raped and murdered. The metropolis was brought to a standstill. Mind you, it was a time of martial law. There was no WAF, no MQM, no political parties, and no student unions. The outcry was a spontaneous reaction from the public and Gen Ziaul Haq had to fly into the city in the silence of the night to handle the crisis.
Crimes against children flourish because the victims are underprivileged.
We have been falling back and what we see today is a ‘pandemic of classism’. Politics, religiosity and military takeovers have killed the public’s collective conscience. Going back to George Floyd, one should recall the African American struggle in the US. It has involved a long tradition of a civil rights movement that has brought the black masses together under astute leaders such as Martin Luther King and Malcolm X who paved the ground for racial equality. They taught their followers to educate their children in order to empower them. Black Americans will succeed one day. Barack Obama’s election to the presidency was a major milestone in the struggle for racial equality in the US.
Unfortunately, we have no similar historical struggle to speak of. If anything, I can say with authority that our society was not as stratified five decades ago as it is now. In our class-ridden system, the lives of children of lesser gods are cut short by ruthless and criminal-minded exploiters. And if they survive the risks posed by rapists, kidnappers, murderers and traffickers, they are quite likely to be robbed of their childhood by uncaring brutal employers or ruthless teachers who know nothing themselves because child labour and harsh pedagogy are socially acceptable.
Of course, the government is expected to act, for it is the primary protector of human life. Of course, Zohra’s case has shocked many. The reaction has been to seek changes in the law (which is succeeding), facilitate redressal through the judicial process while creating awareness and keeping up the pressure on the government. All this is essential, but as Baela Raza Jamil, who is always at the forefront to mobilise support for a just cause, says, “These laws are never implemented.”
Most heinous crimes against children have been criminalised in Pakistan. Yet they flourish because the victims are from among the underprivileged. This class is not empowered. It is grossly discriminated against socially, politically, economically and judicially. Few voices are raised in its support except when disaster strikes.
Isn’t it time this class divide should be bridged? Do work on the laws but also take along with you the class from where the victims are drawn. If the privileged need awareness, the underprivileged need salve to heal their wounds which class discrimination has caused.
When I talked of Zohra’s tragedy, what was the reaction of a poor woman who slaves the whole day to feed and educate her girls? “Yeh tau hota hi rahta hai.” (This keeps happening.) These were not the words of cynicism but of despair and hopelessness.
Published in Dawn, June 19th, 2020