“Why was she out on the Motorway so late without a brother or husband? Why didn’t she check her gas tank before leaving the house? And if she had to travel why didn’t she take the more public GT Road route?” touted Lahore Capital Chief Police Officer (CCPO) Umar Sheikh in response to the gang rape of a woman near the outskirts of Lahore. The case has sparked national outrage and the condemnation of the CCPO’s remarks was swift. CCPO Umar Sheikh has since apologised for those remarks but like most apologies issued under duress, his sounds hollow. Such public acts of contrition follow a pattern — one apologises that their comments or their intentions were ‘misunderstood’ and that they are sorry that ‘people were upset’ by their remarks and not for the remarks themselves. The onus is on the public for having 'misread' the intentions of the speaker rather than the latter acknowledging that what they said was plain wrong. Sheikh’s earlier remarks about how the ‘French national’ had clearly miscalculated the level of safety she could reasonably expect in public, are a classic case of victim blaming that has been standardised in our culture despite parallel assertions that a Muslim society, such as Pakistan’s, respects women by default.
At some point or another, most Pakistani women have found themselves on the receiving end of the inherent double standard stemming from such convoluted logic; where our safety is entirely in our own hands but somehow simultaneously in the hands of every man in our family; where we must ensure that our bodies are covered and kept indoors after dark (because men apparently only turn into predators after sundown) but if we get harassed during the day then that is just an occupational hazard of being a woman in our culture. After all, we wouldn’t get harassed if we never stepped out of the house, would we? As it turns out, we would. Many of us experience our first brush with unwanted male attention, in the so-called ‘chaar diwari’ of the home. If we are groped in a public place, we shouldn’t have been in a crowd to begin with but if we are harassed in the private offices of our boss at work, then we should never have been alone in a room with a man. We should spend our entire lives trying to look thin and attractive so we can garner ‘decent’ marriage proposals but being thin, attractive and single also somehow means we are ‘asking for it’. Driving alone is inviting harassment but driving with men is another chance for police officers to blackmail and harrass us for being with men. When we are harassed, raped, abused, cheated on, abandoned, beaten or bullied, it must always be our fault. Because the question that is asked in each of those instances is: what we did to deserve such treatment? For some reason, the idea that no one deserves such treatment is never really on the table.
This is why rape culture in Pakistan is systemic. It is reinforced at every level; from blaming women for ‘getting themselves raped’ to never really expecting men not to rape women. The idea that men simply cannot be expected to control their baser impulses in the presence of women has been normalised. The premise that ‘getting raped’ is a woman’s fault for driving alone, on the wrong road, at the wrong time, in the wrong place, without a suitable escort etc is just another way of saying that the men who assaulted her couldn’t have helped themselves. For some absurd reason, most men are comfortable with the assumption that all men are inherently rapists, but some decent ones choose not to rape women. The underlying notion here is that decent men don’t assault women, heckle them, ogle them, grope them or stalk them but they still want to; that this is somehow encoded in their DNA. ‘Boys will be boys’, if you will. More men ought to find this premise disgusting and offensive, pushing them to stand with women to actively counter it. But few do. This is why it is easier for most men to silently accept that violence is intrinsic to their nature because this places the onus for abuse of all kinds and degrees on the women experiencing it rather than the men who perpetuate it. It forms the basis for why men have charged themselves with protecting ‘some’ women, those they have ‘some’ claim over. Male protection is reserved for mothers, daughter, sisters and wives. This provides a convenient alternative to insisting that all women deserve protection regardless of their proximity or relationship to a man. This patriarchal prerequisite allows all men to knowingly or unwittingly benefit from a culture where they have ascribed themselves as the protectors of women, without ever needing to question who they are protecting us from? Other men?
It goes without saying that not all men are the enemies of women. There are scores of wonderful, supportive and nurturing men in Pakistan. However, these men are equal beneficiaries of a patriarchal status quo that offers them privileges at the expense of women. So yes, even the decent men, the kind and supportive allies of women, inherently benefit from a system where they have control over setting every impossible standard that women have to abide by or face violence as a consequence of not doing so.
It is the normalisation of this violence that ensures that we, as a society, will do anything to avoid blaming rape solely on a rapist. Our culture commodifies female bodies to the extent that romanticising covering bodies or hiding them away is somehow accepted as an antidote to abuse. Yet, no one is immune to sexual abuse in Pakistan — women in burqas are raped just as those wearing jeans are raped. Infants and toddlers are raped, as are grandmothers. Young men and boys are raped. Trans men and women are raped. Animals are raped. Dead bodies are dug out of graves and raped. There is no ‘rape-proof’ clothing, time, place or state of existence in Pakistan and all of this violence stems from a space of power that provides cover to those who perpetuate violence rather than those who suffer from it. At any given time, someone has the power to hurt someone else and get away with it and so they do and it is this very problem that needs to be addressed by law enforcement agencies and the courts when it comes to prosecuting rape.
Technically, rape is a crime in Pakistan, one that carries a 25-year prison sentence and in some cases extends to the death penalty. However, ask any woman who has been through the system and she will tell you how poorly it is handled by the authorities, which work more towards punishing rape victims than the criminals, the rapists. Apart from the trauma of sexual assault, rape survivors have to deal with immense societal backlash that often begins with their immediate families and extends to their communities. They routinely face harassment when they try to report rape, which is why most choose not to. Further, the conviction rate for rapists in Pakistan is barely two per cent, and this only pertains to cases that are reported, which are a fraction of those that occur. Here, the fact remains that something is not seen as a crime until it is treated as a crime and that can only happen when it is routinely punished. Prescribing legal remedies for a criminal act is no guarantee that those measures will be enforced.
Pakistan already has penalties for rape, just as it has penalties for racketeering, land encroachment and corruption but that hasn’t stopped those crimes from being normalised across the country. Much of the debate in the past couple of days since Prime Minister Imran Khan’s comments about prescribing chemical castration as a deterrent for rape has shifted the focus from punishing rapists across the board to how rapists ought to be punished. This distinction is significant as the former calls for structural and systemic changes, whereas the latter seeks to address public rage. Rage is a powerful motivator and it often demands a symbolic act of retribution. At present, the rage of many women, myself included, would like for an example to be made of the rapists in this case but that will not make filing a rape complaint easier for the next woman who is assaulted; it will not ensure that the police will take her complaint seriously or that they will catch and punish her abusers. Rage is fleeting and it simply cannot be sustained long enough to enact permanent changes. It only allows for society to momentarily band together to punish ‘certain bad apples’ rather than demand an overhaul of a fractured system. Rage motivated society to call for justice in the case of six-year-old Zainab’s rape and murder but didn’t extend to punishing rapists of all children who have been abused since. We can and should have a deeper discussion on what the optimum punishment for rape ought to be but that won’t solve our current predicament. What matters is active enforcement of that punishment across the country and only then will rape really be seen to be a crime.
Since the motorway incident occurred a week ago, I have been asked by several women how we can better protect ourselves. This is because women already know that we have to fight every battle on multiple fronts. While calling for the accused to be punished and demanding systemic changes to rape prosecution, on a personal level, we are constantly trying to devise better strategies to protect ourselves because we know deep down that we cannot trust anyone else to do so. I was reminded of the years I spent as a print journalist, where I would drive home alone, late at night in Lahore after having spent the day editing dozens of rape stories from all over southern Punjab, most of which never made it to the paper because they lacked — what in journalism is regarded as — ‘shock value’. During that 40-minute drive home, I would cover my windows with removable shutters. I shrouded myself in a shawl. I carried a rape whistle, pepper spray and a Swiss army knife in my purse. I had tucked away a lead pipe under my car seat and stowed away a cricket bat in my trunk. Of course, none of this helped me feel safe. How would I even get to that cricket bat in time if I was attacked? The first time I was attacked I was 12. A few years later it was an ‘uncle’ on the second story staircase of my home. When I was in college, it was the gatekeeper and guard who groped me as I was exiting the main gate. I am no exception; I am just one of the 93 per cent of women who have experienced some form of sexual violence in their lifetime. At 37, I have honestly lost count of how often this happens — my recollections are archived by the intensity of how violated I feel in each case and not the specifics of the incident itself. Still, that cricket bat in the trunk made me feel like I was doing something. Some of my female colleagues carried tasers to feel the same way. Now we are asking how we can acquire gun licenses to protect ourselves. Now we are chanting Mera jism, meri marzi because we know how difficult it is to take ownership over our own bodies when we have been told since birth that our bodies belong to everyone — our family, our community, our nation — basically anyone and everyone but ourselves. We talk among ourselves of safe spaces, safe times and safe people because we are surrounded by risk.
We have these conversations among ourselves because we know that even though we are never safe in our country, we have to try to protect ourselves because men cannot protect us from a system that they designed for their own protection.