Harsh punishments

22 Sep 2020


The writer is a political economist and heads INSPIRING Pakistan, a progressive policy unit.
The writer is a political economist and heads INSPIRING Pakistan, a progressive policy unit.

THE Pakistani nation seems meticulously pre-programmed to respond largely in two ways after gross cases of sexual abuse of women and children. Religious conservatives usually pin the blame on the victim, especially adult women victims. They see the free mixing of sexes and women’s education, dress, mobility and work as the culprits even if they don’t fit the case of the current victim.

We then have overzealous sympathisers of the victim who start demanding dodgy legal processes and harsh punishments for the accused. So there is a demand for swift and even on-the-spot trials that do away with what is seen as arcane due process mandated by Western-inspired legal systems. On the punishment side, the demands start from the death penalty and progress to public hangings, physical and chemical castration and even stoning to death.

As participation in Twitter and school Whatsapp groups shows, such demands often come from highly educated people and even those settled in the West for long. Some of them strangely prefer the crude Saudi legal system over the rights-based legal systems in their own countries. These two opposing reactions were vividly on display after the recent gruesome rape on the Motorway. There is the immediate issue of whether these views have any merit. But since the analysis below clearly shows that they don’t, the deeper issue is why such crude ideas are so popular in society and especially among its educated sections.

So if the logic that the free mixing of sexes in educational and work settings leads to increased rape were true, most rapes should involve men raping known women from those settings. There is little evidence that this is so and cases of rape reported in media involve both known and unknown perpetrators. Nor is there evidence that ‘immodestly’ dressed women are largely targeted. And if the mere presence of women in the public sphere provokes men into committing rape, should we be banishing the victim? Also, why do most Pakistani men not commit rape if the mere presence of women in the public sphere was the problem? Clearly, the answer is not to banish women or even men in general from the public sphere. It is to develop a better idea of which types of men are prone to perpetrating such violence and developing proactive strategies for stopping them.

Why do we see brutal force as the ultimate solution?

The demands for harsh punishments, such as public hangings, are also not based on systematic analysis. Criminological analysis globally shows that the certainty of punishment rather than its severity plays a much bigger role in curbing crime. Saudi Arabia has both. But UN statistics show that dozens of countries not using such harsh punishments have similar or lower murder rates than Saudi Arabia. Thus, the lower murder rates in those states, and most likely even in Saudi Arabia, are caused by the high certainty of punishment. In the US too, there is little evidence that the death penalty — in states that still have it on the statute books — deters murders.

However, there is evidence that the use of harsh punishments leads to the brutalisation of society and abuse of human rights. Even Imran Khan has spoken in favour of public hangings and castration. It is unclear whether he will even attempt to pass such laws. However, his words may inflame extremist views and lead extremists to implement such punishments informally through mob justice. Leaders must weigh their words clearly and think through their possible effects on society.

Thus, the focus should be on increasing the certainty of punishment by improving policing and prosecution. But if there is little evidence to support them, why do people with education and exposure to Western justice, like Khan, advocate barbaric punishments? Why is there an increasing tendency in society to see the use of brutal force as the solution to complex problems that need sophisticated solutions?

People’s opinions are shaped by the actions of powerful and admired societal forces. So which forces use brutal force regularly? Landed elites do. But they are powerful though not admired. The Taliban do and despite the terrorism unleashed by them, there is still admiration for them in sections of society.

But perhaps the biggest impact comes from the use of brutal and lawless force by the much-admired, self-appointed defenders of our imaginary ideological borders. Their brazen use of lawless force via enforced disappearances, extrajudicial killings, unaccountable non-civilian courts, polls rigging, etc plays a critical role in disengaging society from the rule of law and human rights. And then, there is the role of the defenders of our defenders who openly support their every action in the media. Thus, as with so many of our other problems, the root causes of this one too goes back in large measure to those who control Pakistan’s destiny.

The writer is a political economist and heads INSPIRING Pakistan, a progressive policy unit.

Twitter: @NiazMurtaza2

Published in Dawn, September 22nd, 2020