THE myth that a woman’s clothing is somehow linked to the sexual violence against her has long been debunked, but it seems the prime minister still harbours this problematic view. During a telethon where members of the public were invited to ask him questions, Imran Khan’s response to one caller was unsettling. Though Mr Khan denounced crimes against women and children, his explanation that sexual violence is somehow a product of ‘obscenity’ — which he described as a Western and an Indian import — betrayed an ill-informed understanding of a very serious issue.

Not only did Mr Khan say that the pervasiveness of obscene behaviour has contributed to these crimes, he also implied that they can somehow be prevented if women observe purdah. In his words, purdah would lessen the temptation of those who lack willpower. While he noted that society would have to evolve to better protect its women and children, his point appeared to be more about limiting government responsibility than reforming male behaviour. Mr Khan’s views on this subject are shockingly insensitive and even harmful to the women’s movement in the country.

Read: In Pakistan, rape culture is not only systemic, it is reinforced at every level

If the holder of the country’s highest office is framing the narrative of sexual violence in a way that places the responsibility of ‘doing more’ on women, it gives little hope that common citizens will espouse a broader and less misogynistic approach. If the prime minister had engaged with rights activists in the country to really understand women’s grievances, he would instantly comprehend that this mentality of equating rape with a lack of ‘modesty’ is the very manifestation of victim-blaming that women fight against.

Blaming the increasing incidence of rape on Western influence is convenient, but Mr Khan should not forget that women in the countries he blames for obscenity and high divorce rates have better protections and more freedoms than women in Pakistan. He should understand the basics of women empowerment, and acknowledge that imposing a solution is no support; the government must protect women regardless of their choices.

Published in Dawn, April 6th, 2021

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