Before we begin, I just want you to know that it took me several attempts to write this article. The entire time I kept trying to accommodate humour into it; after all what is comedy, if not tragedy given a punchline? The article refused to come out on paper. It felt contrived and forced and unfunny; it also felt like a timid effort to confront a monstrosity. You can’t be humorous, I realised, when you are the punchline. So consider this a warning; this is unadulterated rage, I hope my editor takes pity and saves you from the worst of it.
In all societies, there are people who are born into the prism of unbelonging. And to continue to survive, they have to pay a humanity tax to those who managed to escape such birth. The humanity tax is not a monetary payment; that is easy. The humanity tax is a performance designed to emotionally exhaust them. So they arrive in court, play the jester and entertain the rest of the world with the absurd notion that they, too, are human.
For my humanity tax, every few months I have to convince fellow country(usually)men, that I do not deserve to be raped.
I have performed my humanity tax for the following people: complete stranger on the street, complete stranger on the internet, family member in my drawing-room, male colleague at my workplace, a professor addressing a classroom, a friend making a crass joke, a religious cleric addressing thousands of people.
This is you reading me pay that tax to my prime minister. Stick around; it is grotesque.
Act 1: The set-up
Let me start with this: There is no word for rape in the Urdu literature. Zina bil jabr, was coined for purely legal reasons (do not run to the comments section with “jinsi ziyadti” for your gotcha! moment; the word translates to “sexual abuse” which is an umbrella term). There is no word for rape in our nomenclature because women’s anguish is not spoken of in our national language. It is not heard. It is only inflicted.
We have other words though. We have ismatdari, we have abroo-rezi; words conveniently tying the injustice done to a woman’s body to her dignity. As if a man, any man, has the power to even make dent in a woman’s honour and pride. But do you see what it does? If our language repeatedly conditions us to believe that a raped woman has lost her dignity, it transforms dignity from an inherent presence in a woman’s personhood to a commodity in need of protection. And so, what should give me the license to claim my presence in the world now acts as a burden that needs to be hidden from it for its protection.
In a society that does not even have a word for rape, the act itself is very common. I can do what everyone does to try to jar you. I can give you statistics. Tell you how according to massively underreported numbers from Punjab alone, 256 cases of rapes were reported in the first month of this year; that is more than eight rapes in a day. That national statistics imply a woman was raped in Pakistan every two hours in 2020, but the conviction rate of rapists remained 0.3%. I can tell you that in 2020 again, 2,960 cases of child sexual abuse were reported, 49% of them were boys. And in a majority of the total cases — 1,780 cases — the accused was either a relative or an acquaintance.
I can tell you all of that, but what’s the point? You and I both know, the statistics do not matter. That is the tyranny of statistics; your brain just refuses to engage with the meaning of it. It takes a nightmare and turns into a trite fact.
Imagine yourself in a bed, eyes wide open, paralysed from the neck down. Imagine a shadow hovering over you, imagine someone whistling the lullaby your mother sang to put you to sleep, imagine the chill in the air, the sweat on your forehead, imagine your heart thudding against the rib cage, imagine a cold hand tracing a line down your throat, imagine sweating, imagine asking for mercy and the words not forming.
Six people attacked in their homes last night.
Ever heard a rape joke? Ever cracked one? I have. It was cool to do that when I was a teenager. Teenagers today are infinitely better than they were in my time. But back to rape jokes.
(Trigger warning for examples of rape jokes)
Ever heard something along the lines of “X player raped the Y team”?
Ever said “Paper mein tou rape hogaya yaar!”
What are you referring to? Did player X watch a pornographic film last night, looked at team Y the next day, and could not control the desire to have sex with it? Or did you wear a sleeveless top to the examination hall and your test paper got so overtaken with lust that it sexually assaulted you?
Or did you mean that player X was so dominating that team Y never stood a chance? Or perhaps, the paper was so difficult you felt entirely helpless while attempting it?
When you hear rape jokes, do you associate them with sex or power?
You know then, don’t you? You know what rape is about. You know what is so intrinsically wrong about it. It is not a display of lust, it is a display of power. It is the high of being able to commit a violation so intimate, the knowledge of another human being so entirely at your mercy, that drives the rapist. You knew that even as a teenager when “woke” culture was not around.
The brutalisation of bodies is a control tactic to reassert your power on someone weaker than you. It is a constant, looming threat of violence to ensure that those below you on the societal hierarchy conform. Men rape women to "show them their place". Similarly, the police (allegedly) harasses members of trans communities; armed forces around the world (allegedly) brutalise women belonging to revolting groups or defeated enemy nations; cleric (allegedly) rapes children; the feudal lord and his progeny (allegedly) make life difficult for peasant women and kids; the boss (allegedly) harasses his employee.
After all, how do we stop women from accessing the public space to acquire any economic benefit? By constantly reminding them of their vulnerability in that space.
And since we are here, let us talk about spaces for a moment. What is this bizarre national obsession to ensure women remain indoors? Sure, the concept of men going out to work, and women taking charge of domestic responsibilities is the norm in patriarchal societies around the world, but we have a national obsession with the idea of a woman inside the chaar diwari — the constant hounding of women being ghar ki izzat, of daughters getting married and going apney ghar, of respectable women not being out in the public. Political theorist Partha Chatterjee offers some insight.
According to Chatterjee, being colonised by the White man made the South Asian man feel emasculated; someone claiming to possess greater physical and mental prowess had overpowered him in his own land. And the only place safe from the White man’s influence was his home. So the private sphere became sacrosanct; that was a space where he was king. It became paramount to defend the place where the South Asian man could relocate his masculinity, and so a woman’s actions to safeguard the sanctity of the place directly fed into the man’s claim to masculinity. She became the guardian to his manhood. And once the man reclaimed his masculinity in the post-colonial state, he treated the homeland, like he treated his home. The woman’s morality expanded to become the guardian of national dignity.
Act 2: The confrontation
Some presume that the person charged with the responsibility of representing the will of the people will support the most vulnerable. When it comes to the question of rape, he will not attempt to shift the burden of responsibility on the victim of the crime. I was under no such delusions, so when the prime minister appeared on television and remarked that the reason for the rape epidemic in the country is fahashi and bepardagi, I knew I had no time to be feel shocked and betrayed. I had to start preparing my humanity tax.
Here is an incomplete list of all that has been raped in this country: women wearing jeans, women wearing a chaadar, men in jeans, men wearing shalwar kameez, girls in school uniforms, boys in school uniforms, a donkey with no clothes on, a chicken with no clothes on, a toddler in whatever it is that toddlers normally wear, a dead body seven feet under the ground and wrapped in a shroud.
In only one of these cases, did the victim wear clothing that, if religious clerics are to be believed, brings about God’s wrath. The rest were in an attire that — if we are to presume that rape is caused by sexual appeal — should have protected them.
So the problem with pointing out women's clothing as a cause of rape is the age-old causality/correlation debacle. If x occurs in the presence of y, is it possible to eradicate x by eliminating y? Maybe. But if x also occurs with the other 24 letters, and numbers, and symbols, and every script you can imagine, then maybe eliminating y is not the solution everyone so desperately wants it to be.
Do you hear that? Do you? I'm addressing you who quickly scrolled down to the comments section without reading the rest of the piece and are now furiously typing up a defence of the prime minister's comments centred around the argument that he never said rape is linked to a woman’s attire.
Alright then. Let us accept that for a moment. He said that while the government is working on the legal aspect of things, rape is a social evil that results from widespread indecency and uncontrolled lust, that all of us need to collectively counter.
Okay. But how? The punishment for rape in Pakistan is either the death penalty or up to 25 years in prison. Scroll back up, read the statistics you did not read the first time around. The conviction rate in rape cases last year was 0.3%. For every 10,000 rapists, 30 will go to jail. Which one do you think is the screw that needs tightening? (You can want to watch a murder show, and hang someone publicly. But unlike what Ziaul Haq’s regime told you, public hangings have historically shown to have no impact on the frequency of crime).
Rape is not common because the punishment is not harsh enough, rape is common because the rapist is aware he is most likely going to get away with it. It is not the legislation, but the execution of said legislation that is the problem. Yet, the prime minister does nothing when our executive branches show signs of failure. During the motorway rape case investigation, when the main police officer-in-charge publicly said that the woman should not have been on the motorway that late at night, the prime minister, who apparently did not blame women for the rape rate in this country, came out in support of the officer amidst widespread public outcry and demands to remove the officer from the investigation. There was a rapist somewhere who saw that, and now knows that if he rapes someone and the case does not catch any media attention, a system that can publicly reprimand a rape survivor for being at the location of her rape, is unlikely to take a victim seriously behind closed doors.
So clearly, in this supposed government and civil society collaboration to counter the rape emergency in the country, the government cannot be relied on.
I have to be honest, despite my many claims in the past about the trashiness of men, it was extremely jarring to watch the prime minister imply on national television that men were basically animals with no impulse control. Even more mind-boggling was when I took to Twitter to defend the humanity of men — that I truly believe exists — men responded by vehemently insisting that they, indeed, had missed the one step in the evolutionary process that separates man from beast.
Makes you wonder, where this powerful cloud of lust that only attacks the men of this country, originates from. Because Bollywood and pornography, the two culprits in the eyes of our prime minister, are already banned in the country. Bollywood films do not play in our cinemas, and pornographic sites cannot be accessed. Do you know what is not banned though? The CDs, with recordings of child rape, widely available for a cost as low as PKR 50 in the markets of Kasur, which I am convinced, exists atop the gates to hell. That is homegrown Pakistani porn, that adult men regularly cause, record, sell and buy with no consequence. When parents protested the state’s failure to eliminate the child abuse ring in the region, the police responded with physical violence. Albeit this was three years before the current prime minister took charge, but please do not insult our intelligence by implying that anything in the city has since changed.
And despite the massive scale of child abuse taking place in Kasur, even if I am to buy the nonsensical argument that mainstream Hindi cinema (which I remind you, is banned) is somehow directly responsible for a problem that existed before Katrina Kaif danced to Shiela Ki Jawaani.
So now, finally, finally, let’s address the impassioned defence of the prime minister, put forth by his cabinet and support base alike; that critics, and local journalists, and foreign media, and international human rights organisations collectively misconstrued his words. That he never blamed women’s attire. That he was referring to both genders.
Here is a truth about the country that you and I live in: You can keep arguing about how many genders Imran Khan was speaking to about behayai, you can't argue that only one is killed for any supposed behayai in this country. In Pakistan, women have lost their lives for marrying by choice, for wanting to marry a person of their choice, for dancing in the rain, for singing, for clapping, for getting a divorce, and for putting up social media posts — all because some man viewed the act as a transgression of his pride and honour.
The burden of familial and national dignity that the brown man placed on the shoulders of the brown woman to empower himself, is a brutality unaccounted for in our histories. It reduced the role of the woman from an equal citizen deserving of equal rights to the guardian of national honour. To the brown man, and the patriarchal state, a woman’s value is in her ability to fulfill this guardianship. So now, say the words ismatdari and abroo-rezi out loud and confront their violence. You tied your dignity so closely to our bodies that you managed to erase ours from our humanity. The only role this society has given a woman is to protect a man’s dignity that is perpetually at risk of being violated by another man. And yet, the man only ever faces a 0.3% chance of social condemnation, while the woman, for certain, becomes a social outcast.
For you see, it is the woman, not the man who failed to fulfill their social duty. For in burdening the brown woman with his dignity, the brown man freed himself from it. And that is how he exerts his power; as a constant reminder that I am responsible for his actions.
This man, who insists that the brutalisation of my body is somehow the result of the unadulterated lust I invite towards myself; this man who repeatedly claims that skimpy clothing in “the west” has resulted in higher rape rates; this man, who is oddly obsessed with the idea that any woman asking for her rights just wants to prance around in a bikini; watch this same man actually confront a white woman in “the west” wearing a bikini. Watch how, what he claims to be, unadulterated lust constantly weaponised against me disappear at the sight that should have caused it to peak. Watch this man physically deflate. Because he knows, he knows he is powerless. The race of the white woman in her home country offers her significantly more power than his gender offers him.
In this country, where women who ask for their rights are called sex workers in a national newspaper and no one bats an eye; where a woman’s attire is blamed for a global pandemic; where when a woman gets kidnapped, social media is flooded with comments from men wishing she gets raped because she “deserves” it; where women are forced to marry their rapists because they got pregnant due to the rape, do not, do not, have the audacity to tell me that anyone meant “both” genders when they spoke of “fahashi'' and “pardah”.
Act 3: The resolution
I have been repeatedly warned by people much smarter than I am, that any attempt to prove your humanity, only dehumanises you. It validates the notion that your humanity requires evidence. I am aware that you are only here because you agreed with me. It is very difficult to imagine that anyone who does not view me as a human would have given me the respect of sticking around for so long. The humanity tax is violent in many ways, one of them is that it is always performed, never accepted.
So what even is the purpose?
I did not come up with the title of this piece. Those are Audre Lorde's words. I was in college, sitting in an auditorium, discussing rape when a senior of mine turned to address the room and said those words out loud. The world shifted. Everything that I had always known and never been able to convey, put so succinctly. Six words, reminding me I am not a vessel for some notion of pride that only exists in the male imagination. And the threat of the brutalisation of my body is to ensure compliance with the power men hold in this society. That nothing I do can invite or uninvite this violence towards me. I am human.
This humanity tax, then, stops being a tax when it turns into a reminder to myself. I will not lie, the prospects are bleak. These notions of honour and dignity will outlive me. Everyday I attempt to fight a fight that I know promises defeat. But then I think back to that auditorium, and that precise moment when, for the very first time, I had the words. That was a victory. So words are all I have today, and words are all that I can offer. To myself in this noise that attempts to drown us out. To you, who accompanied me this far. And to perhaps someone paying their humanity tax, in some other corner of this country.