NOT once, but twice, has the prime minister of this country articulated deeply problematic views about rape. The public outcry the first time around evidently did not make him reflect on his words and consider how they reinforce society’s misogynistic outlook in which women, unless kept on a ‘tight leash’, can legitimately be held responsible for sexual violence by men. Instead, he has proceeded to articulate his opinion on the subject on a far bigger platform than a local telethon as was the case earlier.
In an interview with HBO that aired Monday, while responding to a question about the growing incidence of rape in Pakistan, Imran Khan referred to the concept of purdah in avoiding temptation and said: “We don’t have discos here, we don’t have nightclubs, so it is a completely different society, way of life here, so if you raise temptation in society to the point and all these young guys have nowhere to go, it has consequences in the society.” He then went on to add: “If a woman is wearing very few clothes, it will have an impact. It will have an impact on the men, unless they’re robots.”
Given his government has strengthened the law against rape and also expanded its earlier unrealistically narrow definition, Mr Khan clearly considers rape a serious offence that merits severe punishment. However, his understanding of the impulse that leads to it is simplistic, contradictory and illogical. Can the prime minister explain the epidemic of sexual violence against children, both girls and boys, in the country — including against madressah students — as an outcome of “temptation” brought on by skimpy clothing? In any case, the definition of modest attire is an extremely subjective one, for vulgarity lies in the eyes of the beholder. Moreover, most rapists are known to their victims; sometimes, sickeningly enough, they are members of the immediate family. Can incest be explained by the victims’ appearance?
It can be argued that Mr Khan’s view reflects the prevailing mindset in society that reduces rape to a consequence of sexual frustration provoked by the victim’s appearance. But there is a difference between an ordinary member of the public and someone in a position of authority taking a stance that appears to condone rape, in a manner of speaking, and puts the onus on the victim. It reinforces a dangerous narrative that seeps into how sexual violence is investigated and prosecuted, and deters victims from coming forward in a society where the crime is already massively under-reported. Those who do so are made to endure humiliating interrogations by the police and in court that make them feel defiled all over again, as though they ‘asked for it’. Rape is a crime primarily of power rather than lust, rooted in a contempt for others’ bodily integrity. There can never be any justification for it.
Published in Dawn, July 23rd, 2021