A virtual pattern

Published July 12, 2021
The writer is a political and integrity risk analyst.
The writer is a political and integrity risk analyst.

USMAN Mirza is behind bars. A viral video and outrage-fuelled social media campaign have seen to it that he was apprehended for the violent harassment of a couple. The Twitterati also have ideas for what kind of justice he should face, as calls for the death penalty, lynching, castration, stoning and stripping mounted following his detention. This shows just how skewed the discourse on justice in Pakistan has become.

Mirza’s case is the latest in a pattern of crimes going viral, leading to social media hashtags and harrumphing, which result in enough public pressure on law enforcers that they make a concerted effort to nab the baddie. Then comes the sharing of images of the perpetrator behind bars, often surrounded by police officials. And then the moral outrage and fantasies of brutal retribution, all in the name of making an example of the individual.

There are many who are applauding such cases for sparking discussion about otherwise hushed-up horrific behaviour. But the problem with this approach is that it turns what should be the routine functioning of law enforcement and the judiciary into an exercise in exceptionalism. The crime itself is seen as a shocking occurrence, an outlier, animated with all the graphic details that the internet can muster, including video footage. This level of detail and colour somehow disassociates the crime from the nameless, faceless statistics that persist in police logs, newspapers and annual NGO reports, logging hundreds or thousands of similar incidents.

The calls for extreme punishment exacerbate the exceptionalism. The perpetrator is framed as a deviant who must be exemplified and punished for straying beyond what is permissible in society’s estimation. It is not surprising that this treatment is most often meted to crimes of rape, harassment, molestation or other forms of sexual assault.

The focus must shift from punishment to prevention.

The message of such campaigns is that we should make an example of the lone bad guy, so that others don’t follow suit. It is an extension of a tribal form of justice — an eye for an eye, an effective deterrent to close the circle of impropriety, injustice, revenge. At its worst, it’s a form of virtual mob justice. Either way, it stifles meaningful debate about criminal activity: the frequency of violations, the inadequacy of our law-enforcement and judicial systems to adequately and regularly identify, evidence and prosecute such crimes, and most importantly, the systemic drivers of such horrible incidents.

The last point is critical. The cycle of hashtag-outrage-apprehend-punish provides a neat conclusion to awful incidents, perpetuating a sense that order has been restored, and enabling people to move on to other preoccupations. But what we as a society need to discuss are the underlying issues that enable such incidents to occur. We must shift the focus of the conversation from punishment to prevention.

We all know Mirza’s case is not an anomaly. The drivers for offensive, violent behaviour towards women are numerous and varied: deeply embedded patriarchal norms, rampant gender inequality, legislative loopholes that misplace the onus of proving innocence from perpetrator to victim, poor resources available for the protection of victims of gender-based violence, lack of social discourse on these issues, including in school and university curriculums, and of course, the shocking inadequacy of police responses to gender-based violence.

When crimes surface, the discussion should be about raising awareness and enacting police, legislative and judicial reform, not absurd one-off solutions such as castration. But the former is a more difficult conversation to have.

The media should take some responsibility for changing the focus in such cases. While the 24/7 news cycle and hash­­tag culture love a demon, an online witch-hunt and justice de­­li­vered, responsible journalists should be constantly wor­king to highlight the systemic drivers of criminal activity and violence. At present, the industry doesn’t even consistently track the fate of online villains, and it barely makes news headlines when they are released on bail, or their charges dropped, which is often the case.

Media outlets should deliver sustained solution-driven campaigns — for example, a series of articles or documentaries explaining why certain legislative reform may lead to improved outcomes for victims of gender-based violence. This would be far preferable to the virtual fist-thumping we currently make do with.

Of course, the bulk of responsibility to reframe the narrative to emphasise systemic causes and preventative measures lies with our lawmakers. Once in office, they must rise beyond grandstanding, and consider what legislative powers and resources they can allocate to meaningfully stemming criminal activities. We must not settle for one-off justice compensating for widespread and structurally ingrained injustice.

The writer is a political and integrity risk analyst.

Twitter: @humayusuf

Published in Dawn, July 12th, 2021

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