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We Need to Discuss The Structures Which Enable Rape Culture

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On the day of Asia Bibi’s acquittal, ten-year-old boys ran out of our school in Malir with ardent cries: “Kafir! Kafir!” Within minutes, all schools in the vicinity shut down as streets teemed with outrage over the court’s acquittal of a “blasphemous” woman. I distinctly remember the corner where Ibrahim stood, fraught with fury and a mix of emotions flushing his face as he said “maar doon ga us ko!” Today, Ibrahim is not infuriated at the rape of a child, or a woman. He doesn’t know about it, he doesn’t understand it, and I don’t know how to talk to him about it.

Growing up, I heard varying circuitous ways to get to the word “rape” in Urdu: “Izzat cheen li”, “ziyati hogayi”, “jinsi zabardasti” etc. These words may get to constructs of what rape signifies to people, but there is no forthright admission of the literal act of rape. The social media realm of activism, however, is not evasive when it comes to talking about rape because one can use words in English. It’s easier to be outraged. Just using the word rape evokes a particular act of force and aggression. But when I am in the middle of the streets in Malir, what language do I speak in? How do I use hashtags? How do I speak to people when they turn away with scorn as soon as I use the word “aurat” and “jism” together?

To change minds, you have to be able to talk in spaces where there is no talk, and no thought. But here’s what the dominant discourse revolves around right now: public executions of rapists, dismissal of the CCPO, and taking to the streets. Such public outcries are not ill-founded, but they may risk diverting the discourse from systemic issues, and they risk dying out too soon if they aren’t accompanied by meaningful engagement with political institutions and local systems – systems that do not have a vocabulary for rape.

Let’s take public hangings, and what they can do to rape culture. Or let’s think about Ibrahim and what it means for a child, who has grown up immersed in aggression, to witness an act of state-sanctioned violence in the name of justice. Take women and children whose perpetrators of unforgivable crimes are often members of their own family or tribe. Think about how being, or knowing, someone who is even minimally influential massively reduces one’s chances of being reported, let alone arrested. Now think what impact public executions will have on the already sinking level of reporting.

Retributive justice doesn’t magically solve such complex issues of a dysfunctional system, nor that of deeply ingrained misogyny and aggression in people. We have hung perpetrators before; and we have seen that this on its own does little to deter people. People shouldn’t have to fear the death penalty. Instead, they should fear the certainty of due process. Our law stipulates that those guilty of rape must be sentenced with life imprisonment or the death penalty (the arbitrary application of this merits a separate spiel altogether). But less than 4-5% of individuals accused of rape actually get convicted in Pakistan. This excludes the number of cases that don’t get reported at all. To put it simply, if one doesn’t feel they’ll get caught, the nature of punishment does not matter much.

I remember a woman victim in Sindh, who had just been to the women police desk to lodge a complaint, asked me when she returned: “abhi bhi itnay hi dhakkay khanay parain gay”. To me, those words painfully summed up her experience at the police station. Victims who file reports have to fight through a punishing system: inspectors blotch FIRs; paperwork and trips to court kacheri never end; investigations are triggering and devoid of any post-traumatic sensitivity. Alongside being abysmally dysfunctional in its constitutional process, the justice system is also simply misguided and a failure in its ability to reform individuals. And, what baffles me most is the complete nonexistence of redress and relief for victims. What do we even care about?

Public fixation on vengeance shouldn’t overwhelm broader notions of justice that direct us to look at systems, actors, the wellbeing of victims, and the mechanisms that make such crimes pervasive. Institutionalised patriarchy that inadvertently, and advertently, directs women’s lives in Pakistan creates certain ways of “seeing” and “knowing” women. The list is endless. Nadra requires me to provide either my father or my husband’s name before issuing me an identity card while norms require that I have to adopt one of their names as mine by obligation. An arbitrary, and frankly baseless, convention identifies me as more Pashtun, since that is my paternal lineage, and less Sindhi as that is my mother’s side of the family. Schools refuse to teach about sex education but are quick to chastise girls for “immoral” behaviors for things as trivial as the loudness of their voice. Internet police declare social death sentences to women whose private data gets leaked. Powers-that-be veto bills against child marriage. Draconian legal structures dictate that one’s legal guardian always has to be one’s father, unless he dies or is insane. Language which trivialises rape is normalised, as one hears expressions like team X “raped” team Y in a football match. Meanwhile, helplines divert victims from one “relevant authority” to the next as they squabble over whose jurisdiction it is to turn up at a scene of crime and maybe, just maybe, prevent it from happening before it is too late. These are all symptoms and progenitors of a dangerous discourse and a perilous environment where crimes like rape continue to happen with impunity.

As impassioned demands for (or against) execution overshadow the discourse on rape itself, they may make us lose sight of what matters most, that is, a desperate need to reform our system. We must not let the most important discussions get sidelined: creating protection mechanisms, strengthening women’s participation in police and politics, and ultimately de-tabooing conversation on the culture of rape and its relation with the structures of power. To dismantle power structures that enable rape culture, our discourse needs to focus on them directly. We have to pivot from patrolling and policing to protecting.

These repeated instances of crime has taught me that being angry is just not enough. I don’t want to be simply “angry” anymore because anger eventually wanes, and erupts again when I am hurt. It seems that getting angry has become too easy. On the other hand, being critically engaged in substantive forms of ‘nudging’ the system towards change is difficult. I want to do the latter. I want to be able to talk to Ibrahim.



  1. Dr S Syed September 14, 2020

    What a brilliant article !
    Excellently explained!
    Thankyou for elucidating some the structures that enable such wrongs to persist

  2. Shamoon Hashmi September 21, 2020

    In deed a thought-provoking piece that dissects the rotten system and takes the course of being objective rather than populist. Congrats!

  3. Ahmed September 21, 2020

    Stopping rape is one thing.

    The type of punishment is another.

    Punishments stopping rape is just a byproduct.

    Focus on the good things you can do. Which is improving the justice system. Punishments should be given in public.


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