Why the deafening silence after rape?

Published: February 22, 2011
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Rape is motivated by the desire for power rather than sexual attraction.

Many people believe that rape is a sexual act. Although rape involves sexual acts, it is motivated by the desire for power and control over another person rather than by sexual attraction or the desire for sexual gratification.

In other words, rape is a crime of violence.

A rapist uses actual force or violence — or the threat of it — to take control over another human being. Some rapists use drugs to take away a person’s ability to fight back. Rape is a crime, whether the person committing it is a stranger, a date, an acquaintance, or a family member.

“I prefer to characterise rape simply as a form of torture. Like the torturer, the rapist is motivated by the urge to dominate, humiliate, and destroy his victim. Like a torturer, he does so by using the most intimate acts available to humans — sexual ones.” Helen Benedict (British-American novelist and journalist)

Rape is not a ‘war trophy’

Rape has accompanied warfare in virtually every known historical era. During armed conflict, rape has been frequently used as a means of psychological warfare.

Military leaders have been known to actually encourage their soldiers to rape civilians. An estimated 500,000 women were raped during the 1994 Rwandan Genocide and, in 1998, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda made landmark decisions defining rape as a crime of genocide under international law.

“From time immemorial, rape has been regarded as spoils of war. Now it will be considered a war crime. We want to send out a strong message that rape is no longer a trophy of war.”

Frequency of rape in Pakistan

Violence against women makes up 95 per cent of cases of violence reported in Pakistan. These statistics are even more chilling, bearing in mind that 70 per cent of cases of violence against women do not get registered. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan estimates that a rape occurs in Pakistan every two hours and a gang rape every eight hours.

Aurat Foundation’s report titled Situation of Violence against Women in Pakistan 2010 discloses that Punjab dominates with 2,690 registered cases out of a total of 4,069 incidents in various parts of Pakistan.

Interior Ministry documents placed before the National Assembly in 2008 revealed that a staggering 7,546 women were raped in a mere 24-month span between 2007-2009, a rate of 314 rapes every month.

According to War Against Rape, data released by 103 police stations in Karachi show an eight per cent rise in registered cases and seven per cent more medico-legal examinations in 2010 from 2009.

Since courts do not place restraining orders on all the accused released on bail, they often continue to harass the survivors. Whither justice when 31 per cent of cases reported against a family member have resulted in the family shifting away from their home, and removing themselves from the legal system to avoid social persecution?

The conviction rate in sexual assault cases is abysmal — three per cent annually since 2003.

Survivor statistics in 2010

Female victims: 95 per cent

Raped by more than one offender: 32 per cent

Victims between the ages 18-23 years: 33 per cent

Victims from displaced families: 31 per cent

Victims between the ages 6-11 years: 15 per cent

Victims under 16 years of age: 43 per cent

Victims under 18 years of age:55 per cent

Victims between the ages 12-17 years: 25 per cent

Custodians of the law as predators

The low conviction rate can be attributed to a number of factors, one of which is the involvement of police themselves in these heinous crimes.

According to an Interior Ministry report, the number of cases of torture and rape by police officials has increased by 60 per cent during the last three years.

Lack of accountability and corruption are also major factors in lack of convictions. How will justice be served when authorities themselves are not convinced that a horrendous crime has been committed? The response of the police to the gang rape of a young woman in Karachi is a case in point when there was much tasteless indulging in blame-the-victim behaviour on not just the part of the police, but even senior government officials.

Another factor impeding convictions is political connections which can grease the palms of the highest police officers, as evidenced in Dr Shazia Khalid’s rape case of 2005 and the JPMC nurse’s ordeal at the hands of a MLO.

The Ministry of Women’s Development is under the prime minister’s authority; the Women’s Parliamentary Caucus is headed by the Speaker of the National Assembly and comprises of women MNAs who are strong supporters of women’s rights. Why don’t these wings lobby the government with support from the National Commission on the Status of Women (NCSW)?

Can these privileged women not play a role to reduce the level of barbarity perpetrated against women in all corners of Pakistan? Apart from an urgent need to review Pakistan’s rape laws, properly documented medical investigations are also crucial in cases of rape, gang rape and sexual assault.

Real life vs reel life

I once had the misfortune of watching a regressive Indian film which featured the winsome Juhi Chawla as a rape victim who was determined to erase the black blotch on her “reputation” by courting, winning over and eventually marrying her rapist.

The storyline was enough to make my head reel, and wonder why such a pathetic script was written in the first place. But I was brought down to earth with a resounding thud when I learnt of a recent real life case which took place in Pakistan

Mailsi Moza Arain resident Hajra* rejected a marriage proposal from her neighbour Riaz*. Local land lords then called a panchayat on his request. The panchayat was told by Riaz that his proposal had been rejected because the woman was having an affair and that she should be given a harsh sentence.

Residents of the village said that the panchayat forcefully performed a nikah ceremony where Hajra was wed to Riaz.

“The girl was crying and clearly shook her head to indicate ‘no’ every time she was asked about the marriage. The men took no notice.”

Following the nikah, Riaz and three of his friends took Hajra into a room and raped her. According to villagers, the men later boasted about having ‘taught her a lesson’ for her previous conduct.

“They openly flaunted the fact that they had raped her for rejecting him. They feared no consequences.”

Following the sexual assault, the panchayat ruled that Hajra* be turned out of the village and never be allowed to set foot in the area again. Hajra then approached the Women’s Crisis Centre and has sought refuge in one of their offices in Vehari. To add salt to her wounds, the police have refused to file her case against the panchayat as well as against Raza and his accomplices.

As horrifying as this story is, what is notable is the lack of media, police or judicial interest in this case. It seems that Raymond Davis is the only “criminal” who is deserving of the sternest punishment in Pakistan.

Daughters of the nation?

If a terrorist like Dr Aafia Siddiqui can be feted as “qaum ki beti” by foaming and frothing mullahs and their excitable sidekicks, then why is there this deafening silence when it comes to rape victims? Why don’t our religious scholars condemn the crime, as well as the ostracism these women, set upon by ravenous men, have to face?

Despite the lip service paid to the rights of women and their honour, most women in Pakistan are treated as chattels and dirt, to be trod on, spat upon and trashed verbally and physically. The vernacular abuses favoured by men are punctuated by gross ‘mother and sister’ references.

If there is so much respect for women in Islam, then why is there a daily litany of abuse heaped on their heads?

Learning to live again

If rape is used as a weapon in “the destruction of the spirit, of the will to live, and of life itself”, how does a rape survivor learn to pick up the shattered pieces of her life? Not everyone can be a Mukhtaran Mai or a Tori Amos who says, “I survived this torture which left me paralysed for years. I really do feel as though I was psychologically mutilated that night. I found a way to dance with sorrow… though I can’t change what happened, I can choose how to react. And I don’t want to spend the rest of my life being bitter and locked up.”

Rape survivors should be encouraged to give language to their ordeal, because talking about it is in itself a cathartic experience.

Author of After Silence: Rape and My Journey Back, Nancy Raine admits:

words seemed to make it visible. But, speaking, even when it embarrassed me, also slowly freed me from the shame I felt. The more I struggled to speak, the less power the rape, and its aftermath, seemed to have over me.”

In Pakistan, where there is a conspiracy of silence about rape, the last couple of days have seen a commendable online initiative.

Gawaahi, a website launched by Sana Saleem and Naveen Naqvi aims to archive digital stories of abuse, survival and resistance. The founders of the initiative hope it will provide a sense of empowerment for people to no longer see themselves as victims, but as survivors, no matter what their ordeal.

In the words of the incomparable Maya Angelou:

“You may trod me

In the very dirt

But still,

like dust

I’ll rise again.”

*Names have been changed to protect the identity of the victim

Maheen Usmani

Maheen Usmani

A freelance writer who has covered subjects ranging from socio-political issues to women's rights to counter terrorism, sports, travel, culture and music. Maheen tweets @MaheenUsmani (twitter.com/MaheenUsmani)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.