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Why more Pakistani men need to talk about rape

The sad reality is that Pakistani men have not stepped up and assumed their responsibility to become proactive allies for women — but that can change.
Updated 08 Mar, 2021
People hold signs and chant slogans as they take part in the first ever Aurat March, held in Karachi on March 8, 2018.—Reuters
People hold signs and chant slogans as they take part in the first ever Aurat March, held in Karachi on March 8, 2018.—Reuters

This article was originally published on October 6, 2020

A mother was violently dragged from her car and gang-raped in front of her children. I could appeal to you by speaking of the severity of the crime or ask you to imagine if it was your mother, your wife or your daughter.

Instead I’m going to give you the cold hard facts: W.A.R. data shows that 44% of rape cases in Pakistan are gang-rapes just like this one. 90% of all rape cases involve female victims in Pakistan, and there is a clear 7% yearly rise in the registration of child sex assault cases.

The statistics of rape are admittedly high worldwide, and environments fostering a safe space for rapists are prevalent at every level: from third world villages to the highest echelons of Hollywood. The UN has estimated 35% of women worldwide have experienced physical and or sexual violence at some point in their lives. It also says that in many national cases, it’s up to 70% of women and notes that due to underreporting of rape, the numbers may be higher still. There have been a number of initiatives to tackle the problem of sexual violence, but clearly not enough has been done.

Sexual assault is a crime of extreme severity, with costs that go beyond the personal and affect families and communities at large. The obvious costs involve personal physical consequences such as cuts, broken bones, bruising and genital injuries, but the harm is deeper: It can lead to psychological issues such as anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and suicidal thoughts. These and other consequences of rape may also be chronic.

Also read: Can Pakistan introduce public hangings and castration for rape and sexual crimes?

Victims may experience reoccurring gynecological, gastrointestinal and cardiovascular health problems, which all have a cost on the health system at large. The ensuing trauma can impact a victim’s employment.

From an inability to perform, to required time off, job loss and/or an inability to communicate, these issues can and do disrupt the earning power of victims and can have long term effects on their economic well-being and that of their families’. It is estimated that the cost to an American victim of rape is $122,46. That is $3.1 trillion of US taxpayer money.

Those numbers are staggering, but not surprising.

Women are significant contributors to national incomes worldwide. In Pakistan, women contribute $37.55 billion to national income. One study finds that the economic cost of violence against women (both from within and outside the home) in Pakistan is appalling: survivors are together unable to undertake care work for a total of 11 million days a year.

They incur an average personal cost of Rs8,624 every year out-of-pocket on medical, legal, shelter and property replacement expenses — a total that is equivalent to approximately 19% of the per capita annual expenditure on non-food consumption.

The sad reality is that men in Pakistan have not stepped up and assumed their responsibility to become proactive allies in the movement for women’s rights and empowerment, nor have they taken any sort of initiative to learn more about it.

The economic and social impacts of violence against women for businesses, communities and the national economy are far reaching. Children of women who experience violence in Pakistan miss over 2.4 million school days annually. One in seven female employees report productivity loss of up to 17 days. The national loss in productivity in 2019 due to violence against women and girls in Pakistan was a total of 80 million days annually — that is 2.2% of employed women essentially unable to work.

This is a lot of money.

Imagine if armed gangs were violently entering one in three homes every single day and simply stealing cold hard cash. There would be a national outcry. Perhaps armed forces would be sent to patrol the streets, and an endless supply of government spending would be deployed to eradicate the problem. In short, it would be a national emergency.

Now ask yourself why there has been no outcry.

The sad reality is that men in Pakistan have not stepped up and assumed their responsibility to become proactive allies in the movement for women’s rights and empowerment, nor have they taken any sort of initiative to learn more about it.

Instead, they have either stayed negligently quiet or derisively questioned the motives and capabilities of the activists heavily involved — attributing their existence to Pakistan’s political and class issues.

I am not exaggerating when I say that it is this silence that has ultimately led to a mother lying in a forest, her children having watched on as she was repeatedly violated by men.

Men are responsible. This is your fault. In a country where women are routinely burnt, mutilated, murdered and gang-raped, not supporting feminist activists is tantamount to aiding and abetting.

All she was doing was driving home.

What can we do about this?

How do you make sure this doesn’t happen again? By having uncomfortable conversations.

Just as you teach your children those moral codes of ‘Do not steal’, ‘Do not hit’, teach your boys not to rape. It is important to focus on this instead of focusing on teaching your daughters how not to be raped.

Communicate as an equal with your wife, and demand that the schools you send your children to also engage in educating children about sexual politics and health.

Instill in your boys that rape is a crime, not an understandable act of passion, that victims are not at fault regardless of their whereabouts, outfits or actions and that all women, including trans women and sexual minorities, are worthy of protection and support — not just mothers.

Tell your sons that instances in which a female was the rape victim, a man was the perpetrator 98% of the time, and in instances with male rape victims, a man was also the perpetrator 93% of the time. As such, this puts the onus squarely on men.

Remember please to always bring the narrative away from victim-blaming. Teach your sons not to assume that the line of consent is sometimes blurry.

It is not, it is clear as day.

Speak up — literally

Too many times we hear whispers of the way men speak about women when they leave the room. That the way they speak is ‘filthy’, ‘vile’ or just ‘boys being boys’.

Question your friend who slut-shames his ex-girlfriends. Tell your other friend that he is not entitled to women’s bodies when he makes a rape ‘joke’. Don’t condone sex-based rumours about the unpopular women in your circles.

How do you know which of your friends making filthy jokes about sexual assault is willing and able to commit the heinous crime? If you let it pass, have you given him the green light to do it? You can’t possibly know what your action or inaction may result in, so don’t take that risk.

On that fateful Wednesday in September, when a woman and her children ran out of fuel and were stranded near Lahore’s Gujjarpura, men beat her, dragged her and her children and raped her in front of them. Lahore Capital City Police Officer Umar Sheikh famously decided to speak of how she herself was responsible.

While it may be easy to shrug off his words as simply ignorant, it is important to note that the only reason we assume men are unable to control themselves and that women must as a result deal with the imminent threat of gang rape at all times is partly because we allow ‘locker-room talk’ to continue: men assume that behaviour is understandable. The Lahore police chief has since apologised for his remarks and for any pain caused.

If powerful men promote, albeit unwittingly, the idea that men are unable to control their sexual urges around women, how many men are hearing this and finding their violent thoughts justified?

In your capacity as a man in Pakistan’s patriarchy, your words and actions carry weight that will likely be felt for generations in your family and, depending on your influence, in other families too.

Beyond approval, there is also the psychological impact of engaging in locker room talk on people who hadn’t until then had violent sexual thoughts. When men engage in what we have learnt to call ‘locker room talk’, they are priming themselves to think of women as objects that they may handle and grab with abandon. Even should you consciously feel that you do not have less respect for women as whole entire human beings, you unconsciously are making terrifying associations just by hearing it.

Many others do not play along, but instead, stay entirely silent. Why? Usually so as not to appear “arrogant or rude”.

Pakistan is a heavily patriarchal society with fathers and grandfathers holding most of the financial and social power within a household. A couple of weeks ago, the #MeraJismMeriMarzi march took place in all the major cities to demand an end to the normalisation of patriarchal violence. Join them when next they march, along with any of the women in your lives who wish to attend.

In your capacity as a man in Pakistan’s patriarchy, your words and actions carry weight that will likely be felt for generations in your family and, depending on your influence, in other families too.

Leaders of state and industry have joined in by pledging with #HeForShe, a solidarity movement for the advancement of gender equality by the United Nations. This solidarity movement is based on the notion that gender inequality is an issue that affects all genders socially, economically and politically.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and UN Women Global Goodwill Ambassador Emma Watson’s project has succeeded in having millions of men from around the world including Heads of State, CEOs, and other global luminaries commit to active efforts towards gender equality. 95% of the world's CEOs and heads of states are men, and as such, ‘male allyship’ is more than just necessary. Securing commitment from men who have benefited from the patriarchy can be a major game-changer.

Being passive about rape is actively dangerous

In 1975, Susan Brownmiller, a feminist writer of the time, quashed the assumption that rape is motivated by evolution (which suggests that it is simply a manifestation of natural urges or deviant desires) by asserting that it is motivated instead by the urge to control and dominate — a physical manifestation of patriarchal violence. The idea was that all men feel sexual desire, but not all men rape, and as such rape is not about sexual desire, it’s about something else entirely: power. As she notes, ‘(Rape) is nothing more or less than a conscious process of intimidation by which all men keep all women in a state of fear’.

Various studies have been run attempting to find whether testosterone levels were higher in rapists or whether sexual deprivation resulted in rape: the studies eventually found that testosterone levels didn’t factor into rape, and that if anything, rapists had more consensual sexual partners than other men. In Sex Offenders: An Analysis of Types (1965), researchers found that married rapists were just as likely to have active sex lives with their wives. Rape is a political issue: it is the manifestation and enforcement of patriarchal misogyny.

Communication, solidarity and knowledge of history help to address the societal and cultural issues and are preventative measures that you can take. It is important, however, to work also towards better enforcement of the existing laws and to lobby for improvements in laws where needed.

Whilst the laws themselves are being slowly and steadily updated, lack of enforcement and cultural norms are rendering them ineffective. Pakistan’s Penal Code’s Rape Laws were amended and made stricter in 2016 — in fact there has been a trend in recent years towards more amendments and bills that promote inclusivity and equality.

Rape laws were previously incredibly heteronormative. Amendments have included the ruling that any offences related to rape are non-commutable, that rapists of minors or differently abled persons may result in death or life imprisonment, and that the same punishments carried for the rape of anyone by a public servant or police official.

Your silence actively helps to build an environment where Pakistan’s penal code can be easily disregarded.

Recent amendments also looked to the health and safety of the victim, ruling that their identity cannot be revealed, that statements must be made in safe conditions and that DNA tests must be taken. These are great strides in Pakistan’s law reforms, and things are steadily improving.

Why is it, then, that the number of rapes hasn’t been going down? This suggests that the problem isn’t with a need for tougher laws, but better enforcement of and adherence to those laws and a change in the mentality around the severity of sexual crimes. Your silence actively helps to build an environment where Pakistan’s penal code can be easily disregarded: Your ambivalence in the face of rape, sexual harassment or assault isn’t simply negligent, it is actively dangerous.

We need convictions for Pakistani rape offenders to coalesce: In the first half of the decade, Pakistan had zero rape convictions, and continues to have disappointingly low rates of convictions despite an increase in reports of rape. This could possibly be attributed to how the burden of proof in criminal cases has been placed on the prosecution, which in rape cases is decidedly unfair given the difficulty in proving rape or sexual assault.

While you may be a brilliant father, brother, husband and friend, you have this responsibility that you’ve thus far been failing in.

There are still some improvements that can be made — in particular, to build supportive systems to protect and help women and minorities in the workforce. These improvements should include laws to protect women working at the bottom of the global supply chain as well as all other types of informal or non-standard settings: household staff, garment factory/at-home workers and agricultural workers.

For example, Malaysia prohibits companies from employing women during night shifts or underground to ensure that they are not put at risk, though I hesitate to suggest something that might make it even harder for women to be financially independent. Access to gender specific toilets and other safe spaces would also lower the risk of rape and sexual harassment in the workplace.

We need, also, programmess designed to rehabilitate men who have thoughts of rape and demand accountability from rapists. Men who commit sexual violence tend to deny that they are responsible entirely and/or insist that their actions were not violent. These programmes involve having male perpetrators admit both their responsibility and the violence of their actions while being publicly seen as responsible for it.

The scope of other existing provincial and federal laws may need to be widened as well. For instance, the Workplace Harassment Act was famously inconsequential in a case where both parties were working together informally. It was just weeks ago that the provincial health authorities in Lahore notified the Lahore High Court that two-finger test used to examine sexual assault survivors — a traumatising assault by itself — has inadequate evidentiary value and as such will be abolished from the protocol of the medico-legal certificate.

The need to address rape is particularly important in Pakistan, given that the Thomson Reuters Foundation Survey of 2018 listed Pakistan as the sixth most dangerous state for women out of the 193 United Nations member states, noting in particular the risks that women face from cultural and religious and traditional practices, including so-called honour killings.

Stand by women for their rights

Society is not entitled to women’s bodies. Victims are not in control of whether or not they are raped. There is shame only in having raped, not in having been raped. Social reform and change needs to happen sooner rather than later if we are to bring these numbers down.

When we are marching at Aurat March, I am asking you here to accept your responsibility and march with us. When men jeeringly question us, asking if our fathers and brothers and husbands are also at fault, they underline just how alone we feel in this fight against society — this fight that is yours as well. It is in everyone’s interest that rape is dealt with. We need our brothers, fathers, husbands and police commissioners marching with us and actively involved.

While you may be a brilliant father, brother, husband and friend, you have this responsibility that you’ve thus far been failing in. You need to take part in this conversation, the war on rape needs your support.

Stand up for our rights.

Author Image

Zeina Toric-Azad

Zeina Toric-Azad is a writer, poet and businesswoman based in London. A seasoned corporate consultant, she’s been running her family’s executive training and consultancy company in Karachi while also working in the bridal fashion industry in London.


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