By Ayesha Mirza
Photograph credit: Reuters
Trigger warning: rape, sexual assault, sexual violence
On 3 April 2021, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan hosted a public question and answer session, taking calls from the general public and answering questions about various issues. During this session, Arshad Khan called in from Latifabad enquiring what the Prime Minister's administration has done to address rising sexual violence against women and minors. In response, Khan said “rape is not something that can be eliminated through laws alone. If people do not obey the laws, the legislation will not serve any purpose.” He elaborated on his statement saying if people keep increasing “fahashi” [vulgarity], it will have an [detrimental] impact. Our religion prohibits vulgarity and enforces parda [veil] to prevent “temptation”, he added. According to Khan, you can blame women’s dressing choices because “vulgarity has consequences.”
To make this 100% clear, the only vulgarity that we see, is the fact that a national leader sees fit to throw half his citizens under a metaphorical bus because: when in doubt, add misogyny. Because if vulgarity should have consequences, then we have a few ideas around who should be bearing the penalty.
Khan’s victim-shaming stance left the world shocked and caused an uproar in both national and international media. His statement is yet another blow to women’s rights in Pakistan, with Khan using the prevalence of vulgarity to frame rape victims as the culprits. He held women responsible for increasing “temptation” in society, articulating that not everyone has the "willpower". He also blamed the prevalence of vulgarity on the increased transmission of Bollywood and Hollywood entertainment. However, Bollywood and all other Indian content have long been banned from Pakistani television screens. In a nutshell, the Prime Minister suggests that everyone is at fault besides the very men who target women and children for acts of sexual violence.
In response to Khan’s statement, organizations such as Women’s Action Forums of Pakistan, War Against Rape, Aurat March Lahore, The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, and The Women’s Lawyer Association demanded an apology from the Prime Minister. A statement of condemnation was issued with 438 signatories. The statement deemed Prime Minister’s comments “factually incorrect, insensitive and dangerous,” one that “actively fostered and promoted rape culture.” As of this writing, it has been two months since the Prime Minister broadcasted his statement. He has yet to apologize.
It’s a gruelling reminder of the constant state of danger that women live under and the shocking dismissiveness with which South Asia's leading power structures (and those who lead them) have long treated the issue. Upon a brief Google search, in the last week alone, a woman was gang-raped in Bihar and left hanging naked from an electric police by her attackers, five men gang-raped a newly-wed bride and tortured her husband in Shujabad, and six arrests were made by Bengaluru Police after the assault and gang-rape of a woman in Ramamurthy Nagar. Simply listing these cases leaves a harrowing, sinking feeling, knowing that they’re not rare events. And whilst activists and campaigners continually raise the alarm to violence against women, Imran Khan's statement managed to surpass the (already terrible) status quo of dismissal, to jump head-first into fully and openly victim-blaming women, echoing so many of the same old tropes that many of us have tried so hard to dispel.
A Bleak Track Record
Khan’s misogyny comes as no surprise to many, and it’s worth examining how someone in such a great position of power has had a poor track record when it comes to women’s rights. As early as 2003, he opposed the Protection of Women’s Rights Bill. The bill amended the 1979 Hudood Ordinances, which put the entire burden on women to prove rape accusations. The 2003 bill did pass a parliamentary vote despite opposition. Prior to the bill, rape victims could be prosecuted and imprisoned for adultery if they failed to produce adult male witnesses to their assault.
Since his election in 2018, Khan issued several derogatory statements concerning both women and feminism. In 2018, he claimed that feminism is a Western concept that degrades the role of mothers. *Facepalm* In 2020, he said Aurat (Women) march is “culturally divisive”. *Double Facepalm* On the contrary, Aurat March is one of the only movements of its type in Pakistan, not only uniting Pakistani women together against patriarchy but also raising the voice for other marginalised groups in Pakistan. Earlier this year, Khan presented the Pride of Performance award to Ali Zafar (singer-actor) who was accused of sexual harassment by several female artists. Singer-actor Meesha Shafi also pursued legal action against Zafar. Khan ignored the accusations made against Zafar. He also disregarded the open letter from feminist activists who requested Khan to refrain from giving the award.
In April 2020, Imran Khan hosted a telethon to raise funds to fight COVID-19 during which Pakistani cleric Maulana Tariq Jamil also joined in. Jamil declared that the pandemic was Allah’s wrath on the increasing immodesty and obscenity in society. The cleric questioned, "who is making the daughters of his nation dance", arguing that scantily dressed women are to blame. Subsequently, Tariq Jamil revealed his ground-breaking scientific theory that the onus of COVID-19 was on women and their “wrongdoing”. Not one person in the telethon, including the Prime Minister himself, challenged Jamil’s opinion. He has since apologised for his remarks, but the attitude of the Prime Minister highlights how such degrading comments and overall patriarchal attitudes often go without challenge.
The Significance of Victim Blaming
One thing that is established is that violence against women is a systemic issue and can’t be so easily reduced to individual factors such as lack of education, poor mindsets and cultural misogyny. But they do contribute to it, allocating blame on the victims who are most often women and dismissing the role of men and their position in society. This is what makes Khan’s comments so significant, as it sets back any conversation about patriarchal violence and any solutions to tackle it by reinforcing the idea that violence is caused by the individual behaviours of the victim. Khan’s statement back in April as part of a running history of his adversarial position to tackling violence against women exposes misogyny as the symptom of the cold that just won’t go away in much of Pakistani society and South Asian culture more broadly. It is a repetition of the same old narrative where victims are silenced, whilst those who choose to stand up to their abusers are diminished. It is enraging to hear such views from the state premier because it further enforces misogynistic ideology in a system that already works against victims of sexual assault and abuse.
In a country where, according to official statistics for 2020, at least 11 rape cases are reported to the police every day, the brazen attitude of men in power is a concern for the safety of women. In the last six years, 22,000 rape cases have been reported to the police, of which only 77% of the accused are convicted, which makes up only 0.3% of the total figure. Police officials claimed that only half of the rape cases are registered. They have estimated the actual figure of rape cases to be as high as 60,000 in the last five years. This problem is not specific to Pakistan, but shared across the South Asian subcontinent, with statistics from India, Bangladesh and Nepal reflecting a similar tale.
Victims that dare to speak are immediately labelled liars, shamed, and blamed. Other times they are subjected to more extreme consequences as seen in victims forced to marry their rapists, or honour-killings to save the family from shame are also commonplace. In the past, Pakistani police and judiciary have failed to apply the law effectively in cases where there are no witnesses. The Prime Minister’s statement signals to the rapists that there is leeway. They can continue doing what they do because it is upon the victim to protect themselves, reinforcing the existing vulnerability of women because now if they try to speak up about their assault, they will also be questioned on their clothing choices.
Paradoxically, it allows women’s agency only in preventing being the subject of violence rather than allowing agency to exist freely without the fear of harm. Despite the existence of laws and organizations committed to tackling rape in Pakistan, many of the efforts go in vain because misogyny and patriarchy are deeply entrenched in the very structures of Pakistan. When rising rapes are blamed on women, it is often because rape is understood as an act of lust or passion – one that dishonours the woman who is preconceived as “chaste” and “virgin”. Victims that do not fit this preconceived definition are subjected to stigmas and may even be prosecuted for immorality.
Khan’s understanding of women rights and feminism is seemingly conservative. Had he understood rape as a crime of power and dominance, one would hope his stance would be much different. His supporters were quick to come to his defence, as seen on Twitter, as a cultural norm is to define women by their role and utility in relation to men, allowing the discourse about a woman in rape cases turning into one that blames the woman through the lens of the male. This was evident in the Lahore Motorway rape case where the Police Chief in charge of the investigation blamed the victim for leaving her home past midnight without a male companion. The comments of the Police Chief in response to the motorway rape and Khan’s statement about the rising rape cases both reflect structural misogyny that needs to be broken down.
When violence against women has itself been called a global pandemic and a public health issue by the World Health Organisation, it begs the question as to how much misogynistic, cultural attitudes prevent community organising to protect women the same way we have seen ourselves pooling together in the face of disaster. As Khan believes that legislation is useless, it’s often left to women and marginalised groups to organise and provide safe spaces and resources to tackle violence against women. But despite all the challenges, women are no longer willing to forego in the face of patriarchy and misogyny, they will not be silenced by such statements. In fact, women will continue sharing their stories and giving a voice to those that are silenced, demonstrated by the growth of the Aurat March in the last three years and the steady proliferation of women’s rights discourse as a more central topic of the political agenda. And as we recognise Khan is just one individual who is neither the first or last person to be publically misogynistic, the refusal of women to remain dormant is a thorn that will keep pushing deeper until change occurs.
About the author
Ayesha Mirza is a writer from Pakistan. She is passionate about dismantling structural misogyny and amplifying the voices of the marginalised groups. IG: @ayeshaamirzaa