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Sex crimes – dare we compare?

Sex crimes – dare we compare?

By: Afiya Shehrbano

Any effort at a comparative analysis between postcolonial and post-Partition progress in India and Pakistan provokes a disproportionately defensive reaction. This is not the usual practice of just Pakistani conservatives and nationalists but is also common amongst many of the so-called educated, chattering urban elite. Any attempt at a critical comparative study or observation of India’s progress often earns one the accusation of being ‘anti-Pakistan’ or an Indophile, whose only aim is to become like the Hindu and Bollywood-delusional, unshining India.

The less contestable sites of comparison such as democracy, the economy, software development and other ‘impersonal’ fields do not warrant such a reactionary lashing out. Instead, the anxiety is usually over any comparison between the ‘secular’ nature of the Indian state and that of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan or, the culture industry and/or, women’s development and progress.

Religion and culture are commonly cited ideological causes for which, we are told, a separate homeland for Muslims became imperative in postcolonial India. However, the question of women’s rights per se was not on any futuristic agenda in the nationalist struggles. The presumption being that they would be equal beneficiaries along with the freed men in both postcolonial states.

Clearly, that has not been the case. It is beyond the limits of this article to list all the failures, burdens and challenges that Indian and Pakistani women have faced as citizens, even as they struggle against the dual cruelties originating from local patriarchies and global capitalist regimes (including those that target women’s reproductive health). But perhaps the most difficult, remarkable and immediate ordeal they face is that of the inward turn of physical and sexual violence that is being lashed out across the body politic of women in both countries.

This is not an orientalist argument marking these two countries as exceptional sites of such violence. But equally objectionable are the inverted defensive deflections which argue that since violence against women is endemic in developed nations such as the US and in Europe, this somehow mitigates the rising tide of such acts and allows us to silently accept it as some natural order of things, unworthy of exceptional legal action or disciplinary correction. This attitude is what extenuates impunity for the violator. The victim/survivor becomes secondary, irrelevant even.

Unfortunately, too many women have become complicit in excusing away the systemic violence against women under a defensiveness that seeks to exonerate the racialised Muslim man, the patriotic Indian soldier, the poor/uneducated man, the oppressed working class man or the tribal man, when he inflicts such violence against any woman. This venal attitude and the role of the media complicate the task of those who are struggling to deal with the sexual violence that threatens women’s physical safety.

A recent article documenting the Shakti Mills gang rape trials of two women in Mumbai, India, lends very important insight regarding such complications and competing interests that mark our societies (‘The Making of a High Profile Rape Trial’, EPW, July 19, 2014). The observations of the authors, who have been long time rights activists in India, are instructive and allow for a critical, comparative understanding of the legal and attitudinal differences in India and Pakistan on the issue of sexual violence. In their article, where Flavia Agnes et al compare two gang-rape cases – that of ‘Suman’ and ‘Simran’ – there are some points of similarity to the Pakistani experiences, and several of contrast.

As documented by women’s rights activists in Pakistan, the common and patriarchal refrain that ‘rape is worse than death’ reinforces the notion that women are devalued if they are victims of sexual assault, even when they survive such brutal acts. However, both countries are observing the attitudinal change whereby the sheer determination of the survivors (Mukhtaran Mai in Pakistan and both survivors of the Shakti Mills cases in India) makes all the difference in busting the myth of rape-worse-than-death, as these women become admirable survivors and pursuants of justice – for all women.

A second commonality is the nature of rape that is escalating in terms of the sheer brutality of violence used. Thereby, literally, men are ‘ganging’ up to overpower their victim. This actually redefines the act beyond one of simply sexual assault. These are now becoming cases of murderous intent using male bodies as weapons. Additionally, those who subscribe to the pornography-as-a-freedom-of-expression argument would be well-advised to see the role it plays in such cases of rape.

Third, in both countries, public officials and politicians seek out ‘high-profile’ rape cases in order to perform their sympathy through photo-ops and gain political mileage. Such ‘performances’ render a bias against lesser-known cases and this attitude is sustained in the legal justice system, too.

Fourth, the role of the media in both countries, while critical for centring the issue in public discussion and rupturing the historical silence on sexual violence, succumbs to hyper-sensationalist and often, fabrications in their coverage of rape cases. The media in India editorialised and pushed for reducing the age of juveniles for serious crimes so they may be eligible for maximum punishment. In Pakistan too there is much support (not just in the media but certainly from Islamists) for marking adulthood according to the Islamic provision of the onset of puberty and, therefore, aligning juvenile crimes with those of adults.

Now the contrasts between Pakistan and India with reference to the Shakti Mills cases.

To be continued:
The writer is a sociologist based in Karachi. Email: afiyazia@yahoo.com

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