By Sahar Majid
May 14, 2014
After my article "In Pakistan, feeling free to leave the Burqa behind" was published in The Inquirer on April 20, I was warned by some readers of the consequences I could face for dressing in Western clothes and living life the way I want.
One e-mail, from a Pennsylvanian, echoed the beliefs of many people in my part of the world: A girl who wears modern attire invites the attention of men. If she is raped as a result, it is her fault, not his. In other words, there is a devastating cost to asserting one's independence.
I pity those who have such low opinions about women. Worse, too often this attitude becomes an excuse that allows rapists to commit horrendous crimes without fearing the consequences. To see how wrong this thinking is, consider this case.
In 2002, Mukhtaran Bibi, a woman from the village of Meerwala, in the Muzaffargarh district of Pakistan, became the victim of gang rape. The rape, in the name of "honor revenge," was ordered by a local tribal council. Mukhtaran was a brave woman who filed charges against her attackers and fought for her rights afterwards. Even though her attackers were acquitted, she became a standard bearer for all such women, her case gaining international media attention. Note this though: Mukhtaran was a simple rural woman who didn't wear modern clothes.
The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan reported in 2002 that there was a rape every two hours in Pakistan and a gang rape every eight hours. This in an Islamic country where a majority of women dress "decently," where a majority of working women don't work late at night, and where a majority of households are headed and "protected" by male family members. By 2013, the Express Tribune of Pakistan was publishing more than 200 reports and follow-up stories about rapes in different parts of the country.
One such story occurred in September. A 5-year-old girl was dumped outside a hospital in Lahore, the capital of Punjab province of Pakistan. The girl was "brutally gang raped," according to newspaper accounts. Let me ask critics of women who wear Western clothes: Did that little child provoke the men who raped her? Was she too independent? Did she cross some "limits" that made her deserve such a horrific fate?
Amina Bibi was an 18-year-old college student wearing a head scarf and accompanied by her brother when she was abducted at gunpoint in January and raped by five men. Two months later, when she learned that one of her assailants had been freed; she set herself on fire in front of the Muzaffargarh police station, and later died of her injuries. Was this just another form of "attention seeking"?
Women and girls are not raped because they are independent, or modern, or immodest. They are not attacked because they challenge cultural norms.
The unfortunate women and girls mentioned here were merely guilty of being born and brought up in a society where women are considered second-class citizens. There, women are considered property, nonliving things. The men around them don't have the courage to allow women their own identity, their own values, and their own independent style of living.
Such fears are grounded in the belief that men have a right to women's bodies, according to David S. Cohen, a member of the board of trustees of the Women's Law Project in Philadelphia. Only when women are considered equal can their bodily autonomy be respected. If women are subordinate beings, then they can't speak out about being raped, as it would upset what some men consider the natural order of things.
The best way to combat this mindset, Cohen says, is infusing girls at a very young age with notions of equality and independence. This must come from family, friends, teachers, and the community at large. They must learn that their worth stems from their own identity, not from their relationships with boys and men. At the same time, boys must learn that girls are equal and just as much a worthy part of society as they are.
Only when we have reached a point where all are equal and are entitled to bodily autonomy will we rid ourselves of the mind-set that women and girls are to blame for rape.