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Not Quite Human

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By Beena Sarwar

It's not quite official (yet) but all indications point to the fact that people generally, not just in Absurdistan and its environs but elsewhere in the world, including women themselves, don't consider women to be quite human. It's not all about public space, it's also about power.

This women's rights business, that is. The ultimate violation, next to actually taking a life, is rape. And this weapon continues to be routinely used even in contemporary times. It is used in conflict situations to subjugate the 'enemy' by raping their women, dishonouring and humiliating not just the woman, but the nation that 'owns' her. Bosnia, Kashmir, Chechnya, Rwanda and Burma are just a few examples that come to mind. Ancient history is full of many more, ranging from Japan and China, to the Partition of the Indian sub-continent and Vietnam.

Never mind conflict situations between enemy countries; rape is often considered a fair weapon to settle scores with your local enemy. Mukhtaran Mai's case has hit the headlines the world over, but she's not the first woman to be raped in retaliation for a transgression by a male member of her family. From Nawabpur in 1984, such incidents continue to take place in that area.

In Mukhtaran's case, going along with the principle that attack is the best form of defence, the men from the Mastoi clan who raped her younger brother in 2002 (then 14 years old) accused him of having relations with a woman from their family. And they made his sister pay the price for this alleged dishonour. The anomaly is that she stood up to fight back.

From country to community to family... we come to the tricky issue of incest, which is far more common than most people are willing to acknowledge, even in the Land of the Pure. At a para-legal training for women in Lahore a few years ago, the discussion turned to sexual harassment on public transport -- and then to how even homes are not safe for young children. Several of the women present knew of cases where children and young girls had been sexually abused. "It's not just cousins, but even fathers and grandfathers who do this," said one. Organisations dealing with such cases, like the War Against Rape, often find that the victim is told to keep quiet, with even mothers refusing to support young daughters in this situation, particularly if the abuser is the girl's own father or step-father.

A case that recently hit the headlines in India involves a man who raped his daughter-in-law in Uttar Pradesh, India. Known in the media as Imrana, the 28-year old mother of five in a village left her husband's house and returned to her brother after the incident. The local panchayat proved to be as bad as the one at Meerwala, 'decreeing' the Imrana should marry her rapist and henceforth treat her husband, father of her children, as her 'son'.

The case went to the All-India Muslim Personal Law Board, which, while not going so far as to advocate that she marry her rapist, declared that since he is her husband's blood relation, her marriage stood dissolved. The next day, Deoband clerics added a fresh twist by decreeing that she could not live either with the rapist or her
husband. They ruled that her husband would be responsible for bringing up the children, and she was free to marry elsewhere of her choice.

They didn't take into account that she wants to remain married to her husband. Obviously, these people are unaware that rape cases usually involve not strangers but men known to their victims, often close relatives, and often in the place considered safest, the 'char-dewari' of the home that the victim lives in. Anyway, where does this logic come from that a woman who has been raped should marry her rapist? Can there be a more repugnant though?

On the other extreme is the view that a woman who has been raped should simply be killed. Once a woman's honour (and by extension that of her family's) has been violated, she has no reason to exist -- more importantly, the family or community cannot tolerate her existence.

According to this world view, a woman suspected of sexual relations outside marriage has no right to be alive either: she should just be killed forthwith. Some of those who claim to be Muslim advocate stone to death for such transgression --never mind that this is a pre-Islamic tribal punishment not even mentioned in the Quran. Such gruesome killings are occasionally reported in the northern areas and Afghanistan, where a young married woman in the remote northern province of Badakshan was reported to have been stoned to death in April, on suspicion of adulterous relations. (The Taliban had in their time made a public event out of such 'executions' in Kabul's fancy football stadium; when questioned about its use they said they would be happy to use the stadium for football if the international community chipped in and built them another one for public executions.

In some cases, even marriage against the family's wishes is considered transgression enough to justify murder. We have plenty of such cases at hand in Pakistan and it's of little consolation that the pattern is repeated in other places. A recent report in the Guardian, UK, talked about the rise in 'honour killings' in Palestine, starting with the story of a young Christian girl whose father killed her because she wanted to marry a Muslim. Indian newspapers and women's rights organisations have often taken up the cases of Hindu women being killed or mutilated for similar transgressions -- for marrying or wanting to marry into another, or a lower caste, or other religion.

What all these stories underline is the widespread concept that women are the property of a nation, a community, a family... not quite human. It is this archaic concept that is undermined when they stand up and assert their humanity, their rights as individual citizens or members of a community or family -- as Mukhtaran Mai is doing. That is why is to so important to break the silence.

Note: This article was published in "The News", Pakistan

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