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
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
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