It is odd that the protection this country provides its citizenry is directly proportional to their power. The most vulnerable are left to the mercy of chaos: the Ahmedis, Shias, Christians and those random trespassers who are falsely accused of blasphemy either because they did not pay their dues or upset someone more powerful than them. Then it was the children — not just the ones in the Army Pubic School in Peshawar but also the young girl child from Sargodha, who succumbs to the pain and disease of her rape at a hospital. The outrage is muffled at best. A woman in Punjab was gang raped recently and this is not uncommon. According to a Human Rights Watch report, rape takes place once every two hours and a gang-rape every eight.
It is odder still that accompanied with this spiral of failing its most unprotected, this nation has no capability or plan to confront the technological aspect of these failures. This gang-raped woman recently had the video of her rape released on the internet. While it made the rounds being downloaded and viewed for the thrill of a sick society where coercion and violence is associated with pleasure, the woman turned from being a schoolteacher to being a social recluse. It seems not to matter to this pervasive victim-blaming culture that it is not she at fault but the assaulters. It seems also not to matter that the shame rests not with her family but her attackers. So, she shudders and trembles describing her ordeal in the media report on BBC.
While the government is celebrating the setting up of wifi spots in public places, it fails to understand that there needs to be regulation to protect the misuse of the technology simultaneously, especially where women’s basic rights are being trod upon. Without these checks, technology is effectively bolstering the male chauvinistic, vile misogynist, archaic traditions that have no place after the seventh century. How far back we are being pushed into the past depends on the urgency with which our parliamentarians push legislation to protect women’s right to privacy online.
The Pakistan Electronic Crimes Ordinance lapsed four years ago before it could become law. This leaves cases such as this gang rape to rest on the interest and mood of those in power. If interested, they can even get the gateway to the modern library banned. YouTube unblocking activists and lawyers have been campaigning and legislating for years and have found no breakthrough. The offence of religious sensitivity ranks a few hundred thousand rungs higher than the collective humiliation of a rural woman. Emboldened by soft penalties, offenders and the like will continue to hunt women and these women will continue to be met with callousness.
Rape laws themselves tell a tale of neglect and absurdity. The Zina and Hudood Act of 1979 got rape victims prosecuted for adultery or fornication. The courts in 2010 declared unconstitutional the provisions of the Women’s Protection Act of 2006. This act tried to prevent rape victims from being tried for adultery or fornication. Parliament did not pass new provisions and that was that. The rape victim was the perpetrator of the crime unless of course four male witnesses were called in to testify otherwise. In 2013, the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) patted themselves on the back for dismissing DNA tests as evidence for rapes and declared that without witnesses no rapes would be recognised.
So, in the viral distribution of the rape video on the internet, it has propagated the notion feminists have battled for decades, the notion that no means yes and yes means I consent to public humiliation to make the crime be exponentially bolder than a private act. The message boards where the rape video is shared have typical comments about how the schoolteacher brought it upon herself and that she craved fame. Our society on the wave of technology only mirrors our ugliness.
Social media and the internet have had a tremendous capacity for turnaround in society’s general approach towards such crimes. The first attempt should be to educate people to not distribute the content and honour the victim’s privacy instead. The second should be to encourage activists and civil society leaders to openly condemn the distribution of the video and the act itself. The third should be to press law enforcement agencies to award harsh penalties to the perpetrators who are now in custody so a precedent is set to deter barbaric acts in the future.
By removing the power trip that magnifies an audience to the crime, Pakistani society will be left with one less challenge: it can go back to treating rape with the focus it deserves, to get it securely out of the clutches of Zia’s poisonous laws and into a place conducive for women to claim public space without hostility. For that, however, Pakistan needs to learn to protect the weak more than it buffers up the strong.