Rape is not different from any other form of physical violence, except that it targets sexual organs rather than any other, to violate the socially constructed female body. Sexuality is not the object of punishment. The dissenting judge in the Mukhtaran Mai verdict could see she was not raped “for the satisfaction of the lust of the rapist”. There is a misogyny inherent in such separation of parts of the body. The victim has no choice but to see it that way. But when she does, she becomes part of the same misogynist discourse, closing all doors of her own emancipation.
The paradox is that to punish with rape is like to cure, functionally speaking. Both separate parts of the body and want to discipline it. Both require legal proofs that come from hospitals and medical observation. If there are no DNA tests, there is no gang rape.
“The courts have cleaned the blot on Muzaffargarh,” said MNA Jamshed Dasti, remarkably using for his city the same Urdu idiom associated with women perceived to be impure because of sex (consensual or otherwise).
That is one way people are looking at it. A rape in the broader political context – Western influence violating the purity of the land of the pure. At least two veteran newspaper columnists drew parallels to that effect. One said Dr Aafia Siddiqui was enduring more injustice in the US than Mukhtaran Mai was in Pakistan. The other said those protesting against the Mukhtaran Mai verdict should also protest against the US drone attacks.
The case is seen as iconic. In the mediascape, chauvinistic responses to this perceived Western threat have always focused on two points:
1) Financial independence:
Jamshed Dasti said Mukhtaran Mai and the NGOs supporting her had become billionaires. “What was their source of income?” a talk show host asked about Mukhtaran Mai and her family, after making a comment on her travels abroad. His guests asked similar questions about an activist who had criticised the verdict. The host asked why women’s rights advocates make up false stories. “Livelihood!” the guest answered. “How will she earn her livelihood (rozgaar) if such cases are not created?”
2) Visual impurity:
“They get millions of dollars in aid from abroad,” a senior columnist said of women activists. “Most of it is spent on make-up, (araish-e-gaisu-o-rukhsar) and propaganda against Pakistan.” He is worried about the liberals’ “naked (barhana) criticism” of Pakistan’s justice system, using idioms that imply the vulgarity rhetoric. “It seems that their foremost aim is to publicise a disfigured face of Pakistan.”
Critics of the April 21 judgment also iconify the Mukhtaran Mai case. Punishment by the state is more of a deterrence against future disorder, than a revenge for the past offence. If there is no perception of justice in a case that received such popular attention, victims might not be comfortable reporting rapes in future.
“As such, her case has become symbolic of the struggle for women`s rights in Pakistan, and the outrage expressed by human rights groups at the verdict comes as no surprise,” Pakistan’s top English daily said in its editorial. “The failure to bring Mukhtaran Mai’s attackers to justice, even if doing so would require further investigation, is a bitter pill to swallow.”
But there is some violence of the same kind inherent in this approach.
The choice to wear make up is not politically neutral. To participate in cosmetic, hair or clothing rituals means to agree to discipline one’s own body, to internalise the very power relations that in this case women are trying to undermine.
But the same way, to report violence to modern institutions that pathologise the victim is to participate in the very discourse that that violence was a part of. It is to limit resistance to the conditions enabled by the power that is to be resisted.
The author is a media critic and the News Editor, The Friday Times. He can be reached at [email protected]