Rape is no laughing matter

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Sometimes, the value of a press conference cannot be encapsulated by a he-said/she-said report. It is what happens at the press conference that says much more – especially if the presser happens to be about rape. Our venue is the Karachi Press Club, the day is Thursday, 13 October, 2011, and the presser was organised by War Against Rape (WAR), a Karachi-based NGO, to unveil statistics of rape incidence in Karachi for the first six months of this year.

The information presented was harrowing: for one, sexual violence against children (under the age of 18) is on the rise – 71 percent of total cases investigated by WAR involved children, both female and male. The youngest rape survivor was 3-year-old. The average age of a rape survivor was 13; about 48 percent of all survivors were children under the age of 12. About 67 percent were aged below 16. In terms of vulnerability, the 6-11 age group was the greatest at risk with 27 percent of reported cases. This was followed by the 12-17 age group, with 23 percent.

Incidence of sexual violence against men was reported as 14 percent of all cases. The highest incidence of sexual violence was reported from Bin Qasim Town, at 18 percent, and from Orangi Town, at 14 percent. This is the same Orangi Town that was torn asunder by multiple spates of politically-incited violence, cast in an ethnic mold. It turns out that in their rage against each other, various groups had been assaulting the ‘other’ in the most brazen kind of attacks on male sexuality. In any war crimes court, this would be a punishable offence. Not in Karachi, not in our courts.

Harrowing, you would agree with me.

There were discussion points too; the role of the police, medico-legal officers, and the courts were all up for debate. As was the question of how to protect the rape survivor in the real world, and how to shield her from the shame being impressed by police, medico-legal officers and the courts. According to WAR statistics, only 41 FIRs were lodged against 138 medico-legal examinations conducted. Surely, something is wrong with society.

Till senior journalists were present, the questions too remained within the bounds of decency. Thereafter was a different story as media personnel present, especially from the vernacular papers, chose to focus on “foreign funding”. The banner carried by WAR included the monogram of the European Union, which had funded the Pakistani NGO’s research. The project, WAR officials stated during their grilling, had involved collecting data from all 103 police stations in Karachi, from the three major government hospitals where medico-legal examinations are conducted, from town offices, other NGOs, media, and directly from courts via public prosecutors and judges.

Vernacular reporters went almost as far as asking for details of how money received from the European Union was spent by WAR. One of the obvious suggestions was that the NGO must be pilfering funds. The underlying and not-so-thinly-veiled suggestion was that “rape” was merely an abstraction, a Western phenomenon being “brought into Pakistan” by an NGO that has received European Union money.

That the reporters chose to follow such an angle reflects the sensationalist attitude in vernacular media; rape news gets readers, a controversial angle must be created, the story is to be spread across three or four columns. Tales of rape survivors from Peshawar and Lahore were reported by the media, but the language of the reportage was remarkably different in English and vernacular papers. Gender neutrality and protecting the survivor are fundamentals of rape reportage and copy-editing; Urdu papers don’t seem to have much of a problem abandoning those principles. There is greater tendency in Urdu papers to ascribe a moralist view of what exactly happened, and whether the woman was asking for it. Then there are judgments on the character of the woman: badchalan and shokh need to be inserted into a story to suit the stereotypical characters’ description. In vernacular media, the verdict is out before the case even goes for trial.

Ultimately, what the vernacular press got from its reportage of the press conference is what its reporters had wanted: NGOs are a Western-oriented group, each of them is a racketeer of sorts, and things such as rape are not part of an Islamic society. The denial is, in itself, a story.

A word on the reportage in English newspapers too: mainstream newspapers which carried the press conference were careful not to refer to someone who had been raped as a “victim” in their reportage, although one paper did make the mistake of using “victim” in its headline. And yet, they managed to accurately depict the contents of the report.

For rape to become an issue of national importance, portrayal of rape in the vernacular media needs to change. And for that, news editors of vernacular media need to spare rape stories from sensationalism. After all, rape is no laughing matter.

6 COMMENTS

  1. Sadly, the delusion and self-denial that we as a society are practicing has rendered us insensitive and has created a society hell-bent on denying an morally negative image of itself. Not realising that morality itself is relative, that Western funded in itself has no meaning, that the content being displayed, the research that has been done should be the matter of discussion, not their stupid ideological, sensationalist narratives that are more akin to rubbing salt in the wounds than being emphatic to a person who has suffered and continues to suffer because of our ignorance.

  2. Does the media personnel not get any sensitivity training before they are set loose amongst the public?

  3. Rape is violent outrage . Rape is extramarital congress of a particular nastiness. These are transgressions against not only the the laws of the land but also against Islamic laws and Muslim sensibilities. How come there is not a great outcry?

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