Mukhtaran Mai’s smiling face today speaks of quiet triumph. It may not be evident today how hard won it is. New atrocities have replaced her story in the news, and the world has moved on.
For me Mukhtaran Mai isn’t only a strong woman who overcame sexual assault. She was the vessel through which for the first time the society I moved in exposed its biased stance.
It was when I was sitting with a group of friends. Enlightened and educated, modern and “moderate” as they say. This was years ago when Orkut was barely making itself felt and Twitter-shwitter wasn’t a thing. Amidst a discussion on how rape is bad et cetra et cetra, this pearl was voiced and then agreed upon: “Why does she have to talk about it though? In the news and in front of the world? She’s making Pakistan look bad. She’s making Muslims look bad.”
Society never put its mask on again properly after that. There was no question of unseeing that which was seen.
From then on whether it was Sharmeen Obaid throwing light on acid attack victims or Malala speaking against the Taliban, I could see the narrative everywhere. Why must she talk about it. She’s making us look bad.
Soon I could identify it away from the public arena as well. In the personal lives of people I knew. Why did she go back to her parents. Why did she speak out against being hit. Why did she make public her husband’s affair. Why couldn’t she stay quiet. She’s making her husband/her children/her parents/her religion look bad.
Many people expressing disdain towards crimes being talked about are those who do not stand to gain from it being exposed. Privilege is the system of power that benefits from oppression. Dismantling it and bringing true justice to those who are suffering means we all have to look at ourselves and how we contribute towards the problem. That’s too difficult for most of us, so we don’t make the effort. Not only that but privilege blinds. Living a life so far away from the realities many people place puts us in a position where it is easier to be insensitive to the problem and sympathetic towards the perpetrator. Both men and women can be privileged because of wealth and education, but male privilege in a patriarchal society especially slants the bias in favour of “rape culture” – where sexual crimes become trivialised as not a big deal and we make excuses for rapists by victim blaming.
Subcontinental sharm and haya would have one believe speaking out against rape or sexual abuse is a dishonour that marks you for life. While it is true that globally the stigma of coming out as someone seeking justice against sexual assault is a real thing, it is a stigma that can only last for as long as we sign up for it. We engage in it as a society and we can opt out of it as well.
Any group identity requires we sign up for some Terms and Conditions that allow us to belong to that group. As Pakistanis we have become socially conditioned to believe a condition for belonging to our “tribe” is to feign blindness towards our flaws. By the same token anyone revealing our weaknesses is rejected from the “tribe.”
Pakistanis are by no means alone in this of course. However in Pakistan if we could rewrite the rules to make it those responsible for violence towards women to be the ones singled out for censure, what a great world that would be.
Narrow understanding of history
Our identity as Pakistanis is mixed with an inherited “Arabisation” our subcontinental ancestors wouldn’t recognise. This Arabisation is only made more peculiar by being of a nature even the original Arabs of Islam wouldn’t recognise either. It seems as though by criticising violence against women and minorities within Pakistan one is criticising Islam and Muslims.
People question the wisdom of whether the key players in these stories should exclusively be seen on platforms provided by people with agendas. Certainly Malala being chummy with the same powers that contributed toward destabilising her home does feel at cross purposes. No doubt people will also have an issue with Mukhtaran Mai being the face of fashion this week.
The question then is – where else will they go? The way we’ve structured our narratives leaves no room for women fighting to emerge victorious over these flaws in our system using religious channels or through local bodies alone. The minute someone tries to throw a light on these issues their reputations are tarnished, they are pulled down, belittled, ridiculed, and dismissed as agents. In truth we, as a nation, have shot our own selves in the foot. By not seizing the opportunity to get our act together when these issues raised their heads we not only squandered a chance for our culture to evolve, but we opened the door with our own hands for other parties to frame our narrative for us, using these authentic voices. Voices that are our own, yet never acknowledged as such.
Mukhtaran Mai was a generation’s first introduction to the way many people in society betray those who represent the sins of our people.