Blaming the victim By Zahid Hussain


PRIME MINISTER Imran Khan regularly airs his views on subjects ranging from history to religion to moral values. Perhaps Plato’s idea of the ‘philosopher king’ appeals to him as does the impression of himself as a scholar of Islam and an expert on Western culture.

The prime minister sees Pakistan’s future in the light of his version of a ‘state of Madina’. He is also a great admirer of Ertugrul, a 13th-century Turkish warrior whose son was the founder of the Ottoman Empire. There is now a move towards a cultural transformation that would define the ruling party’s ‘naya Pakistan’.

Matters are getting more and more curious with increasing concerns over the PTI government’s failure of governance. The ruling party’s promise to take the country down the path of progress is lost somewhere within the leadership’s convoluted ideals.

But most worrisome are the prime minister’s regressive views on morality and crimes against women. In response to a question in his latest telethon, he blamed what he described as the “increasing obscenity” in society for the surge in sex crimes against women and children. He maintains that history tells us that when ‘fahashi’ (obscenity) increases in society, sex crimes go up and the family system breaks down.

It is regrettable that the PM does not appear to have understood just how unsafe women in this society are.

It is not the first time he has made such comments but his latest remarks come across as blaming the victims of sex crimes. That is inexcusable. It is a reflection of a backward-looking mindset that tends to see rape and sexual harassment of women as a manifestation of the “rising influence of Western and Bollywood culture”.

Editorial: PM Imran’s recent remarks on sexual violence against women are shockingly insensitive

Nothing could be more despicable than this argument. Coming from the prime minister, it virtually gives impunity to those involved in heinous crimes. While admitting that the number of cases of rape and sexual assaults, particularly against children, are much higher than reported, he has advised women to observe purdah to protect themselves.

Such suggestions reflect a warped sense of morality, and insensitivity towards a serious problem. More dangerously, they try and provide justification for the increasing incidence of sexual crimes in Pakistan. This logic defies research that explains the causes behind sexual crimes. There is no evidence that such crimes are in any way linked to the way women dress or that they are influenced by Western culture and Bollywood.

These remarks from the highest office in government are simply an insult to all women particularly those who work. It’s more perturbing as the PTI enjoys a large following among women hailing mostly from the middle classes and with an educated background. Strangely, up till now, the prime minister’s remarks have not sparked any protest within party ranks.

Some years ago, it was reported that Pakistan was “among the 10 worst countries” where rape was concerned. At that time, it was revealed that around 14,850 kidnapping cases involving women and children had been reported in Punjab in one year. Figures for three years from 2014 to 2017 also showed that a number of women had been kidnapped with a vast majority being raped. Some were also killed. The countrywide numbers were similarly atrocious.

According to official statistics, there are at least 11 cases of rape every day in the country. Most shocking is the rising incidence of rape of minors. The reported cases are just the tip of the iceberg as the prime minister himself recognised.

It is alarming that in the majority of cases of rape, close family members or acquaintances are found to be involved. Crimes against women are not restricted to any particular country, region, race or class. They happen as much among the poor, rural and illiterate segments as among the rich and urban.

They are not caused by the perceived ‘vulgarity’ in society, and can hardly be attributed to the influence of Hollywood or Bollywood films as has been suggested by the prime minister. Rape is happening in a country where religion is deeply entrenched.

Rapists try to give all kinds of excuses for their acts. It is all too easy to blame the woman for being raped. The prime minister’s remarks can only give further encouragement to those who justify punishing the victim.

Imran Khan’s views on rape are not very different from the callous comments made by a former Lahore police chief about the Motorway gang rape last year. He blamed the victim for driving late at night. His comments reflected the thinking of a large segment of society that prefers to blame the victim.

What the prime minister said may not have been as crude as what was voiced by the Lahore police chief but a similar mindset could easily be discerned as he held Bollywood, broken families and ‘rampant obscenity’ responsible for the increasing number of sex crimes in the country.

It is regrettable that the prime minister does not appear to have understood just how vulnerable and unsafe women in this society are. They are not safe because of the non-serious approach to rape of people in high offices. It is a failure of our law enforcement as well as the prevailing culture of impunity that makes women more insecure.

As the prime minister said, it is also society’s responsibility to fight against sexual crimes. But there should also be clarity about why these crimes are committed in the first place. Blaming external cultural influences makes it extremely difficult to fight sex crimes.

There is a need to change our attitude. Hardly a day passes that we do not hear about children being sexually assaulted and then killed. Still, convictions are few, and most cases of rape are not reported because of obscurant societal attitudes.

Unfortunately, the prime minister’s remarks exposed not only his lack of understanding of a terrible crime but also his misdirected notions of history, culture and the dynamics of social change. Such hidebound ideas cannot be expected to take this country forward.

The writer is an author and journalist.

Twitter: @hidhussain

Published in Dawn, April 7th, 2021