It is not yet a full two weeks since the gang-rape on the motorway that purportedly shocked Pakistan. Then again, it is over eighteen years since the gang-rape in a village that purportedly shocked Pakistan.
Whilst Mukhtaran Mai suffers lifelong imprisonment in the memory of the violation she suffered (and will suffer for the remainder of her life) most of her rapists roam the earth freely. So too do the godfathers behind the child pornography rings that operate in and around Kasur district. And somehow, so too does the motorway rapist-accused.
Rape is one dialect within the panoply of language that establishes and re-establishes male dominance in a social order where male ownership and agency over women’s property, wealth, land, assets, bodies, and minds are normatively uncontested. The motorway rape, which has been repeatedly (and deliberately) referred to as the “motorway incident”, is yet another symptom in a body-politic ridden with the bruises, cuts, and wounds of gender injustice.
That all this can take place in the homeland that is proudly referred to as the ‘fortress of Islam’ is, for any believing Muslim, as sickening a realisation as any, of the disparity between the rhetorical gymnastics we indulge our egos with, and the terrifying reality that women have to endure, hour to hour, day to day, throughout their lives. The motorway rape is the motorway ‘incident’ because the notion of it being an incident helps protect the society that allows such incidents to take place over and over and over again. These semantics are part of an ecosystem that is designed to postpone, delay, deny and evade a meaningful reckoning with demons as ugly and offensive as rape.
Beware the other distractions: death penalty versus life imprisonment, traditional criminal punishments versus ‘chemical castration’, Islam versus the West, New Delhi versus Lahore. These are all devices used (mostly by men, but by plenty of women too) to evade a meaningful conversation about the security, prosperity, agency and freedom of women. How can we engage in such a conversation? Let’s take in some data and evidence.
The 2019 SDG Gender Index compiled by Equal Measures 2030 ranks 129 countries on their performance against 14 of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals from the perspective of the degree to which women are enabled and empowered to participate in society, economy and the polity. Of the bottom twenty ranking countries in the 2019 SDG Gender Index compiled by Equal Measures 2030, 17 are in SubSaharan Africa, two are in South Asia, and one is in the Middle East. But only one of them is a nuclear weapons power. Can you guess which country this is?
The Women Peace and Security Index 2019/2020, which is published jointly by Georgetown University and the Peace Research Institute Oslo, ranks 167 countries by examining patterns and progress on women’s well-being and empowerment. The report says that, “Overall, the challenges are largest in fragile and conflict affected countries, especially in the security dimension”. All but one of the bottom dozen ranked countries are classified as fragile and conflict affected, and six of those countries are in Sub-Saharan Africa. That single country that is not classified as fragile and conflict affected happens to be a nuclear weapons power. Can you guess which country this is?
The UNDP Human Development Index (HDI) is based on a number of different variables, including gender equality – which is measured through five indicators, namely maternal mortality, adolescent births, the share of women’s seats in parliament, the gender differential in the percentage of population with at least some secondary education, and the gender differential in labour force participation. On the 2018 HDI gender equality index, the second lowest ranked middle-income nation on the planet (and 152nd overall, of a total of 189 ranked nations) happens to be a nuclear weapons power. Can you guess which country this is?
The World Economic Forum publishes an annual Global Gender Gap Index Ranking each year. In the 2020 ranking there are a total of 153 countries that have been ranked. The 151st ranked country on the Global Gender Gap Index ranks in the bottom ten in three of the four main categories of the index, with a dismal performance in the educational gender gap, the labour force participation gap, the senior and leadership roles gap. This same country happens to be a nuclear weapons power. Can you guess which country this is?
Of course, it’s the same country in all four indices: the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. The natural question for many men (and some women) will be, why reference Islam, and why reference nuclear weapons? This is an important and fair question. There are very legitimate reasons for Pakistanis to be suspicious of attempts to run the country down. On the issue of the degree of protection, freedom, prosperity and agency afforded to Pakistani women however, it is not suspicion that should be the starting point, but the foundational pride that many Pakistanis have in the faith-based ethos of the nation-state, and the capability of this nation-state, against all odds, to acquire and sustain its unique stature as the Muslim world’s only nuclear weapons power.
Those that draw inspiration from Islam cannot deny or escape the independence, power, agency, knowledge, courage and leadership of Khadijah (r.a.), Fatima (r.a.), Aisha (r.a.), or Zainab (r.a.).
Those that draw inspiration from Pakistan’s status as a nuclear weapons power cannot deny or escape the fact that what seemed fiscally, administratively, politically and scientifically impossible for the Pakistani state became possible. Neither the corruption, nor the illiteracy, nor the sycophancy or incompetence in bureaucracy, nor the civ-mil divide, nor any other social, political or economic limitation could deny Pakistan the defensive nuclear weapons tests of 1998.
As it happens, a more equal, safer and more conducive Pakistan for women’s independence, power and freedom is an inescapable imperative for any Pakistani that has ambitions about this country that go beyond being a vessel for American, or Chinese or Russian great game machinations. Pakistan cannot achieve its geoeconomic, geostrategic or geopolitical potential without a transformation in how society empowers women, and how women in turn power society, polity and the economy.
The McKinsey Institute’s seminal global gender parity study predicted back in 2015 that fuller economic participation by women across the globe would result in over $28 trillion being added to the global GDP, a figure that will be disproportionately belong to countries like Pakistan – where women have the longest distance to travel.
But to begin this journey, this country’s leaders will need to grow beyond the performative solidarity that so many of us lap up uncritically. At the All Parties Conference (APC) this Sunday, passing references were made to the motorway rape as well as the online harassment that women journalists and commentators have to endure as a way of life. But the parties of Shaheed Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto and Maryam Nawaz Sharif owe the women (and men) of this country a lot more than these passing references. And the party of Imran Khan, enjoying its first taste of national power on the back of a narrative of reform, owes a lot more than the occasional tweet from the same group of cabinet members over and over again.
Pakistan is a country of over 105 million women, with at least 50 million of them below the age of 25. This is a country of unlimited potential thanks to its unique demographics. Every horror and every outrage is a new opportunity for this country to do better. Pakistani women deserve better than what we have built so far. A better country for women is a better country. Who dare stand against that?