The outrage culture about rape masks a landscape of pervasive child abuse

Protest in Karachi over the ‘motorway gang rape’ incident. 12 September 2020. Reuters photo.

I haven’t updated this site for a while, caught up with teaching two journalism courses at Emerson College this semester – prepping for the courses, training for the unprecedented online situation, then assignment-setting, student feedback, grading – it’s been hard to do much else. But when Mehr Mustafa at The News on Sunday asked me to contribute to their special report on rape culture, I couldn’t refuse. Was up till 3 am to meet the deadline for the piece – The outrage culture masks a landscape of pervasive abuse (TNS Special Report, 27 September 2020).

They asked me to define ‘rape culture’ as a lens to view the issue as a social/political construct rather than individual/isolated events, and to address the systematic nature of sexual violence. That rang some bells. Among the things it got me thinking about was systemic oppression – visible in the racial injustice in the USA highlighted over recent months. I revisited the piece I did last year, Moving towards a cycle of healing, focusing on the need for preventive rather than reactive measures and the concept of restorative rather than retributive justice (thanks Anita Wadhwa and Dina Kraft for expanding on my understanding of this). And just found my 2012 post: We must move beyond outrage against selected rape cases.

As I was working on the piece, the rape of a Dalit teenager in India (#Hathras) and then another, began making headlines. Here’s the powerful piece Dr Syeda Hameed wrote about that: ‘She Was A Dalit Child from Boolgarhi Village, She Was Mine and Yours’. Yes, India seems particularly horrific right now but it’s a regional issue: Pakistan/India: There is no honour in killing… End the culture of impunity.

My article for the TNS special report on rape culture below.

The outrage culture masks a landscape of pervasive abuse

(The published in-print headline was: Who isn’t traumatised?)

Screen grab from the TNS Special Report on rape culture listing its components, 27 September 2020

By Beena Sarwar

Volcanoes of outrage and grief erupt when a particularly heinous case of sexual violence emerges in Pakistan. But such cases are only the tip of the iceberg. Their exceptional horror grabs attention and is amplified by social media.

The rape culture goes beyond individual or isolated incidents. Sexual violence is a universal experience that cuts across divides — national, religious, ethnic, class, gender. It’s a crime of power, committed by those who can. Typically, not strangers in dark allies but those the victim knew and trusted. Exceptions like the ‘motorway incident’ are just that – exceptions, enabled by a wider landscape of acceptance for transgressions against vulnerable communities and impunity for perpetrators.

The earliest such outrage I remember arose over the “Nawabpur incident” in 1984, when women of a carpenter’s family were paraded naked as a punishment for an alleged transgression by a male family member. The public flogging meted out to the perpetrators under the dictatorship has not prevented more such incidents.

Behind each case that causes what activist Farieha Aziz terms as “self-gratifying outrage” is the widespread phenomenon of child sexual abuse, enabled by the linked notions of rape, shame, honour, and silence, and the idea that women are not full humans.

What is changing is that these concepts, while still powerful, are slowly eroding.

Regardless of gender, everyone I have spoken to about the issue was either molested or sexually abused as children or knows someone who was. The perpetrators are typically people they know: fathers, uncles, cousins, brothers, family friends, even grandfathers, and teachers, including those imparting religious education, and domestic servants.

But when children try to talk about a transgression, adults typically hush them up or shame them.

That is what happened when as a child, filmmaker Arshad Khan tried to tell his mother about the servant who was sexually abusing him. Years later, he learnt that two of his other five siblings too had similar experiences, an uncle in their case. In their cases, too, their mother did not try to protect them.

But Khan doesn’t blame her.

He saw that she had scribbled over her face with blue marker in all her childhood photos. When he asked her why, she shrugged it off as a childish act after getting angry with someone. So why didn’t she try to scribble over the face of the person she was angry with? She didn’t reply but he suspects the answer lies in the shame associated with being sexually abused.

The way to get past that is to have open conversations, remove the taboos, and empower children to be aware of their bodies. Help them to protect themselves by giving them the vocabulary to say “no” and teaching them about “good touch” and “bad touch”.

That is what Khan has tried to do in his groundbreaking documentary “Abu” (2017). The memoir film is proving to be a crucial conversation-starter, with discussions at each of its 70 screenings highlighting the universality of the rape culture. Screenings have taken place in Pakistan too but privately, even though there are many who would like it to be shown openly.

At the Chagrin Falls International Documentary Film Festival, Ohio, when a woman in the audience said she “didn’t realise this was such a big problem in India (sic)” – meaning South Asia —  a man jumped to correct her. He cried while relating how a “close family member” in their small town in middle America had regularly sexually abused him until he left home at age 16.

Child abusers are themselves usually victims of child abuse and unaddressed trauma in the first place, as Arshad Khan noted when we spoke on the phone after a recent online screening of “Abu” at Tufts University. “We know all these relatives and their children. Getting them punished is not the answer”.

Poster for Arshad Khan’s film Abu.

This is why Khan chooses not to name names or try to shame perpetrators in his documentary, which he says is about reconciliation.

He has a point. Punitive actions may satiate public opinion but the longterm goal needs to be to reduce instances of rape and sexual violence. This is where the concept of restorative rather than retributive justice comes in, acknowledging the victim’s trauma while recognising how the event has affected the community.

Meanwhile, women who report rape continue to face further indignities and re-live the trauma as their cases drag on — police investigations, the justice system, the media, society. The implication often is that she must have provoked the attack because of what she was wearing, or saying, or where she was.

Not surprisingly, rape convictions are even lower in Pakistan than elsewhere. And it is here that a top-ranking police officer who blamed a rape survivor is allowed to keep his job.

In the long term, what’s needed is systemic change to tackle a systemic issue.


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