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The curse of Medusa

Rape is a crime dictated primarily by a twisted psychology. It’s about power, not pleasure. It’s about asserting control. So while demands for public hanging and castration feel justified due to the horrific nature of incidents such as the recent Motorway gang-rape of a woman, we must not lose sight of the psychology of the crime and the criminal.

The world as it stands today is a vivid example of the ineffectiveness of capital punishment in crimes that have their basis in social conditioning and behaviour. No amount of public hanging and castration will ever be able to end violence against women if society continues to view it as a crime divorced from reality. As this crime has nothing to do with physical gratification, castration will only lead to deepening psychological problems that generally manifest in more viciousness.

In Pakistan, the nature of national discourse on this issue is so superficial that real causes of the crime remain unidentified, and we end up with punishments that don’t work. When the demand for the death penalty rises to a crescendo, it risks becoming an end in itself. Like when you think you know who killed Prof Plum you stop looking for the actual killer, society stops looking for the underlying psychology of rape and goes to sleep happy at having avenged the discomfort caused to their sensibilities. They forget that it’s the end of the line with capital punishment, while root causes continue to fester with nowhere to go.

This in no way suggests that rapists should be sent to psychiatric facilities. On the contrary, they should be dealt with promptly and severely so that no rape goes unpunished. In Pakistan, only a fraction of rapes are reported of which the conviction rate is a pathetic five percent. Reasons range from fear of retribution and social taboos to weak evidence-gathering, reluctance to prosecute because of uncomfortable optics and judicial passivity. What Pakistan is witnessing as a result of this apathy is the de-criminalization of rape.

Sexual assault is learned behaviour. To get a fix on the issue, the government must take steps to bring patriarchal hegemony and misogyny under control. A society that conditions its members to believe that women are vulnerable also encourages men to label women as transgressive, a behaviour that is hence believed to deserve punishment. It’s probably too late for some but the younger generations can still be taught to not view women as inferior or weak. Gender sensitivity and gender equality must be added to the new Single National Curriculum. Once schools get on board, parents will too. The madressahs are on board with this new curriculum but they will surely object to such an addition. That’s why we have governments; to get tough things done. Besides, there are subtle ways of addressing contentious issues, like making sure gender sensitivity teachings remain about equality and not turn into gender wars.

Chairman of the Pakistan Ulema Council Hafiz Muhammad Tahir Mehmood Ashrafi has issued a decree that DNA test report sshould be admissible as evidence in rape cases. He also called for the Gujjarpura rapists to be awarded exemplary punishment. That’s a positive step and should be used to bring clerics on board in this matter. For once, religious leaders should be held accountable if they don’t uphold the interests of women. They should start with gender sensitizing men during Friday sermons.

This is not to say that practical steps such a setting up a database of sex offenders and developing rape kits are not important. They are. Very much so. What will bring all these different initiatives together would be the human touch, like making it mandatory for rape cases to be overseen by women police officers, having women Medico-Legal Officers run rape-kits, for the state to provide strong legal assistance to rape victims and for the government to bring in legislation making any sort of ‘reconciliation’ in rape cases illegal. A rape victim should never be placed in a situation where they have to forgive their rapist and the rapist should know that if caught there would have no recourse to legal loopholes.

Irrespective of tribal traditions and influences, the government must simultaneously take strict action against panchayats found to be issuing verdicts in rape or ‘honour’ related cases. A single 24/7 national helpline number must be set up and promoted via TV, radio and digital media to provide immediate recourse to victims of rape.

Rape is not a crime against the victim alone, it’s a direct threat to the entire community of women. For Pakistan, this means 50 percent of the population. Indirect affectees include immediate male relatives of the victims, increasing the number of people vulnerable to this threat to include almost the entire population. It’s incomprehensible as to why men would look the other way or become squeamish about confronting those who are a threat to all genders.

Munazza Siddiqui, "The curse of Medusa," The News. 2020-09-21.
Keywords: Social sciences , Social conditioning , Psychological problems , National discourse , Psychiatric facilities , Judicial passivity , National Curriculum , Religious leaders , Social behavior , Capital punishment