Our message to young girls reads as: you can be shot in the head for fighting for your right to an education; you could be imprisoned if you are framed for blasphemy, and you could be gang-raped for being what 5-year-olds are: vulnerable. The stories of Malala Yousufzai, Rimsha Masih and the 5-year-old left at a Lahore hospital after a brutal assault by barbaric rapists, are doing more than making headlines. They are defining the true character of us as a people, and with it defiling the moral codes we claim to shroud ourselves in.
About 17 percent of children are sexually abused in Pakistan. The problem is endemic. Whereas abductions and gang-rapes occur often, the most dangerous place for the girl child is right there in her home, where most of the sexual offences take place. Compounded by the fact that we have the second largest number of illiterate women in the world and the highest number of out-of-school girls in the region, the girl child is in a war zone in Pakistan. Her person is under threat and her right to a normal childhood denied. Horrifically, this piles up on the national soul the unforgiveable burden of a crime akin to murder. For in the formative years of 5-15, the future of girls can be moulded to determine if they will be educated, have children later, have fewer children, have economic independence or the ability to be a decision maker in their household.
The government, after 100 days of lame responses to key governance issues, needs to realise that the battle is not just in the photo-ops, grandiose announcements on mandatory education or chairing large donor intervention events. The battle lies in permanently altering the false sense of morality that Pakistan is intoxicated with.
Soon after the news broke about the 5-year-old’s rape, her critical condition and the fact that she was in shock — maimed physically and psychologically enough to stop speaking — news anchors, commentators and callers began opining about something that is at loss of clear thinking. They credited the rape to the elusive concept of ‘westernisation’, ‘open society’, or more aptly ‘ghairikhlaqi mawad’ (immoral material). This has to be the sickest form of victim blaming. These insinuations that a 5-year-old provoked, incited or even seduced her perpetrators reeks of mental rot and nothing else.
Nothing could be more dangerous as a trend than to blame women and small strides in their empowerment for heinous crimes committed by men. But this is the all-pervasive mentality that Pakistan has been brewing since the Zia era. Take for example the public eating in Ramzan or the excessive policing of minorities, hounding them for possible blasphemy. One shudders at the thought of what misfortunes await the young girls who are not born the ‘right’ denomination of Muslim.
As soon as the government is done appeasing terrorists by calling them to the negotiation table while they do not eschew violent means to communicate their hegemonic designs, it should then pay some attention to the state of education of the girl-child. With more girls in the education system there is means to give them access to protective services in the event of harassment, in the home or outside it. If anything, the possibilities are statistically reduced and recourse to professional help is easier to provide.
So much can be told by the way a country reacts to a tragedy. The Delhi gang rape last year, no less horrific, because brutality cannot be measured or bean counted, had a measured outpour of protests on the streets across India. Women, exhausted from the constant fighting off of eve teasing and street harassment, practised as second nature by South Asian men, wanted to put an end to the blame. They demanded that nothing, absolutely nothing, justifies undignified behaviour toward women. They asked that they be seen as people first.
Thus far there is silence on the streets of Pakistan; women do not claim that space, nor are they familiar with the concepts of moving out to protest without approval of a male they submit in authority to. Exceptions exist. But the numbers are pathetically dismal. No rights were ever won by a group by rolling over and playing dead. Perpetrators know that they will get away in every sense of the term.
If there is any blame to be cast it should be cast on the weak law-enforcement system and the even weaker civil society. But above all, it is this country’s shameful disrespect of women, stemming of course from archaic concepts of honour and control.