It’s Your Fault- A Pakistani Guide To Rape Culture Part II

This is the second of a two-part article on rape culture, how it exists in Pakistan, and how it can be dismantled.

In the first part of this article, we explained rape culture, and discussed it within a Pakistani context. One of the biggest hurdles for gender equity in Pakistan is that anti-women practices, customs, and norms are defended under the blanket statement, “This is our culture and tradition, and it has always been this way.”

Yes, Pakistani society is traditional. But it is not a tradition to be proud of. It is a tradition of patriarchy that oppresses and exploits women. For that reason alone, rape culture needs to be recognized as a real threat and dismantled.  The process of dismantling rape culture is difficult, because rape culture is complex and rooted in the sort of traditions and cultural norms that would need decades to change. But that change can only happen if we begin now.

To trace the roots of rape culture is well-nigh impossible. Perhaps, we could posit that rape culture has existed as long as the patriarchy has existed. For it is the patriarchy, with its emphasis on the inferiority of women, that plants the seeds of gender discrimination in society, which in turn leads to the development of misogynist attitudes. But the tree of patriarchy is one that reaches far above the clouds, with branches stretching out to all corners of the world. Consequently, one of the patriarchy’s most favoured seedlings is sexism, which is quite common in Pakistan. Simply put, sexism is discrimination against men or women on the basis of their sex. This translates into speech, actions, and attitudes that are almost contemptuous of women, who are perceived to be weak, inferior, and subject to a wide range of fallacious and negative stereotypes. Critics may argue that sexist language, jokes, and specifically rape jokes do no harm, but studies have also proved that sexist, gender-discriminatory language directly affect social attitudes towards women. Even Benazir Bhutto felt the need to highlight sexist attitudes and language when addressing that Beijing conference thing, where she said, “Often men, in anger and frustration, indulge in the uncivilized behaviour of rude and vulgar language against women. Unfortunately, women at times also use vulgar language to denigrate another woman. So we have to work together to change not only the attitudes of men but the attitudes of men and women.”

Sexism in actions and deeds translates to gender-specific discrimination in terms of employment, career opportunities, the wage gap, and it doesn’t end there. When sexist attitudes about the inferior state of the female prevail, they translate into acts of violence against women, discrimination against the LGBT community and sex workers, the sexual objectification of women in mass media, not to mention the legal ramifications of a social structure where women are discriminated against and thus, have little hope of social justice through legal means. Sexism therefore, is not just harmless jokes or loose talk, but an institutionalized form of denying women access and rights. As for the relationship of sexism to rape culture, it isn’t difficult to comprehend how sexist attitudes also encompass attitudes and behaviors towards rape. To dismantle rape culture therefore, we need to recognize the harmful effects of sexist attitudes, actions, and speech, and work towards eradicating such occurrences from social norms. With the absence of discriminatory words and acts, there will be a gradual shift towards a more egalitarian society that will not be dismissive of women’s issues, nor encourage the silence of suffering women since egalitarianism is not mutually inclusive to concepts of honour and ownership of women.

Gender on its own is one of the more harmful contributing factors towards rape culture. There is a general confusion regarding gender; if you tell a layperson that gender is a social construct, they will fire back, “Then how are babies born if gender isn’t real?” The difference is quite simple. Sex is biologically determined, and therefore, reproduction- a biological occurrence- is dependent on the sex of a human. Gender is a social construct; in a way, gender is taught, not an inevitable fact like a person’s sex. This results in gender roles, which is a set of rigid, socially prescribed (and approved) rules regarding the correct social behaviors and attitudes. According to the CIPE Media Guide by Uks Research Center, “This learned behavior is what makes up gender identity and determines gender roles and responsibilities. These gender roles vary greatly from one culture to another and even from one social, political, or economical group to another within the same culture.” By this logic, it is understandable that more egalitarian cultures- not necessarily Western- would not engage in negative social conditioning but rather, allow children to grow up with little restrictions on the basis of sex. Unfortunately in Pakistan, this is not the case.

The construction of gender under Pakistani patriarchy socially condition the girl-child to be passive, submissive, and at the mercy of the world unless she has a husband, father, brother, or male relative to “take care” of her. But Pakistani patriarchy takes it one step further with the imposition of honour on the female. While it is common in many patriarchal cultures to put the burden of family honour- in this case, the patriarch of the family being the embodiment of the family- on the females of the family, but in Pakistan, the punishment for deviation from the norm is honour-killing. In other tribal customs, women are exchanged like property, used to settle feuds and disputes, because a woman has no value or agency as a person. Since women are socially conditioned to be submissive and assume they are helpless in their situation, gender role plays a large part in the subjugation of women.

Moreover, gender role is the reason there is a culture of impunity in terms of sexual violence and violence against women. (VAW) While women are conditioned to be meek, submissive, etc. the male child is conditioned to be the exact opposite. The idea of masculinity stems from gender socialization, and demands that men be strong, powerful, controlling, and that ‘their’ women should conform to society’s idea of honourable women because the more “honourable” a woman is, the more respect her ‘male owner’ is granted. Therefore, the male has a right to punish and control his women as he sees fit in order to assert his masculinity and maintain his respect in society, and commit acts of emotional, psychological, and physical violence upon women with impunity.

In layperson’s perspective, these acts are blamed on the poverty myth, i.e. such mistreatment of women is attributed to low financial status, and consequent lack of access to educational opportunities resulting in a lack of ‘enlightenment.’ We shall not waste time discussing the fallacy of the poverty myth, as landmark cases such as the Saima Waheed case or the case of Veena Hayat’s gang-rape are testament to the inclusion of upper-class women in acts of violence. Indeed, as Shahla Haeri points out in “Resilience and Post-Traumatic Recovery in Cultural and Political Context: Two Pakistani Women’s Strategies for Survival,” “The gang rape of Veena, a woman of landed aristocracy and close friend of Benazir Bhutto and her husband, shattered the belief that only poor and peasant women get raped and that women of the elite are safe. In the words of an observer, “The Veena Hayat case had literally come to knock at the very gates of power.” Thus, recognizing the prevalence of violence in all its forms against women across social class and financial class is imperative, and the first step to recognizing the damage done to both men and women due to gender. For gender as a construct, while disproportionately advantaging men, also harms their interests and conditions them into a life of violence.

From this standpoint, the logical conclusion is a neutralization of gender. Given the cultural context of Pakistan, calling for gender abolishment is to cry for the moon. Rather, what is required is working towards the neutralization of gender socialization. This is achievable by decreasing the limitations on the girl-child as well as the male child; where young girls should not be cautioned against being ambitious, or discouraged from “unfeminine” qualities, which can range from being boisterous or being untidy. Similarly, the male child should be included in home activities, rather than growing up in a household where he learns of the sexual division of labour. Neutralizing gender is as simple as refraining from differentiating between “girl toys and boy toys” or “girl clothes and boy clothes” and encouraging children to interact together, rather than segregating them on the basis of gender. It is not an easy process; cultural constraints mean that it would take several generations before there are signs of change and progress. But without the first step being taken, or without debate beginning on the subject altogether, nothing will change. It will simply be a matter of “all of this has happened before and all of this will happen again,” and that statement is the embodiment of rape culture; the acceptance of rape as an inevitable fact of life simply for the crime of being born female.

The solution may be simple, but implementation and execution is a long, complicated process filled with hurdles of every kind at every step. But without the first step, without beginning a discourse on acknowledging the existence of rape culture, nothing can proceed. Until then, we can only shake our heads and sigh resignedly as our statements are met with incredulous replies such as “what are you talking about? A culture can’t rape anyone!” and the oppression of women will continue.

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