In honor-and-shame cultures like those of India and Pakistan, male honor resides in the sexual probity of women, and the "shaming" of women dishonors all men. So it is that five men of Pakistan's powerful Mastoi tribe were disgracefully acquitted of raping a villager named Mukhtar Mai three years ago. Theirs was an "honor rape," intended to punish a relative of Ms. Mukhtar for having been seen with a Matsoi woman. The acquittals have now been suspended by the Pakistan Supreme Court, and there is finally a chance that this courageous woman may gain some measure of redress for her violation.Rape is not a women's issue. It's a human issue.
Pakistan, however, has little to be proud of. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan says that there were 320 reported rapes in the first nine months of last year, and 350 reported gang rapes in the same period. The number of unreported rapes is believed to be much larger. The victim pressed charges in only one-third of the reported cases, and a mere 39 arrests were made. [Ed note: anti-violence groups working in Pakistan estimate the number of reported rapes to be much lower, possibly 10% of the total.] The use of rape in tribal disputes has become, one might say, normal. And the belief that a raped woman's best recourse is to kill herself remains widespread and deeply ingrained.
For every Mukhtar Mai there are dozens of such suicides. Nor is courage any guarantee of getting justice, as the case of Shazia Khalid shows. Dr. Khalid was raped last year in the province of Baluchistan by security personnel at the hospital where she worked. A Pakistani tribunal failed to convict anyone of the crime.
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The "culture" of rape that exists in India and Pakistan arises from profound social anomalies, its origins lying in the unchanging harshness of a moral code based on the concepts of honor and shame. Thanks to that code's ruthlessness, raped women will go on hanging themselves in the woods and walking into rivers to drown themselves. It will take generations to change that. Meanwhile, the law must do what it can.
In Pakistan, the Supreme Court has taken one small but significant step in the matter of Mukhtar Mai; now it is for the police and politicians to start pursuing rapists instead of hounding their victims. As for India, at the risk of being called a communalist, I must agree that any country that claims to be a modern, secular democracy must secularize and unify its legal system, and take power over women's lives away, once and for all, from medievalist institutions like Darul-Uloom. [Read the whole essay here.]
Two good places to learn more about international women's human rights are Equality Now and MADRE. I especially appreciated MADRE's statement on the London bombings.