Heads held in shame: Rape, masculinity and the media

More perplexing than the chicken or the egg ruse, is whether it is the media that orchestrates fury within the public, or if it is the public that incites the media into vehemence.

The widespread public outrage over the recent rape and murder of a young girl in Delhi dissipated when the four men were sentenced to death. It was a gratifying day. Until, news of the five-year-old girl raped by one or more maniacs in Lahore broke, the very same day.

Whoever occupies whatever stance, the media and the public are unanimous that criminals shall be put to death in most horrid of ways - shot in the forehead point blank, beheaded with a jerk of sword, hanged in public and dragged out on the roads - and all of this is demanded as if from that day onwards no one would dare even think of committing such a heinous act.

However, there is sorry news for this audience. The crime that they abhor does not end this way. This is one of the most strongly held yet highly erroneous perceptions that “an exemplary punishment” has a great deterring impact on prospective criminals. Countries with low crime rate do not punish their convicted criminals in horrible ways, and the countries that do that are not crime free, not even in comparative sense. It is simple. And it is universal.

China, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Yemen are the top five executioners in the world, according to Death Sentences and Executions 2012 by Amnesty International. China alone accounts for more executions than the rest of the world combined. In recent years, there have been many high profile cases punishing the financial corruption of government officials and businessmen with death. Saudi Arabia implements death sentences by beheading. In 2012, it executed at least 79 persons or three every fortnight. But the sheer fact that each of these countries continues to convict and award this “exemplary punishment” belies the claim that it acts as a deterrent. Had it had any preventive effect, these countries should have registered a steady decline in such cases.

And if you think that I am being obscure, here is what has been happening in our homeland. Public hangings, introduced by General  Ziaul Haq, were in vogue all through the 1980s. The practice was ostensibly started under the popular theme – the severer the punishment, the lesser the crime. That the General used his military courts and ‘the exemplary punishments’ they awarded quickly and abundantly to actually deter political opposition, is another story. The punishment was abandoned after the restoration of democracy in 1988 as it had resulted in no social good.

Crimes are acts of individuals but the personalities of individuals are shaped by societies and the acts of criminals are, in more than one ways, connected to everyone else’s behaviour. While I do not plead for punishing the entire society for the crime of an individual, I do not want to absolve the society of all responsibility either. If you don’t believe in evil spirits entering a man and turning him into a criminal, you must be curious about what ails these perverts? But since this approach may rest some blame on us, we prefer to stress on an individual’s responsibility and call for making an example out of such a satanic man.

Sex based crimes are shrouded with an added layer of hypocrisy as we all want to pretend that nothing even remotely linked to sexual problems or misdemeanour exists in our person or within our family. I once lead a research endeavour for my organisation ( Punjab Lok Sujag) that was focused on developing an understanding of gender-based domestic violence in rural Punjab - or to be precise, understanding the practice of wife beating.

I learned  how the concepts of masculinity intermingles with the realities of sexual prowess that results in gender violence.

Rural couples marry relatively young and the brides may not always be able to conceive immediately after the marriage for a host of reasons - the groom takes it as an affront to his masculinity. He has to prove to his larger family and his peer group that he possesses adequate sexual prowess. A pregnant wife is satisfactory evidence and the alternative is – the poor girl beaten blue for ‘her inability’ to get pregnant.

Men are most insecure about their prowess and require frequent affirmations. Some male virgins are so low on self-esteem that they dread a relationship with an adult woman, fearing they might fail in bed. They would instead try it out on persons who are unable to resist and refuse or report a failure or launch a complaint – such as children. As my friend, Dr Asir Ajmal, who is a professor of psychology, explained,

There is usually a misconception that there is a high correlation between being sexually abused and being a sexual abuser. There is a correlation but it is between being physically abused (being badly beaten up as a child) and being a sexual abuser. And being badly beaten as a child has obvious consequences for self-esteem. But it also reduces empathy, or the ability to feel the other person's pain.

And believe it or not, it is not very rare. Sahil, an organisation that specialises in dealing with child sexual abuse, compiled and counted all such cases reported by the press and to legal aid cells in the year 2012. The total stood at 3,861. Sahil’s report further shows that out of the 1,579 victims of sexual abuse whose age could be ascertained from reports, 10.6 percent were aged 1 to 5 years.

Criminals do what they do and no amount of terrible punishments can deter them. However, what is more likely to be helpful is that our children know what sexual abuse means and are informed and confident enough to refuse, resist and report it. This can happen only if they are educated. But who will do that and how? More importantly, can parents in Pakistan ever even allow their children to talk about sex?

Gender violence and child sexual abuse lie at the heart of this taboo. Its grip straps this society so tightly that some school science books even exclude human reproductive systems. I personally know of public sector schools that omit topics related to reproduction in animals from their annual study plans, even those that are included in books produced by Text Book Boards. They limit themselves to reproduction in plants alone!

With such a strong and fortified internalisation of ignorance, how can we keep our children safe? By crying our throats hoarse at a stadium where a child abuser is being hanged – once more, once more!

* Tahir Mehdi  works with Punjab Lok Sujag, a research and advocacy group that has a primary interest in understanding governance and democracy. He tweets @TahirMehdiZ.