Perfect rape

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  • Published 19.06.05

How many people are involved in an act of rape? The classic view is that there are only two: the victim, and the perpetrator or perpetrators. But the victim and the rapist, or rapists, are usually seen in isolation.

A while back, this column looked at the case of Mukhtaran Mai, the Pakistani woman who was raped by order of the panchayat as a method of settling a dispute between two clans.

Mukhtaran Mai is an unusual woman, and a very strong one: she took her case to the courts. This week, she lost the last legal battle, as a court in Pakistan acquitted the 13 men accused of raping her.

For a brief while, it also seemed that the government of Pakistan sought to restrict her movements: her passport was taken into possession and she was “sent back” to her village. Criticism mounted, and the government finally announced that Mukhtaran Mai was free to move around within Pakistan. She has received invitations to visit the US and tell her story, which she may now be able to take up.

How many people did it take to get away with the rape of Mukhtaran Mai? It took a panchayat acting as the voice of a village to decree the original rape.

It took not just the men who stepped forward to carry out the rape, but the men and the women of the village who did nothing to prevent it. It took the wisdom of a clan insisting that its way of meting out “punishment” was the only honourable way.

It took a whole platoon of male judges, lawyers and officials who only needed to invoke custom in order to ignore the fact that a terrible crime had been committed. It took paranoid officials to endorse, initially, the further victimising of a woman who had fought very hard to be heard, by taking away her passport as a way of muzzling her voice abroad.

Mukhtaran Mai’s story is an extreme example of how far any society can be implicated in the abuse of one of its members. In most cases of rape, the complicity may be less obvious, but it’s there.

Recent reports in India about women being coerced into marrying the men who raped them have made me wonder how many people it takes to pull off the perfect rape ? a rape of the mind, body and soul that continues long after the physical violation.

There’s the survivor’s family, who often contributes to the idea that a rape transfers shame and guilt onto the victim, and demand that the woman remain silent. There’s the rapist’s family and friends, who often choose to support, shelter and condone the rape by protecting the rapist.

There’s the courts, which often allow invasive lines of questioning: was the woman of “loose nature”, was she “habituated to sex”, as if that makes a difference in a case where the real issue is that all women have a right to say no. There’s the people who’ll raise their eyebrows and ask what the woman was wearing or why she was out at such and such a time, in such and such a place.

It takes a whole lot of people to pull off the perfect rape, and the sad thing is that they’re very good at getting the job done.