Indelible scars

Silence aids the culture of sexual violence

By Mehmal Sarfraz
  • Published 9.02.18

Zainab. A seven-year-old little girl. A child. Raped. Tortured. Murdered. She was not the only one. There were more like her in the city of the Sufi poet, Baba Bulleh Shah, Kasur, where a serial killer and paedophile hunted several other young girls. He was finally nabbed and that too only because we saw the innocent face of Zainab splashed on our television screens, newspapers and on social media. Her face was everywhere. Haunting us. Taunting us. The Punjab Police and the Punjab government finally acted and arrested the sick psychopath responsible for her murder. There were many, including some of our politicians, who asked for a public hanging. These people seem to have no clue that a public hanging is another form of barbarity and while we should be asking for punishment, baying for blood is not the answer. This lynch mob mentality has to end.

There was anger - so much anger - and there was pain - a lot of pain. Anger at the perpetrator and pain for the dead young girl and her family. One gets the anger and the pain. A lot of us remembered our old wounds. A lot of us remembered how we were abused when we were young but how we did not speak out. It was time to speak up. Speak up for millions of children who are abused. Daily. In our midst. Around us. Zainab's brutal death woke us up from our slumber. But one seriously wonders if it has actually woken us up or, once the perpetrator is punished, we will go back to the way things were.

Zainab's murder led to a media campaign about child abuse. Many in our media started talking about life-skills education for children, raising awareness about 'good touch' and 'bad touch', telling parents how to make their children aware about abuse and how to deal with it. We were finally talking about something that was once considered taboo. Children were asking questions and their parents had to answer them. This was the good part of the media.

Now comes the bad part - the part that we have all known existed but was something that we usually ignored or were just outraged about and then moved on. Journalism. Ethics. All down the drain. A prominent anchorperson - who is not really a journalist, but then again many in our media are not really journalists - claimed that Zainab's murderer was part of some international child porn racket that operates on the dark web. He claimed that Zainab's murderer had 37 bank accounts and he had millions in foreign currency accounts. As it turned out, it was a big lie. Zainab's murderer did not have a single bank account and he did not have a passport either. The anchorperson was summoned by the Supreme Court and did not come up with any hardcore evidence related to his wild accusations. This particular anchorperson is known for his lies and far-fetched conspiracy theories. He has a large following; people who think there is no simple truth and everything under the sun is an international conspiracy. It remains to be seen whether he would ever be held accountable for his lies. Unfortunately, there are many more black sheep like him in our media. These so-called journalists have put the media's credibility at stake. One hopes that someday our media would follow a proper code of conduct.

Coming back to the subject of sexual abuse, one feels that we are still not at a point where victims would feel comfortable talking about their ordeal. After the 'Me Too' campaign, some Pakistani women - and men - started speaking up in public about sexual abuse. It wasn't their shame to begin with but our society is such that the victims feel shame in their tragedy.

We are a shameless bunch in a perverse sort of way. There are those among us who think sexual abuse, even child abuse, is due to 'vulgarity' and 'obscenity' in the media. There are those who think rapes happen because the rape survivor was 'asking for it' somehow. There are those who think there is no such thing as date rape because why else would a girl be alone with a guy in a room if she did not sign up for sex? There are those who think there is nothing wrong with rape jokes. There are those who think women speaking up about sexual abuse/exploitation/violence are only making up stories and/or are blowing it out of proportion. There are those who question why the victim kept quiet for all those years. One can go on and on about such people as the list of 'there are those...' is an endless one, but a lot of these people are our friends, our family members, our colleagues... people we meet regularly. We fight with them when they express their disgusting views, we cringe when we hear such vile views but, at the end, we ignore their views because we cannot cut ties with them - social and/or familial. This is our dilemma. A dilemma that eventually leads to our begrudging silence. Silence that perpetuates a culture of sexual violence. Silence that makes us complicit one way or the other.

In such a society, why would a child speak up about 'bad touch' when we teach them to stay silent in order to keep our 'honour' intact? Why would a girl ever speak up about date rape when she is made to think she is somehow responsible for what happened? Why would a woman complain about sexual harassment at her workplace when she will not get any support, may eventually lose her job (and may not find another one), and will also end up losing her dignity? Why would a woman report a rape when people around her will blame her for it? Why is it that a woman's character is always 'loose' and not that of the criminal's who abused her? Why. Why. Why. There are so many why's but no answer.

In any civilized society, victims of sexual abuse are treated with respect but in our society, most victims choose to stay silent. A lot of people in our society may not understand what a victim goes through - from nightmares to depression to shame and guilt to self-harm and much worse. Life goes on but the scars never go away. Some of us may store those memories away and move on while some of us wither away in depression. It will take years, maybe decades, before Pakistani society evolves to a point where victims will not be blamed for something that is a traumatic experience, both physically and mentally. I hope that I see that day during my lifetime.

The author is a journalist based in Lahore