February 8, 2023
ISLAMABAD – Islamabad’s F9 Park is nestled between a bursting-at-the-seams fast food chain, a cricket ground, a Covid-19 vaccine centre and a Pakistan Air Force hospital. Also known as the Fatima Jinnah Park, it is surrounded by a fence, its evenings well-lit by nostalgic yellow lamps with the occasional missing solar-powered bulb.
Everything about this place, which features a 10-kilometre walking track, seems to point towards safety and belonging. I would frequently catch the sunrise or sunset behind the cherry and oak trees, or its sunny cactus gardens, but I now shudder to take those scenic walks again.
The park is no longer safe. And men have everything to do with it.
Kia zaroorat thi?
Last Thursday, a young 20-something woman was screaming for her life as two men gang raped her at gun point among the secluded shrubs and the moral silence of our society. They also restrained her male colleague, who had accompanied her for what was to be a mere walk in the park.
This young woman was also perhaps trying to catch the sun on its way out like me. Walking at sunrise or sunset, both are horror-inducing for our country’s sensibilities.
If your life doesn’t depend on it, why are you out of your home? A very common lament from the old wives and the uncle sit-down brigade — kya zaroorat thi? [What was the need for it?]
A walk sounds so frivolous that many would argue that there really was no need to have such terrible risk assessment. And a walk in the dark is all the more inviting harm because darkness makes it all the more easy to harbour secrets in. Apparently, you have it coming if you show up in the dark in a public place.
But what of the darkness inside these men — men who believe in the perfect victim.
It is also very dark inside those who have the same murky morality of rapists and criminals. It’s frightening when the educated elite and the roaring middle class ask the same questions — they genuinely wonder what compelled a girl to walk in the dark when rapists could lurk in the shrubs and may take away her purity.
Rape culture allows men to act out a 70s Bollywood movie, where almost every plot line had an innocent woman and her man friend caught in the woods, overpowered often with a weapon or herd strength, separated from each other, and while the male friend was held off, the woman was raped despite her useless hand-flipping resistance. The word balatkar [rape] was a celebrated tag line offered as entertainment. But this was supposed to be just in the terrible low-budget movies.
In real life, often what follows is shame. For the girl. Often what follows is forgetting of who the rapists were. Rapists almost always merge into some collective.
Do you remember the face of Mukhtaran Mai’s rapists? Didn’t think so. Do you remember Mukhtaran Mai’s face? Yeah, thought you would.
The F9 park perpetrators are said to have threatened the young woman to bring even more of their friends to rape her if didn’t stop trying to put up a fight by screaming and attempting to escape. This shows entitlement and impunity. They were buoyed by the story they have been told — that they are special, and others like the young woman can be whacked around for representing what upsets them or causes them discomfort.
After they were done with her, the perpetrators also bribed the pair, still at gunpoint, with Rs1,000 in exchange for not reporting for the crime.
The crime was reported, of course. The young woman’s medical reports confirmed the sexual assault. The police have also released a sketch of one of the rapists who bares an uncanny resemblance to every man at a mall, a bus stop or a library, and registered a case against some unnamed faceless collective.
This is not just any criminal case where the victim happened to be a woman. The choice of the crime rested upon the victim’s gender.
Justifications for the crime
The part where this news story becomes pathological is where the men explained to the young woman that they violated her this way because she was out late. What else were they supposed to do?
If rapists provide justifications for their rape by A-grade victim-blaming, there must be many takers.
First problem: These men’s anger towards the victim assumes a tacit ownership of her.
Second problem: They believe a woman’s inappropriate behaviour must be fixed, not by law enforcement officials, but by arbitrary vigilantes like themselves.
Third problem: The perpetrators garner authority from their feelings instead of a code.
If they felt predatory lust, they had to rape her.
If they felt anger, they had to hurt her.
If they felt disgusted by her, they had to tell her she was immoral.
If their weapon could shock and awe her, they were going to be emboldened by their ambush.
If she felt easy to subdue, it could only mean that they alone are powerful.
By virtue of confirming the victim is indeed hurt by them, they resolve this must be the right order of things after all.
Blame it on the woman
These men’s feelings were all the evidence they needed to imagine violence against her, then carry it out, have no second thoughts even as she protested, continue hurting her and then garner the nerve to build a narrative around their actions by pinning the blame on her, before leaving her some hush money and expecting her to be loyal to their extreme violence, instead of taking the legal route.
Social morality has a large contribution towards criminal neglect. Women have never found solace in lawmaking and law enforcement. The law has always been by men for men.
Citing the faux morality — don’t go out in the dark again because there are unknown dangers — is the antithesis of all of humanity’s progress towards an oppression-free world. No one should talk down to victims of heinous gender-based crimes, precisely because it is harm caused to mute an attribute women should not be faulted for — being born women.
Women and the trans community have just as much of a constitutional right to walk public parks as men do, as much of a right to enjoy nature, to chase the sun or run from the sun as men.
Walking in the park for a woman in Pakistan should not be synonymous with running with scissors.
Turning the tide
Asking women kya zaroorat thi should no longer the benchmark. The new normal should be zarooratain hoti hain, and allow for the multitudes of needs that must be permitted on the basis of them existing for men.
Many societies are in transition and struggle to come to terms with not treating women like house slaves, but mere bad behaviour by men and criminal behaviour against women are very different things that must be met with varying degrees of restorative justice. We almost always normalise both, and punish neither.
This is why gender-based violence is endemic within homes more than it is outside, making no logical sense to ask women to stay indoors. Or to ask her to inhibit smallness by living only within light, far away from the shadows.
Every thana kachehri in Pakistan will be a testament that neither light nor darkness ever protected women.
The men who commit such vile acts need to be better known than the women they rape. Let’s start with that.
May the cactus gardens, the street lamps, the thicket, the rare owls and the fat canaries bear witness to an unforgettably sad day in F9 park named after a strong woman — Fatima Jinnah. May there be much terror, tenor and tragedy in the skies right above the green hills where the young woman begged for mercy, but was hurt nonetheless.
Crimes often occur several years before they actually do. Every single time we didn’t speak for a woman victim, it became easier to hate women for being incongruous towards safe public spaces. Every time we gave our voice to the binary of good women and bad women, a rapist gathered more self-righteous fire power to think he will get away with it.
Rape culture thrives on the back of everyday sexism — how will you bring a culture of change in the enclosures you have at homes and schools and workplaces? What are those small acts of equity you can commit to that help women feel safe? Can you speak up next time you see someone harming a woman’s sense of well being?
Rape culture also thrives in exclusion. Could you start by simply asking women what it is that they need most to feel safe? Someone should have built parks and planned urban structures with women’s consultation in the first place.
Not all men (are rapists) is such a tired, sorry and boring counterpoint to our protest and anger. Can we replace it with some serious introspection instead, that should have taken place yesterday?