The Rosa Parks Effect

Posted by sepoy on June 27, 2005 · 6 mins read

Today, Mukhtar Mai appeared in front of the SC to plead the case against her rapists. Here is a very good timeline of her case - including the news that her passport has been returned to her. The central decision before the SC is whether the Federal Shari'at Court or the Lahore High Court have juridical rights over her case. The FSC condemned six men to death for their role in her gang-rape. The LHC releases the men for lack of "substantial evidence". It is up to the SC to decide if the special-powers FSC or the civil LHC has the right to this case. The very legitimate fear is that the SC may uphold the LHC decision and these horrid men will escape justice. We will find out tomorrow.

In Pakistan, stories of rapes and honor-killings [karokari] blend into the cacophony of violence in the daily newspapers. They were chockful of daughters shot, burned or hacked to pieces by fathers, uncles, brothers and husbands in the name of ghairat or izzat - cognates of moral honor that depend on a particularly patriarchal understanding of shame - with nary an effort to stop and rudimentary condemnation of these abhorrent acts. Rapes are reported as brief news items. Honor killings sometimes get front page coverage - mainly for their sensationalism - but the overall response stays the same: Honor defines independent men. The women's body is the locus of a family's honor. It is up to the woman to protect this honor and should they fail - by getting raped or falling in love with someone else or speaking out against domestic abuse, e.g. - the men have the right to seek redress. Along with this honor comes the code of silence. Crimes against women, however unfortunate, are an understandable response from the males, and should be left uncommented. The silence of outrage is mirrored in the silence of the victim. Shame dictates that a family silence their dis-honor. The easiest way to accomplish this, of course, is for the victim to kill herself. The family and the community exorcizes even the memory of the victim. No one remembers, except for those that committed the heinous act and those that used it as an instrument of their power. By staying out of the domain of "honor" and "shame", the state facilitates this. The lack of a police report is, in the end, the most harmful silence of all.

I will put the obvious disclaimer that this is not a situation peculiar to Pakistan or Islam or to this particular moment in history. Domestic violence or honor killings are not a culturally unique phenomenon but they are a uniquely patriarchal one. One can easily find instances from Milan to Kentucky with a layover in Dubai. If there is a difference in the rate of incidence between say, Chicago and Lahore, then it is the rule of law and effort of education that has permitted this equality and protection to women in one case and not the other. In many countries, like Pakistan, women have little recourse in law against such violence and insurmountable normative practices that sustain or encourage it. It is easy enough to start labeling Islam or South Asian/"tribal" culture as the root cause of such violence. But that would be a fundamentally flawed and disingenuous conclusion. The culprit is not Islam or South Asian culture, the culprit, undoubtedly, is the State of Pakistan.

Mukhtar Mai's bravest act is to break this lynchpin of silence. She refused to play her assigned part. It was the imam of the local mosque who first urged the family of Mukhtar Mai to break their silence and go to the police. It was Mukhtar Mai who pressed charges against the men and pursued them in court. Neither did she disappear from the community, but used her case and her court award to begin a school for girls in her village. Her act brought serious and critical scrutiny to the plight of honor-killings. As a result of internal pressure from NGOs and external attention, Pakistan tightened the law against such killings - but not enough. Still, her bravery has led to mass demonstrations in her honor both inside and outside Pakistan. It has prompted others to seek justice. It has gathered hundreds of thousands of dollars for schools. Her fortitude has, in effect, crystallized a movement for women's rights in Pakistan.

The General and his trusted advisor, Neelofer Bakhtiar, treat this as a PR crisis but one can see that they are worried. They maintain that the NGOs, in service to the international media, have trumped her up as a cause cÈlËbre. They should be very worried. The one thing a dictatorship cannot survive is scrutiny. The other thing a dictatorship cannot survive is an internal movement for justice. Mukhtar Mai has given her country, forever mired in silences, both of those things.

SC rules to re-try the case. Good news.


Saurav | June 27, 2005

Great post. The disclaimer, though, is far from obvious to many people, unfortunately.

Jonathan Dresner | June 30, 2005

This is a great post, and a very important issue. I can't help think, though, that for her stand to rise to the level of Rosa Parks significance would require a substantial native movement around her. Instead, what it looks like to me is the Nigerian case (the name escapes me at the moment) of stoning for adultery, where international pressure forced the central government to interfere in local affairs to defuse the situation and take the pressure off (did I mix metaphors? oh, well), but not to change the fundamental laws and practices. Is there a Pakistani movement? The only way to find out is to keep watching and see what moves...

sepoy | June 30, 2005

You are quite right, Jonathan. My hope is that the galvanization effect from her case emboldens the movements for democracy as well as reform. It is a tall order as long as The General is supported by the WH, but I have hopes.

Michael Williams tries to defend Independent on Sunday’s front page « pixelisation | February 18, 2008

[...] by society. Although, I don’t believe identifying ‘honour’ crimes can be so easily dismissed as mere ‘orientalism’, one needs to consider how domestic abuse and violence is a problem amongst other communities too [...]

khanumbilquis | April 23, 2011

Thanks for this.