For Shame


Wait, Pakistan is blasting India for treating women badly?

As the world has watched India’s public outrage at December’s fatal gang rape in Delhi, no country has followed the story with a greater sense of pained, if presumed, understanding than its neighbor and rival Pakistan. On New Year’s Day, Pakistani civil rights organizations took to the streets of their capital Islamabad for a candlelight vigil in memory of the victim, who died of her injuries in late December. Amid calls for a law against domestic violence in Pakistan, Rehana Hashmi, president of Sisters Trust Pakistan, an NGO, declared that there can be no borders when it comes to showing solidarity for women’s rights.

Many Indians would agree, though they might quibble over Pakistanis’ claim that the Delhi gang rape reveals a shameful misogyny that mirrors their own. Within days of an op-ed  in one of Pakistan’s major newspapers, The News, arguing that India and Pakistan share a rape culture that supports and enables offenders, the Indian web portal Rediff ran a story by an Islamabad journalist who described the far greater horrors of being a woman in Pakistan, included the estimate that 70 to 90 percent of women have suffered domestic violence.

In a blog post for the German broadcaster Deutsche Welle, Ayesha Hasan, a freelance journalist from an orthodox Pashtun district in Pakistan wrote, “[I]f one rape case could lead to such reactions in India, protesters should have spent the entire year of 2012 on the streets of Pakistan. Every year some 2,900 women are raped in Pakistan, almost eight a day.”

The introspective tone continued in a New Year’s Eve story in the Express Tribune, a liberal paper launched in 2010 in concert with the International Herald Tribune, Pakistan’s first with an international affiliation. With the headline “Pakistan’s shame: Rape cases in 2012,” the paper used the Indian incident as a peg to recap the violence wrought on women in Pakistan: “[T]he plight of women who have faced rape and sexual assault in Pakistan has been largely confined to formulaic articles in the press, slow-moving cases in the courts, and frequent dropped charges due to bribes, threats of further violence and family pressure on the victim to avoid further ‘shame.'”

blog post in the Express Tribune lamented the entrenched orthodoxies of Pakistan, where strictsharia laws that often resulted in rape victims incarcerated for adultery were in force until 2006, and 15-year-old Malala Yousafzai was shot in October 2012 for campaigning for girls’ education. “[W]hile there is talk of some change taking place in India in response to this abhorrent incident,” the post’s author wrote, “the same cannot be said for Pakistan where women are buried alive and senators stand in the galleys of the parliament and say that it is our custom and no one has the right to dispute it.”

But another strand of Pakistani opinion refused to credit India with its development, focusing instead on the risqué nature of Bollywood films and urban Indians’ conspicuous Westernization. In an articlefor the Frontier Post, an English-language newspaper in northwest Pakistan, headlined “No Justice For a Woman in India,” columnist Afshain Afzal  described the Delhi gang rape as “a routine affair” for India, where working women “especially the internees at the Indian hospitals are quite frequent (sic) that they are sexually abused and those who refuse to cooperate are tortured or their lives made miserable. This is, but, the true face of India…” He suggested “there is a need for Indian young girls and women to observe dress code according to their eastern tradition and culture.”

Meanwhile, sections of the Pakistani web community derided India’s “pretensions” to laws, rights, and equality. In response to an op-ed in a Pakistani paper by an Indian writer arguing for a change of mindset rather than castration for rapists, a reader raged: “Indians pretend to have laws, rights and equality … They are high on philosophy and morality. But in practice they are a klepto society.”

There was an echo of this in nearby Afghanistan, even though it remains deeply absorbed by its own problems, including the high incidence of rape among female police officers in Kabul. Tolo, the country’s leading television channel, provided constant coverage of the events in Delhi, prompting a mixed response from Afghans. According to an Afghan media observer who asked to remain anonymous, opinion was divided on whether the anti-rape protests were worth duplicating in Afghanistan, where half of its women prisoners are in jail for “zina” or moral crimes such as rape and adultery. He said that some Afghans on television and radio shows felt that Indians’ anger exposed the flaws in “a big democracy, where we thought the women were well respected. But we were wrong. Women rights are violated there too and they don’t have much freedom.”

In the subcontinent’s treacherous politics, the carping reflects the contradictions between India’s visible failures and its image as the South Asia’s most developed country. That’s too bad, says Syed Irfan Ashraf, who writes for Dawn, Pakistan’s oldest newspaper: “Pakistan and the subcontinent suffers by not having a strong example to point to in the neighborhood,” he told Foreign Policy.

But the dominant sentiment on the subcontinent is clearly schadenfreudereflected in an article by filmmaker Hira Nabi in the Friday Times, which describes itself as a liberal newspaper. Comparing gender equity on both sides of the border, she wrote that Indian women’s apparent freedoms were “illusory” even though those in Delhi are more “brazen” than in Lahore, “wearing most whatever they pleased, owning the streets as they walked, hailing rickshaws, taking the metro, crossing streets, shopping in bazaars, talking back.”

Rashmee Roshan Lall, the former editor of The Sunday Times of India, is now a freelance writer based in the United States.