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December 25, 2010

‘Don’t laugh like a whore, this is Karachi’

http://www.jewishjournal.com/blog/item/dont_laugh_like_a_whore_this_is_karachi_20101225/

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In 2002, Mukhtar Mai challenged the Pakistani gender status quo by demanding reparations for the violence and trauma of the state-sanctioned gang rape she suffered.

“In a city like Karachi with 20 million people are you telling me that there were no rapes today?” I stare at the crime reporter.
“Er… ma’am…,” his voice trails off.

This has been my pet peeve for as long as I’ve worked in a newsroom in Pakistan. In my mind, it is simply not possible that in one of the world’s five megacities, Karachi, there isn’t a rape committed at least every hour. But virtually none of them are reported.

The problem is that the police stations, nearly 100 in this city, are all staffed by men. The other problem is that nearly all crime reporters working at either newspapers or in television channels here are men. More and more women have become journalists and some of them are doing wonderful work, but the crime beat pretty much stays a male domain, simply because the cops are cigarette-smoking, paan-chewing male chauvinists who are not comfortable talking to a female reporter much less becoming buddy buddy with her. And then, when it comes to sex-related matters, they are the last ones to want to discuss them with women.

I don’t blame them, though. Pakistani society is not one that considers it polite to discuss biology. It doesn’t matter who you are talking to, the bright young men who’ve returned from American universities with MBAs or the sun-wizened rice farmers of Sanghar who have never ventured beyond their nearby town. With only a very few exceptions, men do not like talking about sex with women and don’t like women who talk about sex either. When it comes to rape at least.

Let me tell you a small story. Nearly a decade ago, when I returned to Karachi from college I started hanging out with a group of people introduced to me by my best friend. She was married to a young man and the group consisted of his gang. One day I got a mass email sent around to the group. It was one of those animated, moving line-drawing cartoon jokes in which a man was having sex with a woman in what was portrayed as a derogatory position. Essentially the cartoon man was impaling the woman. The email had been sent around to the whole group so several comments, laughter etc. were part of the email.

I, however, was not laughing. It was the most offensive thing I had seen in a long time. Now I can get a good joke, a ribald joke just as much as anyone else, but when something like this comes my way it makes my skin crawl. I hit reply-to-all and typed up a paragraph-long argument on why the cartoon was offensive. In it I used words for the female and male anatomy and the sexual experience, such as penis and orgasm, misogyny, feminism, Chthonian, Dionysian etc.

The next thing I knew, my best friend called me up. She said her husband did not want her to be in touch with me any more. When I asked why, she said that because I had used such language everyone in the group thought I was a slut and a whore and if she continued to be friends with me, she would be, by default, one and bring shame to her husband.
This is how the reasoning works: if a woman uses the word penis or orgasm, that means she is familiar with them and thus has had sex and thus is not a virgin and thus is a slut.
It’s been over 10 years since that happened, but that episode comes to mind every time someone tells me to watch what I say, to be more ladylike or stop behaving in a particular way because it will give the wrong impression. Two recent incidents this week reminded me of the email and my first lesson in the mind-boggling way society works here.

I was hanging out with a friend last week when he cracked a joke. I laughed out loud. Not the Amadeus laugh, but a deep guffaw that risks turning into a fit of snorting if I’m not careful. “You really shouldn’t laugh like that,” he said, timidly.
Oh, no, I said to myself. Here we go again. “And why is that?”
“Because, you know, people will think you’re like one of those women.”
“What women?”
“You know,” he widened his eyes. “Like THOSE women…”
“You mean fast women? Whores? Sluts?”
He held his palms up. “You said it.”

I was amazed. I’ve heard a lot of nonsense while living here in Karachi but this one was new. A deep-throated, uninhibited laugh means to some men (and women) that the woman isn’t controlled enough in public, opens herself up rather than restraining herself. The more I thought about it, the more it made sense in the deepest, most terrifyingly primordial way. Perhaps this laugh, I thought, indicated an insatiable, unafraid, sexual appetite? A long time ago, in my search for answers to oppression, I read the brilliant Camille Paglia’s ‘Sexual Personae’, which remains to this day, my bible for feminism studies. Have you heard of the Vagina Dentata that eats up the penis so that it emerges smaller? Gobble, gobble. Men are actually terrified of women, says the theory. They just need to lie back, they don’t need to prove anything. Anxiety lies in male performance.

The second incident that took place this week that reminded me of the email was an actual rape case. Two woman, K and S, attended a party in a fairly desolate neighbourhood and after they exited, some men in a car rammed into theirs, pushing them into a ditch. The women were dragged from the car, K was taken somewhere and gang raped. While many of the details were not immediately clear, the rape kit was positive. The problem was, however, that the police initially mishandled the case.

My crime reporter came to the office and immediately told me that it was doubtful there was rape. “They weren’t decent women,” he said. “The story is not what it seems.”
The newseditor and I freaked out over his interpretation and I was forced to dispatch a female reporter. She went to the police station where a media circus had erupted. To top it off, a government official, basically an adviser to the chief minister, a young woman herself, took it upon herself to speak to the media. She not only named the woman K but also said on national television that her statements did not hold water. I was watching the live press briefing from the office and my face nearly fell off.

Needless to say, the crime reporter’s copy was shit. He did not seem to understand the point that you did not have to assume a woman was shady just because she was out late. Thankfully, however, the female reporter came back with a much more nuanced story.

The police had a lot to say about this case. Not every woman is a Mukhtaran Mai, quipped one, while referring to the woman whose gang rape hit headlines all over the world. She has since become a champion for women’s rights, opened a school in her hometown and a book has been written about her struggle.

In another case, that surfaced a week or so earlier, the police had said to a man whose wife had been gang raped that it wasn’t possible because she wasn’t pregnant. In another case, of a gang rape recently, the police had said to the woman that as she was married, it really wasn’t such a big deal for her to have had “sex” with four men, she should be used to having sex more than once a day. In fact, this officer then told the woman that he was single and would be up for some “comforting” if she could arrange for another woman.

The only good news in the K’s rape case is that the key police officer handling the case, a relatively more sensitive soul, has cracked it and because of media pressure and the stink it’s created, it seems likely that the men will be caught. I don’t know what kind of justice anyone can offer the rape survivor now but it will be a first if the case is properly prosecuted.

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