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Monday Mar 19 2018

Myths about rape

Rape myths have been described as ‘‘prejudicial, stereotyped or false beliefs about rape, rape victims and rapists’’, which serve to create an environment that is hostile towards rape victims and survivors.

Despite some notable law reforms in Pakistan in recent years, a range of rape myths and stereotypes regarding male and female sexuality continue to influence impartial reporting, investigation, prosecution and adjudication of cases of sexual violence, hampering access to justice for rape and other forms of sexual assault.

Rape as a crime against “honour”

In Pakistan, as well as most of South Asia, rape (and other sexual violence) is generally understood as a violation of honour. This understanding also manifests itself in how rape is defined. In the Urdu language, for example, rape is commonly referred to as ziyadati, which can be defined as “being wronged”. Other words frequently used for rape include ismat zari and izzat lutna, both defining rape as deprivation of honour.

These terms and the underlining assumptions reflect an approach to sexual violence that is not concerned with the infringement of a woman’s physical or mental integrity or autonomy, but instead with what is perceived as an assault on honour - the honour of the woman, her family, and her community. Instead of promoting concern for the dignity, health, emotional and physical wellbeing of the woman, they reflect the belief that a woman’s involvement in sex outside of marriage - with or without her consent - has “shamed” her.

That rape “dishonours” the victim is a recurring theme in public discourse on rape, and disturbingly, this framing is also perpetuated by judges in their judgments. In one case, for example, the Lahore High Court (LHC) held that the father of a victim of rape and murder had to “swallow the humiliation resulting from the publicity of his daughter's rape”, and in another, the LHC refused to believe that a “virgin educated girl would put her honour and dignity as well as that of her family at stake” by fabricating a rape allegation.

While the rape victim is thought to be “dishonoured” by acts of sexual violence, the perpetrator of rape is painted as a lustful predator who commits a crime of passion, not of violence.

Decades of research have shown that the expression of power and dominance, not the act of sexual intercourse itself, is the dominant driver behind rape. Despite these findings, there is still a tendency to attribute sexual urge and lust as the primary causes for rape: “ravish” is used synonymously with rape in many legal provisions, and in their judgments, judges continue to describe “animal lust” as the impetus for rape which leads to the “defloration” of victims.

Rape and “morality”

The characterisation of rape as a crime of “lust and passion” which “dishonours” the woman presupposes an archetype rape victim –a young, “chaste” and “moral” “virgin”. Where victims and survivors of sexual violence do not meet this archetype, rape allegations made by them may be dismissed and they may even be stigmatized, or even prosecuted, for their perceived immorality.

Such stereotyping also shapes the investigation of sexual violence, and often, also judicial decision-making. Courts are more inclined to believe the testimony of complainants where they meet the “young, chaste and virgin” archetype, and either dismiss the complaints or require further corroboration where the rape victims or survivors are older, married, or are perceived to be -as described by various courts- of “easy virtue” and of “loose character”.

In one judgment, the Sindh High Court observed that the fact that “the woman was used to sexual intercourse would lend support to the version that the alleged intercourse may not have been performed against her wishes”. This can be contrasted with the Peshawar High Court’s more sympathetic view where the complainant was “a school going virgin/tender age girl”, who “could not be believed to put her career, personal respect and family honour at stake by fabricating a false allegation of such nature in the absence of any motive.”

This stereotype of the ideal rape victim is not a judicial creation but is also the law of the land. Section 151(4) of the Qanun-e-Shahadat Order, 1984, states that the credibility of a witness may be impeached where “a man is prosecuted for rape or an attempt to ravish” and it is “shown that the prosecutrix was of generally immoral character”. The “two-finger test”, which involves assessing how many fingers can easily be inserted into the victim’s vagina to determine her sexual history, is still used as evidence in rape cases. – even though the “two-finger test is without scientific or medical value and the sexual history is irrelevant as to whether a rape has occurred.

Strikingly, a study on Indian case law on rape has shown that since courts view loss of “honour” as the primary “harm” that rape causes, the perception of the victims’ “virginity” or “chastity” also has an impact on sentencing: sentences imposed on men convicted of rape where the victim or survivor is an unmarried woman are higher than those imposed on men convicted of rape where the victim or survivor is a married woman.

Obligations of the state

The constitution of Pakistan expressly provides that “there shall be no discrimination on the basis of sex”. The UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), which Pakistan acceded to in 1996, reinforces the principle of equality and obligates states to eliminate wrongful gender stereotyping. Yet, Pakistan continues to be ranked amongst the most dangerous countries in the world for women; has an abysmally low rate of convictions of less than five per cent for people prosecuted for rape, and the prejudicial stereotypes associated with rape continue to doubly persecute victims and survivors of sexual violence.

Any efforts to make Pakistan a safer place for women will have to counter rape myths and the stereotypes associated with sexual violence, moving away from understanding rape as a crime of lust that “dishonours” women to what it really is — a violent assault against the physical and mental integrity and autonomy of the rape survivor.

Omer is a legal adviser for the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ). She tweets @reema_omer

Note: The views expressed are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Geo News or the Jang Group.