Across the border

In Pakistan, students are fighting sexual abuse – and a culture of silence and honour

The social media movement, which seeks inspiration from the #TimesUp and #MeToo campaigns, has slowly gained momentum.

There were about 400 videos of more than 250 children, all of them from a single village in Pakistan. Since 2006, these children, mostly boys, were forced to perform sexual acts on other boys as a group of criminals recorded the acts and sold them to child pornography websites. When the news first broke in 2014, there was widespread disbelief. How could this have gone on for so long without anyone noticing? But it was noticed. Many parents knew about the abuse, yet remained quiet. Others were blackmailed and even paid massive sums of money to keep their child’s video from being made public. It was a matter of honour, facing-saving, ghairat. The family’s honour had to be preserved, even if it meant the continued abuse of the child.

Perhaps more than any other human activity, honour is closely associated with sexual activity. An entire family’s honour is precariously balanced upon the sexuality of its members, particularly its women. (Dis)Honour-killing remains a perennial problem in India and Pakistan, where the sexuality of a woman becomes such a threat that she needs to be killed. Honour was at the core of the ancient Indian practices of jauhar (mass-immolation by royal women to avoid capture by invaders) and sati (when a woman immolated herself on her husband’s funeral pyre). It is the reason why there is still stringent gender segregation in many Muslim societies. Around the time of Partition, it became the most lethal weapon in the hands of communalists, who attacked women from the opposing communities. Sometimes, it was their own family members, mothers, fathers and brothers who convinced the women to commit suicide instead of being caught by the other community. “Loss of honour” is still a widely accepted term for rape.

There is an apt dialogue in the film Spotlight, which looks at the child abuse controversy in the Catholic Church in Boston, that explains this phenomenon: “If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse one.” Child abuse exists in this culture of silence, embarrassment, honour, prestige, and denial.

School students speak out

But there is a storm brewing on social media in Pakistan nowadays. It started in Karachi, where several students of a private school confronted a male student for sexual harassment. The movement slowly gained momentum as it sought inspiration from the global #TimesUp and #MeToo campaigns. It spilled into other cities, including Islamabad, where students started speaking up against a few teachers. In one instance, several female students came forward to accuse a biology teacher of touching them on the pretext of explaining diagrams. Dozens of students came forward with their testimonies. The school eventually responded and the teacher was fired.

But this was not the first time students had complained against this particular teacher. A few of the testimonies said a student had reported the teacher for inappropriate behaviour to the school administration earlier as well. But rather than give the issue the seriousness it deserved, the administration had acted as a negotiator between the two parties, as if it were some sort of a mutual disagreement instead of abuse of power and privilege by the teacher.

There were similar testimonies in other schools. One was about a sports teacher stopping a female student outside the school gates and lecturing her for not being modestly dressed as she did not have her dupatta. When it received the student’s testimony, the school administration reprimanded the teacher and let him off the hook.

Social media weapon

This demands another conversation. What constitutes harassment? Where does one draw the line? Last year, Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, a two-time Academy Award-winning documentary filmmaker from Pakistan, tweeted that a doctor had sent her sister a Facebook friend request after tending to her. She called this harassment, even as an army of trolls challenged her and asked if she was simply exploiting her privilege.

Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy was trolled when she tweeted that her sister had received a Facebook request from a doctor and called this harassment. (Credit: Reuters)
Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy was trolled when she tweeted that her sister had received a Facebook request from a doctor and called this harassment. (Credit: Reuters)

I had a similar conversation with a group of my female students following the rape and murder of an eight-year-old girl in Kasur earlier this year. (The girl was raped and killed by a neighbour, who confessed to seven more similar crimes and was sentenced to death). One of my students told me she had received a friend request from one of her teachers, which had made her uncomfortable. But knowing she had to sit in his classroom throughout the year, she had felt compelled to respond to his request. There was a clear power relationship here. What right does anyone have to tell her otherwise?

Most schools are apprehensive about this powerful student-led movement that is calling out harassment in the school setting. Instead of using this public forum, why didn’t the students approach the school administration is a question every teacher and administrator is asking. The answer is our obsession with honour and modesty. Every school in the country expects and ensures its female students “dress modestly”, tie their hair and wear no makeup, while the same strict standards do not apply to the boys. This process of sexualisation of girls begins right from school. On reaching the senior classes, girls are expected to wear shalwar kameez as uniform. The message is clear: girl students are the upholders of tradition and morality. Often, they are “educated” by their teachers to behave in a particular way to earn “respect”. Gender norms are drawn up through the behaviour of the schools, in which opinionated female students are seen as too aggressive or hyper. The quieter a girl, the more modest she is imagined to be.

Because of these notions of shame, sex education remains taboo in the country. In 2009, a school in Karachi was barred from imparting sex education. In 2016, Pemra, a government organisation responsible for monitoring the content of private media, issued a show-cause notice to a hit television serial that depicted child abuse.

Despite these prevailing sentiments, it is remarkable that these students have broken their silence and come out against their harassers. Instead of asking why they did not come to them, educators and parents must ask what they have done to promote a culture in which students and children feel safer on social media.

Haroon Khalid is the author of three books – Walking with Nanak, In Search of Shiva and A White Trail

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