Entry from July 18, 2002

Joe Huston writes to call my attention to the story of Mukhtaran Bibi, the 28-year-old divorced Pakistani woman from Meerwala condemned by a tribal council or panchayat to be gang-raped as a punishment for a relationship her younger brother may or may not have had with a woman from a tribe of higher status. There’s honor for you! And it is, though unusual, not at all inconsistent with primitive honor codes such as those which have existed unchanged for centuries in most of the Islamic world.

What might be the surprising aspect of the story is that, in spite of all those centuries, the Pakistani élites are professing shock and surprise at such a semi-official sanctioning of barbarism. According to the report by Ian Fisher in The New York Times, a local imam, Abdul Razzaq, decided to speak out against the rape at Friday prayers. Otherwise it would probably never have been known to the wider world. Obviously embarrassed that such things go on there, the government of Pakistan has arrested the rapists and sent $8,300 and an armed guard for the victim and her family. A paved road, electricity, a permanent police outpost and the renaming of the school where she teaches the Koran in honor of Mrs. Bibi are also on the cards, according to Mr. Fisher.

But why do such things go on? Neither Mr. Fisher nor the Times is able to enlighten us. The headline says that the rape “Tells of a Brutal Society,” though that is to re-name in lieu of explanation. It is also inaccurate since it is impossible to distinguish between rape and consensual sex among the brute creation. A few days before, a Times report by Samar Aboul-Fotouh which told of the arrest of an Egyptian dentist for molesting his patients at least attempted helpfully to explain that “In this conservative society, sex is so scandalous that even rape victims and their families are considered dishonored.”

This, however, is a mistake. It is not because “sex is so scandalous” that rape victims are dishonored — as if they were Victorian maidens. It is rather because in most of the world rape is, just as the women’s movement has always told us it is, not a sex-crime at all but a means and a symbol of dominance. The feminist mistake is to suppose that it is the dominance of men by women. Those who think in broad abstract categories, as we in the West have lately become accustomed to doing, may naturally suppose as much, but for the vast majority of humanity the dominators and the dominated as established by rape, or robbery, or murder, or any of a hundred other methods, include members of both sexes.

That is why poor Mrs Bibi’s father had to be held at gunpoint by the members of the rival tribe while his daughter was violated. Though his suffering was presumably less than hers, the dominance was as much of him as of her, and the point the rapists were making more for his benefit than hers. This is also why they stone adulteresses in Muslim countries, not because “sex is so scandalous” but because of the husband’s loss of honor and therefore status. His inability to protect his wife or mother or daughter — or father or son for that matter — from being used at will by another is tantamount to an admission of weakness and impotence, which honor cultures always regard with contempt.

We are not ourselves so distant from such ideas as we might like to think we are. In the closing days of the Second World War, as many as two million German women were raped by invading Russian troops according to the disturbing account in Antony Beevor’s recent Berlin: The Downfall 1945. But as Beevor points out, the Russians also raped many Polish, Ukranian and even Russian women who had lived under German occupation. Their motivation must have been not unlike that of the Pakistani villagers among whom one tribe asserts its superior status by violating the women of another tribe. The feminist response, to see such rapes in terms of a general masculine dominance of women, is not only to miss the rapists’ point but also to kick away their own defense against foreign rapists, should any such ever turn up on our shores.

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