Tarar Square

#MeToo: This is why 'No' remains the loudest unheard word

No amount of social media activism and laws would protect females - and many young males - from sexual abuse.

 |  Tarar Square  |  7-minute read |   23-10-2017
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It starts with the birth of a child. It starts with the different - intentional or innocuous - treatment of children of different genders. It starts with the extra attention given to a baby girl in terms of providing her "protection". How girls and boys are different starts where all children should be equal, same: at home. Putting of genders in boxes comes into existence in the hands of people who are responsible for the wellbeing of their children: parents.

Sexual harassment, sexual abuse, sexual assault, sexual violence, all terms that denote a singular truth: crossing a line. And knowing that the line can be crossed. Line that delineates that no one is to be touched without their consent, that groping a body is not just a meaningless movement of hands, that molestation is not a victim-free activity, that rape is not merely desecration of a body.

This line is of values of an individual, of the ethos of a society, of everything that is good in human beings, and of what differentiates one human being from another. Sexual abuse does not stem from reasons of physical desire that need an outlet, and that must seek satiation. In most cases, it is about crossing the line into the forbidden, the non-permissible, the awful, and the lust to bend a body to the will of the assaulter/attacker/rapist. It is about the uncontrollable urge to do what must be hidden, and it is hidden because it is ugly, sordid, and of taking something that is off-limits by all worldly and divine codes of behaviour.

Reading about experiences of females in the #MeToo movement, I started to think about the issue of sexual abuse in my life and in my country, Pakistan. While I’ve much to say about what I personally suffered, and lived to suffer the mental consequences of all of that all my life, I choose not to talk about it. My silence is simply because of my need to keep my pain private, but there is much that I’ve learnt internalising my own hell, and observing the phenomenon of “abuse” in my world.

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I don’t remember any female ever opening up to me about her experience of harassment, abuse or rape, but I know it’s an all-pervasive reality of the male-dominated world I inhabit. I read about it, I see it in films and TV shows, and I hear about it in stories of people who do not wish to make their ordeals public. There are young girls, even boys, who are touched in their private parts by people close to them - a teacher, a relative, a neighbour, a father. These young girls and boys are shushed into silence, one sweaty palm pressed against their gaping mouths, their eyes wide with fear and confusion, their bodies rigid in fear. The touching continues, and the first lesson of silence against brutality is taught, as the mind learns to form its own mechanism of defence and survival.

There are females who are raped, by complete strangers, people they know, men they date. No FIRs are filed, no medical reports are made. Bruised and battered bodies are washed, in vain, to remove the residue of hell they suffered, when all protestations went unheard, when all "NOs" were taken as assent. Eighteen-year-old virgins are raped. Middle-aged women are raped. Babies are raped. Old women are raped. Little boys are raped. Teenagers are raped.

While the bodies learn to live with the attack, minds go into modes of denial, hearts learn to live in ignorance of the damage, and life goes on, one nightmare-filled day at a time.

Silence. The noisiest silence in the world, heard by no one. And it keeps in perpetuity the age-old custom of silence when the “honour” of the body is taken away. Honour. The very word that is behind formation of most rules females are conditioned to live by, mould their behaviour and bend their lives to. Honour. The word that exists only because of women and for women, and it is women who pay the price of maintaining honour: of a family, of parents, a community, and a system of patriarchy.

Pakistan is a pre-dominantly Muslim country, and in Islam, there are injunctions for women to behave in a certain manner, cover their bodies, and act modestly. The issue is not religious. The issue is that of warped distortions of religion and its worldly connotation that shapes the culture. If men followed Islam - or any other religion - no child would be molested, no woman would be raped, no weaker person would face violence, nobody would suffer brutality. Islam like any other religion teaches its men to respect women, and no distortion of any religious teaching sanctions violence on (physically) weaker beings.

The word honour is a shield for excesses of patriarchy, a justification for blatant gender discrimination, as a means to engage in open misogyny. The word honour is the dis-honour men wear like a badge of pride to hide their behaviour of shame towards women.

As women learn to wear silence like their skin, men continue to be men. Hiding in plain sight behind boasting of conquests, slut-shaming, victim blaming, what-was-she-doing-there, good-girls-don’t-behave-like-that, good girls are not raped, and men will be men.

Right from infancy, it is the female body and the female life that has to be conditioned, ordered, controlled and manipulated to behave in a certain manner to keep the "honour" of the family intact. Its initiation is with the mother who is conditioned in the age-old endorsement of rules made by men to define honour. What will your brother say? How will your father react? What will people say if you do what your male family member has forbidden you to do? Your brother will hit you if he finds out you have a boyfriend. Your father will kill you if he knows you were with a man.

The worst expletives used by men contain the words sister and mother, two relationships of honour.

In my world, it is not about what God will say to you, it is mostly about how the male members of the family will react to your actions. Silence is therefore taught as a virtue, and stories of assault and brutality against you become a casualty of that ironclad rule of silence.

No amount of outrage, social media activism and laws would protect females - and many young males - from sexual abuse. There are millions who have no knowledge of what the protest on social media is, as they continue to treat women as second-class citizens whose consent is not required. To force yourself on a body, to hit her, to even kill her in the worst case.

Existing alongside assaulters and rapists are countless men in the world who would never touch anyone without their consent. Those men who honour women, and not the word "honour".

Nothing will ever change until instead of teaching your daughters how not to behave, you teach your sons what not to do, what lines not to cross. When you teach your sons to be good human beings, they grow up without any ideas of gender discrimination.

When you teach your sons to be honest and truthful, they don’t grow up to become adults who inflict pain and force their victims into silence.

When you teach your sons not to hurt any being - human or animal - even in the absence of witnesses, you help them to become men who take a "NO", and a scream of protest as a sign to stop. When you teach your sons not to think that hitting another child or an animal is “koi-baat-nahin,” you impart a valuable lesson of not trivialising even the slightest of injustices.

When you teach your sons not to “mock” their interactions, serious or otherwise, with a female, not to badmouth her, and talk about intimate details of their life even with their friends, you guide them to become men who don’t “boast” about their treatment of women.

When your sons know the value of being kind, of being respectful and empathetic of others’ emotions, there is no way they wouldn’t hear even the weakest "NO".

As a single woman in a patriarchal society, this is what I have taught my son. And this is my way of breaking my silence. I believe in the power, the sanctity of "NO", and so does my son.

Also read: #MeToo exposes a chilling truth: Not a single woman is spared of sexual harassment

Writer

Mehr Tarar Mehr Tarar @mehrtarar

A former op-ed editor of Daily Times, Pakistan, and a freelance columnist.

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