ape has become “a money-making concern”, former president Pervez Musharraf had said about the Mukhtaran Mai case in a 2005 interview. “A lot of people say if you want to go abroad and get a visa for Canada, or citizenship, and be a millionaire, get yourself raped.”
Echoes of this narrative were heard in Pakistani media’s coverage of the Supreme Court’s April 22 verdict and the reactions to it.
“What was their source of income?” a talk show host asked about the rape victim and her family. One of his guests asked the same question about a women’s rights activist who had criticised the verdict. “Livelihood!” he claimed. “How will Farzana Bari earn her livelihood (rozgaar) if such cases are not created?”
“They get millions of dollars in aid from abroad,” a veteran columnist said of women activists. “Most of it is spent on make-up (araish-e-gaisu-o-rukhsar) and propaganda against Pakistan.”
“What have you done with Farzana Bari that there is a lawsuit against you?” the talk show host, known for being blunt, asked his guest. This was followed by an off-camera giggle by the second guest. Mukhtaran walked out of the show following insensitive questions and remarks a few minutes after it began. The two experts then found faults with the prosecution’s story.
“If nothing had happened,” a social scientist asked in her blog while commenting on the show, “why has the SC confirmed that one person should remain in prison for the rest of his life for committing rape?”
“It is a mindset,” a journalist said in another talk show, citing criticism he received for reporting several high-profile cases of violence against women. “And the first attack comes from the media.” When the anchor said media’s role had been positive, he told her to ask Mukhtaran Mai what media had done to her (kya hasher kiya tha).
He said a minister belonging to the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) ridiculed him for reporting stories of “women with loose character”.
The ruling party’s MNA Jamshed Dasti was featured prominently for calling the Mukhtaran Mai case “a conspiracy against Islam”. He said the rape victim and the NGOs supporting her had become billionaires. “The courts have cleaned the blot on Muzaffargarh.”
Two conservative columnists who write in Pakistan’s largest selling Urdu daily, saw the case as symbolic of a battle between the US and Pakistan. One made a comparison with the Aafia Siddiqui case, while the other, who is also a talk show host, mentioned in his account of Imran Khan’s protest that a woman had stopped him to ask why those criticising the Supreme Court verdict don’t criticise drone attacks as well.
Pakistan’s leading English daily also saw the case as symbolic. “If a rape with multiple witnesses and such extensive media coverage goes unpunished,” it asked in its editorial, “what Pakistani rape victim will try to obtain justice?”
“In a country where rape is under-reported and under-prosecuted,” a lawyer and activist said in her English column, “Mukhtaran Mai endured shame and stigma, and still valiantly sustained in her struggle to secure justice against rapists who were members of a socially more powerful group.”
She went on to discuss evidence and how it should have been interpreted – a very rare example of debate on the case itself in about a week of coverage.
This is not surprising considering reporters’ response to the verdict, described as “insensitive and pathetic” in a press release by the National Commission on the Status of Women. It said they were “grinning at the verdict and clapped after they recorded the responses on the judgment”.
A TV show hosted by two co-anchors was spot on in addressing the core issue. The anchors called the chief prosecutor, who said there were deliberate flaws in police investigation because of political influence, and that the police did not know the case would get such attention.
Afterwards, a woman called the show and asked for a referendum on whether
women should be considered human beings in Pakistan.
Harris Bin Munawar is Assistant News Editor at TFT