News broke last week that the founder and erstwhile editor-in-chief of the Indian publication Tehelka, a man named Tarun Tejpal, had sexually assaulted one of his employees – a woman young enough to be his daughter. (I just love alliterative names like Mr. Tejpal’s. Saying ‘Lucy Liu’ out loud still gives me shivers.) The victim wrote a letter to the magazine’s managing editor a little while later, demanding an apology from Tejpal. Subsequently, Tejpal acknowledged his “behavior” as a situation misread, but the magazine didn’t make the apology public. Later still, the journalist wrote a resignation letter detailing her experience and called out the magazine’s leadership for trying to cover up the incident. She posted her letter online, and the rest, as they say, is history.
It is historic, actually. Since the awful gang-rape-and-killing of a young woman on a Delhi bus last year, the toleration of crimes against women in India has seen a sharp decline. The brutality of that particular crime, and so many similar ones since then, was nauseating. The resulting public outrage singled out a very old and deep-rooted crisis in desi society. Since then, more and more Indians have been forced to acknowledge and address what remains an insidious cultural practice in south Asia: sexual harassment.
[quote]I just love alliterative names like Mr. Tejpal’s. Saying ‘Lucy Liu’ out loud still gives me shivers[/quote]
Some of the Indian media’s coverage of Tejpal has portrayed him as a loveable letch, that “harmless” pervy uncle who will hit on just about anyone because that, you know, is what geniuses do. Such a man – so the thinking goes – is to be laughingly admonished, ignored or silently endured.
That’s bull****, of course. Sexual assault is not the natural outcome of a potent personality, nor is it something that should be tolerated with an “Aww, look at the old letch!” kind of attitude. It is, in most cases, a deep violation of a civic contract – an attack, perhaps of the worst kind. That this particular instance of sexual assault pertains to the management of a magazine that routinely writes about feminism makes it so much more upsetting. And that silly common impulse, the one to blame the victim and suggest that she had it coming (eww), is unworthy of anyone with a brain cell.
Watching the electric response to all this in the Indian media, however, filled me with admiration and a wearied enviousness. The reason India is waking up and shouting about this very real crisis is because it has a massive educated middle class that is sending its wives and daughters into the workforce and wants, no, needs them to be safe. Kudos, I say. Because you know as well as I do that Pakistan wouldn’t have had a fraction of that response had something similar happened here. (I mean, the first person to comment on the issue would probably be Munawar Hassan of the Jamaat-i-Islami…) Taming sexual predators is less of a priority for us, it seems, than being able to live at all.
One of the projects I worked on during my stint at Amnesty International was Vawa, the Violence Against Women Act. It was a piece of American legislation that the activists were hoping would become a template for a UN resolution that dramatically increased the rights of women everywhere, especially when it came to their right to safety, choice and justice. You’d think that the US wouldn’t have had trouble passing such a law, but it did. Repeated trips to Capitol Hill and several meetings with senators did little to push the bill through. It took, literally, years. “Who would be against women?” I thought. “That’s just crazy.” It’s like being against the sun, or chocolate. It was an indicator that people didn’t think violence against women an urgent enough issue compared to, say, drilling rights or election campaign finances. It’s easier in places where women have more freedom, places where they can afford to momentarily forget that it is the most important battle in the world. I think it’s perhaps the most important battle in Pakistan. (And Saudi Arabia, and Iran, and Bahrain, and Yemen, and Afghanistan and…)
Every Pakistani girl or woman I know, every single one, has been harassed, pinched, fondled or impinged upon at one time or another. This society looks at women differently, as if they were aliens or sex dolls. As a tall man, I am stared at with fascination, and maybe even with curiosity. When I am with my women friends, the looks they get are of ownership, desire and something very sinister. Fact is, you probably know women and girls that have been abused. If you think you don’t, that’s likely because they haven’t told you. (And that’s likely because you’re a man.) This is true of every class of Pakistanis. Almost none of the victims will have gone public, and almost none ever will because, at the end of it all, our society and state and theology will side with the attacker.
My pet theory for why this is true is that we think segregation is a good thing to protect against spontaneous fornication. As a country with one of the highest birthrates in the world, this is patently untrue. All the practice does is produce generations of men who have no idea how to socialize with women because they don’t and can’t think of them as equals. Few are exposed to any female archetypes outside of their mothers (most divorcees will tell you grown men with mommy issues is the leading cause of breakups here) and that does nothing to help form a healthy relationship with women.
One of the ways the cruel maintain their power over their victims is by denying them education. Do that, and you make sure they continue to rely on their oppressors. Pakistan is a prime battleground, and Malala is our Joan of Arc. The TTP are against women’s education not because of scripture (and if you really think God wants your daughter to be buried alive, married off at 13, or never given a book, then you have a special, cozy place in hell) but because if they did educate them, women would be powerful. If they educated them, they would be able to fight back, like so many Indian women are doing now.
Here’s hoping we’ll catch up.
Write to firstname.lastname@example.org and follow @fkantawala on twitter