“Calls for castration and hanging as punishment for rape have been growing, but such draconian measures fail to tackle the root cause of gender-based violence….”By Zehra Khozema
16 Nov 2020
When I turned around to see what was pressing from behind in the food queue at a wedding in Karachi three years ago, I heard, “looks tasty”. Flustered and too scared to start a scene with a man twice my size, I decided to drink only Pepsi for dinner.
I thought a lot about what I wanted to happen to that man as payback, and none of it was pretty. So let me be the first to assert that the fury Pakistani women feel in the current climate is valid. What isn’t, is the country’s band-aid response.
Last month, Pakistanis swarmed with anger as details emerged of a woman who was dragged out of her broken-down car and gang-raped after being denied help by traffic police. Apathetic victim-blaming remarks by the city’s police chief after the fact further fuelled the fire.
But violence against women is not new in Pakistan – a country that ranked 164 out of 167 on the Women, Peace and Security 2019 Index, only above Syria, Afghanistan, and Yemen. Just days before this incident, a female journalist in Baluchistan became the victim of a so-called “honour killing”, and in a separate incident, a five-year-old girl’s sexually abused body was found in Karachi.
The common thread among this series of horrifying events is the consistently and woefully inadequate state response. Such inaction incited rallies demanding the government to provide justice and take immediate action to halt the treatment of women as second-class citizens. Many held posters and flooded social media with demands to castrate the men responsible. The common thread among this series of horrifying events is the consistently and woefully inadequate state response
Keen to appear proactive, Prime Minister Imran Khan’s office ordered that strict measures be taken to investigate the case and that protection of women be prioritised. “Such brutality and bestiality cannot be allowed in any civilised society,” the statement added.
Khan himself has even proposed the brutal measure of punishing rape offenders with public hanging or chemical castration, eliciting a polarised response among experts and the public.
Pakistani women’s rights group Aurat March which coined the phrase “mera jism, meri merzi” (my body, my choice), argues that execution is not a real solution. In addition to the cruelty of the death penalty, settling public anger via aggression is insufficient, they say, and covers up state complicity in creating conditions that allow such crimes to take place. Aurat March also state that public hanging paints perpetrators as monsters who are understood to be anomalies rather than products of the system.
Human rights activists, too, see the state’s response as the latest example of the government appealing to public anger. But as South Asia director at Human Rights Watch, Meenakshi Ganguly says, “Political leaders engage in a rhetoric of hangings or executions to appease public wrath over state failures, to ensure justice and protection in cases of sexual violence instead of actually doing the hard work and bringing reform.”
Given the moral and ethical implications of the death penalty, some see chemical or surgical castration as an alternative to deter rising levels of gender-based violence.
With that in mind, Khan’s government continues to work on the bill. The country’s national newspaper reported in late September that the prime minsiter’s Advisor on Parlimentary Affairs, Dr Baber Awan would introduce the law against sexual abuse of women and children in the next assmebly, but is yet to do so.
However, the Convention against Torture and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, both ratified by Pakistan, prohibit cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment in absolute terms.
History in the region also dictates that if and when tabled, the bill is unlikely to pass. In 2016, Indonesia tried to pass a similar law, but the country’s medical association announced that its members would not participate. Their main concerns were that the proposed punishment “violates the country’s medical ethics” while citing a lack of scientific evidence that castration prevents sexual desires.
India, too, considered the option of castration as a punishment for sex offenders in an even more charged atmosphere. In December 2012, after the horrifying gang rape and attack on a 23-year-old in Delhi, there were strident calls from the public to castrate rapists, and the Justice Verma Committee was introduced to review the laws to address this.
The final report categorically rejected both mandatory chemical and surgical castration on the grounds it is a violation of fundamental human rights, unconstitutional, and fails to address underlying causes of sexual assault. The report also said more research and consultation was needed to recommend voluntary chemical castration in India.
Public hanging paints perpetrators as monsters who are understood to be anomalies rather than products of the system
But there are still countries where this practice is law. In the US, four states have legalised voluntary castration. In the case of sex offender Larry Don McQuay who chose castration, some worried it was a way to get out of lengthy imprisonment. In such cases, the purpose of justice seems to be defeated as rapists can once again roam the streets, not necessarily making the world a safer place.
As intuitive as it may feel to want rapists to endure a version of the trauma they inflict on their victims, this type of retribution is ultimately ethically wrong, and it fails to tackle the root cause of gender-based violence: the idea that rape is still considered a viable means to express power and domination. It illustrates misogyny in its extreme sense and is a tool for humiliation.
Perhaps a more promising solution would be listening to experts and activists, and most importantly, believing survivors, so they are not made to feel like they’re “making a scene” when defending themselves or seeking justice.
A more ambitious yet lasting solution would be changing the way we raise our boys, though I doubt the Islamic Republic of Pakistan is quite there yet.
Zahra is a Pakistani-Canadian journalist currently based in London.