ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – A protest broke out in Pakistan after Prime Minister Imran Khan attributed an increase in rape cases to the way women dressed, comments that activists denounced as perpetuating a culture of blaming victims.
Khan made the remarks on a live television program earlier this week, when asked what the government was doing to stem the increase in sexual violence against women and children. Mr. Khan acknowledged the seriousness of the problem and pointed to the country’s strict laws against rape.
But, he said, women have to do their part.
“What is the concept of purdah?” he said, using a term that refers to the practice of seclusion, wearing a veil or hiding clothing for women in some communities in South Asia. “It is to stop the temptation. Not every man has the willpower. If you continue to increase vulgarity, it will have consequences. “
The uproar was quick.
The Pakistan Human Rights Commission, an independent group, demanded that Khan apologize for his comments, which he called “unacceptable behavior on the part of a public leader”.
“This not only reveals a disconcerting ignorance of where, why and how the rape occurs, but it also blames the rape survivors,” the group said.
Seeking to contain the anger, Khan’s office released a statement on Wednesday saying the prime minister’s statements had been misrepresented.
“The prime minister spoke about society’s responses and the need to join our efforts to completely eliminate the threat of rape,” the office said in the statement. “Unfortunately, part of his comment, consciously or unconsciously, has been distorted to mean something he never intended.”
Khan’s government has faced immense pressure to speed up justice for rape survivors after a series of assaults sparked demands for the death penalty to be applied to these cases. In December, the government passed a measure that said men convicted of rape could be sentenced to chemical castration.
There are few reliable statistics on rape in Pakistan, but human rights activists say it is a seriously underreported crime, in part because the victims are often treated as criminals or guilty of the attacks. Thousands of protesters took to the streets last year after a Lahore police officer said a woman who was raped on a deserted highway was partly to blame for the attack.
For critics, Khan’s comments this week reinforced misogynistic attitudes that made the problem worse for women.
“Blaming the victim and policing women’s clothing choices perpetuate the culture of rape,” said Laaleen Sukhera, author and public relations consultant in Lahore.
“Everyone and everything seems to be guilty, except the real perpetrators,” she said.
Even Khan’s first wife, Jemima Goldsmith, a wealthy British heiress, opined on Twitter. “The problem is not how women dress! ”She wrote in a post. In another, she said she hoped Mr. Khan had been misquoted because the man she knew had different opinions.
Before becoming prime minister, Khan was a cricket star and first-rate celebrity who was a glamorous figure and was known as a man of women. He married Mrs. Goldsmith in 1995 and they divorced in 2004. But he became increasingly conservative in the mid-1990s, after he entered politics, and has been accused of being overly sympathetic to the Taliban in recent years. years old.
For women’s rights activists, Khan’s comments this week were just the latest example of the challenge they face to find support for their causes in a deeply conservative society. Organizers of the women’s rights marches on International Women’s Day last month said they were accused of “vulgarity” for seeking equal rights.
“It is already tremendously challenging for women of all ages in public spaces in Pakistan, whether on the streets, at work or in the digital space, even in their own homes,” said Sukhera, an author in Lahore. “Regressive preaching prevents women from claiming what is rightfully theirs and must be dealt with.”