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July 5, 2005
Vol. 3, No. 11



Pat Morrison World's women will be free when they are free from sexual violence

Pat Morrison, NCR contributor

Warning: This column contains graphic descriptions of sexual violence.

When I lived in New York, I often visited a neighborhood diner where I'd gotten to know one of the waiters. In between servings, we'd often discuss the state of world affairs. My waiter was "Mo" (short for Mohammed). One day Mo invited me into the kitchen to meet his cousin, Fariba (a pseudonym), a recent arrival from their native Pakistan. As we neared the kitchen door, he paused and whispered, "She is… hurt. You will see. But very good, very good girl."

An attractive young woman in her 20s was in profile, chopping vegetables. Mo spoke to her in Urdu and she looked up smiling. As Fariba turned toward me, I saw the other side of her face and tried not to register the horror that swept over me. The entire left side of her face and her neck were almost eaten away; what was left was badly scarred, the reddened skin rippled and taut.

She seemed at ease with her horrific disfigurement. Her bright eyes smiled as, with Mo as interpreter, I told her how pleased I was to meet her and how happy I was she had come to America.

Back in the restaurant, Mo told me her story. At 15, Fariba had been raped by a neighbor. Her family confronted the man, demanding over her protests that he now marry her. He refused, calling the girl a liar. Under Islamic law (which requires four male witnesses to the crime), Fariba was considered guilty of illicit sex-which by a strange twist of logic she supposedly admitted by reporting the rape. Under Pakistan's hudood law, the minimal punishment for women who report rape is imprisonment. But depending on where she lived and the tribal culture, this young woman could have been killed -- or was expected to commit suicide -- for "dishonoring" her family.

Although she was now "unmarriageable," Fariba's family supported her. A few weeks after the rape, the man who assaulted her burst into the courtyard of her home where she was cooking. He doused her with acid -- a common "technique" used to permanently scar "unfaithful" women.

Had Fariba remained in her village, she was in danger of being killed by her attacker or neighborhood "morality vigilantes." Because she had cousins living in United States, Fariba was able to emigrate. She's one of the lucky few.

As you read this, thousands of women and girls are being bought and sold, raped, tortured, intentionally disfigured and murdered -- with impunity. Within the next 24 hours, a rape will be committed every two hours in Pakistan alone, and two women in that country will have been murdered in so-called "honor killings."

The victims range throughout the Middle East especially, but also in Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe. Even in the United States, women from these cultures are not protected from "honor killings," as homicide reports in metropolitan areas attest.

Rape is one of the most horrific crimes imaginable, the deepest violation of a person's body and spirit. From the beginning of recorded history to the present, almost every culture and society (including our own) have used sexual violation as a tool of domination, humiliation and even genocide:

  • In Eastern Europe in the 1990s, thousands of Bosnian Muslim and Christian Serb and Croat women and girls were raped by their respective enemies in a brutal campaign of ethnic cleansing.
  • Currently in the Darfur region of Sudan, Janjaweed militia, unhindered by the government, use gang rape as the weapon of choice to systematically terrorize black Sudanese. The intent is to drive them out of "Arab" territory. The attacks are almost demonic in their ferocity: Girls as young as six have been violated, their attackers using thorn branches, gun barrels, bayonets- anything that will effectively tear their victims' genitals to shreds. Numerous victims have died from the sheer brutality of the attacks, as well as from the infections, including HIV, that resulted.

In March, Doctors Without Borders issued a documented report that its medical personnel working in Darfur treated close to 500 rapes of women and girls in less than five months. The Sudanese government's response was to deny the report as "vicious lies" -- and to arrest and deport the organization's regional director and his colleague.

Currently, Pakistan is among the worst offenders in its treatment of rape victims. Women who dared to speak out and report rape have been humiliated, imprisoned, silenced, and even institutionalized.

  • Asma Jahangir, a U.N. staffer and lawyer (who, ironically, heads Pakistan's Human Rights Commission) was publicly stripped in "punishment" for condemning sexual crimes against women.
  • Shazia Khalid, a physician who was gang-raped in a government gas plant, reported her attack. Instead of receiving treatment, she was drugged unconscious to prevent her speaking out and committed to a psychiatric ward. She was placed under house arrest for "lying" and speaking ill of the state.
  • Perhaps the most well-known case is that of Mukhtaran Bibi. This Pakistani woman was actually sentenced by a tribal council to be gang raped in punishment for a crime supposedly committed by her brother! After four men raped her publicly, Mukhtaran was forced by council leaders to walk home naked before 300 taunting onlookers.

Mukhtaran was expected to commit suicide, but she fought back. With help from a local imam she publicly testified against her attackers and saw them convicted. This remarkable woman used her compensation money to start schools in her village, even enrolling the children of her attackers to show that she had forgiven them. She has become a fearless advocate for women, speaking out against rapes, acid attacks and honor killings.

This has been a gruesome, nauseating narrative of violence. But we must do more than feel horror. This month Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf visits President Bush, who plans to sell him F-16 fighter jets to protect his country. If we are sickened by the ongoing rape and mutilation of Pakistani women -- and their silencing -- a phone call to the White House and letters to your congressmen are in order, demanding that any military aid to Pakistan be given only in exchange for a firm commitment by Musharraf to end violence against Pakistani women and to repeal the hudood laws.

Similarly, concerned Americans will take action to urge the Bush administration to condemn the atrocities in Darfur. Negotiations with the Sudanese government must include demands for an immediate end to genocidal rape.

Americans just celebrated our Independence Day. It's time millions of the world's women finally obtain freedom from sexual violence.

(For indepth background on Darfur and also on the case of Mukhtaran Bibi in Pakistan, see Nicholas Kristof's reporting in The New York Times.)

Pat Morrison, former NCR managing editor, is editor of the St. Cloud Visitor. She is a recipient of Catholic Relief Services' Eileen Egan Award for reporting on the developing world, for her coverage of the Middle East.

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