Musharraf in New York

The News, September 23, 2005
Misspoken words, unintended consequences
Reality Check
Shafqat Mahmood
The writer is a former member parliament and a Lahore-based freelance columnist

By making insensitive remarks on the issue of rape, General Musharraf finds himself under a withering barrage of criticism. If the first faux pas was not bad enough, he has compounded it by accusing the Washington Post of misquoting him. The newspaper in reply has not only produced a verbatim tape of his remarks, but has added choice bits not mentioned in the original story. These make him look even worse.

The General has been in power long enough to know that you don't throw words out carelessly. More than that, he should know by now that papers in the west are very careful in their attributions. A misquote or a wrong reference can cost millions of dollars. They record every interview not only for the convenience of accurate writing. It is also evidence in case the contents of the story or the quotes are challenged. Contradicting these papers on facts is a risky venture, as the General must have realised by now.

Another aspect of this sorry saga -- and one that has surprised me no end- is the altercation he got into at a Pakistani women's meeting. I have serious issues with General Musharraf on many matters but one must concede he can be pleasant and charming. This is particularly true while addressing women groups because he is something of a bon vivant and nothing wrong with that. For him to lose his cool in such a manner and that too with a woman is indeed disturbing. It is ironic that the General should get into such hot waters over women's issues. There is little doubt that his government has been very sympathetic to women. Among other steps, it is during his tenure that they have been given such a high degree of representation in elected bodies. Thirty-three percent membership is affirmative action at its most affirmative and I doubt if there is any country in the world with such a bold quota of representation for women.

The induction of women at the local level in such large numbers is nothing short of revolutionary. Coming from a village myself and knowing exactly the status of women in our rural communities is, I know how daring this step is. It will probably have a greater long term impact on the position of women than any other step taken in the past for women's welfare.

One must give credit where it is due and it is due to General Musharraf on political representation of women. I genuinely believe that military dictatorship masquerading as a parliamentary form of government is not what we need. I also believe that the General has seriously eroded the foundations of a true democracy in our country and long would we rue his actions. But, if we are talking of his attitude towards women, he comes out looking good.

Besides the pro women policies as head of government, the General is a modern man in his personal life. He does not lock his wife behind closed doors, in fact she has a fairly high profile. And, if my information is true, his daughter is not only educated but a professional. This puts him in the category of enlightened and progressive people in a country where attitudes towards women can be still be very primitive. I have always felt that the true test of anyone's liberalism is the way a person deals with his wife and daughters. On this criterion, the General clearly emerges as an enlightened and liberal man.

So why does a man who both in his policies and personal life is progressive and liberal find himself in such hot waters over women's issues. The answer to this lies in our peculiar culture of power of which sycophancy is a hallmark. When trouble hits the airwaves, the first reaction of the rulers and those around them is not to recognise reality for what it is but to find someone to blame for its notoriety. In other words, evil hidden behind walls of obscurity is acceptable. Its becoming prominent is blamed on some deep rooted conspiracy.

Thus, thinking on the issue of known rapes would unfold in this manner. Mukhtaran Mai may or may not have been raped but it becoming an international story is bad for Pakistan and its leader. Someone is doing this deliberately for ulterior motives such as making money or wanting a foreign visa or both.

Dr Shazia was probably not raped as she is blaming an army officer and inquiries conducted by other army officers says it is not true. We have also found out that she is a loose woman. Her motive in making a big brouhaha is money and a Canadian visa. People who hate the army are of course helping her and prominent among these are the NGOs.

Sonia Naz is another loose woman who was deliberately put up to whatever she is doing as part of police infighting in Faisalabad. She is also out to make money and cash in on the trend of rape victims going abroad. The press is not only irresponsible by playing this up but is probably mixed up in the conspiracy and will take a part of the loot that will flow from abroad.

The next step in this line of thinking is to find scapegoats and here the sycophants become even more active. These raped women, they would say, are not the only ones to blame. It is these dastardly NGOs with a motive to gain cheap publicity and easy money that are guiding these unsophisticated women to defame the country. They are all linked to foreign enemies of Pakistan and of the armed forces of Pakistan and of General Musharraf himself.

The line that "people say getting raped is a money making concern" has to come from this inner circle and its sycophantic take on stories of rape. This must have been said so often that it became the accepted framework in the corridors of power. Instead of seeing rapes as a problem and doing something about it, the game shifted to blame the victims and those trying to help them.

It is in this scenario that a person like General Musharraf, who has probably done more for women than any previous Pakistani ruler, finds himself giving offensive explanations for rapes to foreign newspapers. The fault is not in our stars but the atmosphere that we create around us. General Musharraf in this case is not guilty of disrespect to women but of living in a rarefied atmosphere of alternate reality. This makes him say things that he upon reflection would never touch.

I hope that good sense will now prevail and no witch hunt of NGOs will be launched. This would amount to compounding an error and would be massively counterproductive. The NGO movement in our country has been hardened by previous experiences of adversity and will put up a serious fight. Unlike political parties they have very few skeletons in their cupboard and will not be cowed down.

It would be best if the government recognises we have a serious problem of violence against women and takes practical steps to eliminate it. This would also be the best remedy against a negative image of the country. Rape takes place everywhere. It is what is done about it that matters.


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