Shame, guilt and child abuse (Dawn (Pakistan))

IT was news of the most grotesque kind. In villages around the city of Kasur in Punjab, a ring of paedophiles was busted upon the complaint of some aggrieved parents. There are reportedly hundreds of videos of children, by some accounts over 280 of them, forced to have sexual relations. Some arrests have been made, with news reports quoting villagers as saying that the criminals had blackmailed their victims as a means of continuing their exploitation, counting on coercion and fear to ensure compliance. In a society that lacks the tools to grapple with such problems, ensnaring the weakest and more vulnerable could not have been very difficult.

As the news spreads, there is outrage. The moral depravity of the case is making people cringe and shudder, weep for the children, rage against the monsters who precipitated such terror. Recently, villagers from Husain Khanwala village and others nearby clashed with the police for their alleged failure to nab all the perpetrators. The official response was, per the script of political agendas, varied. The chief minister of Punjab, Shahbaz Sharif, ordered a probe. Law minister Rana Sanaullah told reporters that a high-level inquiry into the matter had concluded that no instance of child sex abuse had occurred, adding that reports to this effect surfaced after two parties involved in a land dispute registered fake cases against each other. The events occurred over eight years ago, he said, and the perpetrators apprehended.

Half-truths and subterfuge are a mainstay of politics in Pakistan, the murky halos they attach to truths obscuring clarity in all sorts of instances. The same mechanisms seem to be operating here. The presence of the most incontrovertible sort of evidence has still not prevented those who would deny rather than face an ugly and caustic truth. Indeed, this technique of denying what is most reprehensible is not in this case simply the consequence of run-of-the-mill political intrigue. Instead, in Pakistani society, it represents the consequence of an unfortunate coalition between the morally good as the publicly visible. The pious man is the one who is seen praying five times at a mosque; the virtuous woman is one who commits herself to the domesticity imposed by orthodoxy. The good businessman is the one seen handing out alms to the hapless; a venerable leader is one who builds mosques and amasses piles of holy pilgrimages. All of it says that you are good when you are seen to be good.

Pakistani society lacks the moral vocabulary to talk about the issue of child sexual abuse.

The unseen has no moral cost in Pakistan, and the abusers of children the deviant consumers of filth can take advantage of that. When moral regulation is allotted to the state or the tribe or the family, then what is unknown to them does not in practical terms count as a crime or a sin. The loophole in between, one that suggests that the real is only the one that is publicly acknowledged and openly seen, is one that becomes the basis for devious rationalisations. If no one knows that a paedophile exploits children, forces them to commit the vilest acts and then blackmails them into silence, then, morally speaking, the act does not exist. In a society that operates on shame, the individual conscience becomes weak from disuse. The recipe of being a good person becomes not one that does good acts but one whose bad acts are not found out, are covered up by visible acts of piety and virtue. Not everyone in Pakistan has lost the capacity to feel guilt but many fear only shame and are geared singularly toward avoiding being found out rather than actually being good.

Pakistan’s devolution into a guilt-free society, where only shame matters, is easily visible: public displays of piety dominate holy months and punctuate celebrations. Immorality, secret and invisible, is hence invested with unreality. The profusion and proliferation of virtual worlds, which better connect exploiters with consumers, have become adept at making money from this. Child pornography feasts on these dynamics, festers in the unseen cracks and crevices of a world consumed only with appearances.

The existence of such demons within Pakistani society is not novel; hardly a week passes without numerous reports of children, on occasion even babies, being sexually assaulted. Pakistani society does not simply lack the criminal investigation capabilities to apprehend and punish the perpetrators, or the psychological services to rehabilitate the victims; it lacks the moral vocabulary to talk about the issue, to render the unseen as reprehensible. The children, those hundreds of victims, have no safe space to go, no instance where they would not face the cruelty of being called complicit in their victimisation. Their treatment ensures that others and there are surely thousands of others whose exploitation takes place behind closed doors, in the midst of nights, by abusers who are known and unknown but always cruel will never once raise their voice.

Child sexual abuse is a worldwide reality. The Catholic Church has long been plagued by scandals about priests abusing the children of their parishioners. Similarly, countries like Thailand, Cambodia and others are plagued with sex tourists who come for the explicit purpose of exploiting children. The unique dimension of Pakistan’s problem is the lack of a moral vocabulary to even admit that such a problem exists. As with the Kasur case, exposition of the depravity that lurks in small villages, that is sold and disseminated in markets and on websites, requires not victim-blaming and obfuscation but an embrace of the victims and a commitment to saving others. That, however, would require going beyond shame, and embracing the guilt of belonging to a society where the most innocent are subjected to such terror and cruelty.