ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – An uproar erupted in Pakistan after Prime Minister Imran Khan blamed an increase in rape cases on the way women dressed, comments activists have denounced as perpetuating a culture of blaming victims .
Mr Khan made the comments on a live television broadcast earlier this week when asked what the government is doing to curb 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 had to do their part.
“What is the concept of purdah?” he says, using a term that refers to the practice of isolating, veiling or concealing clothing for women in some South Asian communities. “It’s stopping the temptation. Not all people have a will. If you keep increasing vulgarity, it will have consequences.
The tumult was rapid.
The Pakistan Human Rights Commission, an independent group, has called on Khan to apologize for his remarks, which it describes as “unacceptable behavior by a public leader”.
“Not only does this betray a bewildering ignorance of where, why and how rape occurs, but it also puts the blame on rape survivors,” the group said.
Seeking to allay the anger, Mr Khan’s office released a statement on Wednesday saying the prime minister’s remarks had been distorted.
“The prime minister spoke about the society’s responses and the need to combine our efforts to completely eliminate the threat of rape,” the office said in the statement. “Unfortunately, part of his comment, consciously or unconsciously, was twisted to mean something he never wanted.”
Mr Khan’s government has faced immense pressure to speed justice for rape survivors after a series of assaults sparked demands for the death penalty to be applied to such cases. In December, the government passed a measure whereby 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 victims are often treated like criminals or accused of assault. Thousands of protesters took to the streets last year after a senior police official in the eastern city of Lahore said a woman who was raped on a deserted highway was partly responsible for the attack.
For critics, Mr Khan’s comments this week reinforced misogynistic attitudes that have compounded the problem of women.
“Blaming victims and upholding women’s clothing choices perpetuates the culture of rape,” said Laaleen Sukhera, author and public relations consultant based in Lahore.
“Everyone and everything seems to be to blame except the real perpetrators,” she said.
Even Mr Khan’s first wife, Jemima Goldsmith, a wealthy British heiress, has weighed in on Twitter. “The problem is not how women dress! She wrote in a message. In another, she said she hoped Mr. Khan had been misquoted because the man she knew had different opinions.
Prior to becoming Prime Minister, Mr Khan was a cricket star and top notch celebrity who cast a glamorous figure and was known as a ladies’ man. He married Ms Goldsmith in 1995 and they divorced in 2004. But he became increasingly conservative in the mid-1990s after entering politics and has been accused of being too sympathetic to the Taliban in recent years.
For women’s rights activists, Mr Khan’s comments this week were just the latest example of the challenge they face in finding support for their causes in deeply conservative society. Organizers of women’s rights marches on International Women’s Day last month said they were accused of “vulgarity” for demanding equal rights.
“It is already extremely difficult for women of all ages in public spaces in Pakistan, whether on the streets, at work or in the digital space, even at home,” said Ms. Sukhera, author of Lahore. “Regressive preaching prevents women from reclaiming what is rightfully theirs and must be fought.”