Some years ago, I found myself in a dental office run by an amiable dentist and his wife who was also the hygienist. A popular television magazine show had recently run a segment on dowry deaths in India. As they prepped their instruments, the two began their round of small talk and eventually reached the topic of bride burning. Discovering that I was originally from the subcontinent, and despite my reassurances that I wasn’t about to suffer the same fate, the woman implored me, “Don’t go back!”
I felt the need to formulate a quick and pithy response that exposed both her cultural assumptions about me and her place in a US-based culture that is no less hostile to women. But I was temporarily powerless, tilted backwards in a cushioned chair with my mouth pried open, staring up at two people who held gleaming, cold metal instruments in their hands, instruments with pointy whirring bits attached to them.
I quickly lost sight of all the erotic possibilities and, instead, my mind flashed back to the dental torture scene in the film Marathon Man. The two faces seemed faintly foreboding, and I decided that the safest thing to do was gurgle quietly, ‘Don’t worry, I won’t!”
Afterwards, I wished I had convinced the hygienist that I was the educated sort of Indian, the kind who refused to marry, leave alone be burnt by in-laws. As a conservative Midwesterner, she could only understand me as a product of my culture, bound by inescapable traditions. So I positioned her as the opposite of me, as someone who lacked an awareness of the subtleties and nuances of life in contemporary India.
But more recently, I’ve come to see that the two of us in fact were linked in a variation of what Mahmood Mamdani has termed the “good Muslim/bad Muslim” syndrome. Post-9/11, the media is obsessed with spurious distinctions between two kinds of Islam. “Good” Islam allows its followers to demonstrate an aptitude for Western civilization. “Bad” Islam imposes a destiny of fundamentalism upon its adherents, leading to terrorism and the oppression of women.
The case of Mukhtaran Bibi, and its reception in the US, clearly demonstrates the logic of “good Muslim/bad Muslim” at work in complicated ways. On June 22, 2002 Mukhtaran Bibi, a woman from the lower-caste Gujar tribe living in Meerwala, Pakistan, was raped by four men. The village tribunal, or panchayat, charged that her 11-year-old brother brought dishonour to the upper-caste Mastois when he became sexually involved with one of their women. In fact, the boy had been raped by a group of Mastois who invented the story of his dalliance when he threatened to expose them. The panchayat decreed that the only suitable punishment was the rape of the child’s sister. The men, including a panchayat senior, dragged a crying Mukhtaran Bibi to one of their houses and gang-raped her.
Subsequently, a local Imam discussed the incident at his weekly sermon, and journalists and human rights activists eventually brought international attention to the case. Bibi testified against her attackers and at least 12 men, including her four rapists and onlookers, were arrested. The Pakistani government, in a bid to save face, sent Bibi a check for $8,300 and promised that her village would get a paved road, electricity, a police outpost, and a school in her name.
Bibi’s story unfolded on the US media landscape in two versions. In the first, she is a nameless product of a “culture of rape,” a victim of “bad” Islam. Photographs from this version show her covering her face with the edge of her shawl. The second version emphasizes that Bibi is a singular woman and an agent of free will, freeing herself into “good” Islam via the Western appropriation of her story. Here, she is a brave heroine who brought her rapists to justice, defying social norms and threats to her own life. Accompanying a story in March 2005 about a High Court overturning the convictions of the rapists is a photograph of Bibi with her head bowed but uncovered, tears streaming down her face. Earlier stories were careful to point out the role of the Imam and the journalists and lawyers who took up the case, but by now those details are excluded in favour of a story about Bibi’s personal determination to pursue justice.
How do these two versions of Bibi’s case duplicate the notion of two versions of Islam, the fundamentalist and the progressive? What makes this case of a gang rape so fascinating post 9/11 and what does its reception tell us about our consciousness about gender, culture, and history?
Given the recent coverage of the mass rapes in Darfur, it’s easy to forget that gang rape of women within the US has been almost unheard of since the late 1980s. The 1988 film The Accused, starring Jodie Foster, was among the last cultural texts to focus on the issue. In 1989, the case of the Central Park jogger with its accompanying and since widely disproved myths about “wilding” (groups of mostly black young men supposedly setting out to rape white women) exploded on the national scene. But since then, rape in the US has been represented as a more privatized event.
Rape is now part of a larger system of recovery, therapy, and healing – all of which are private functions even under the auspices of medical institutions. And the cultural anxiety around the rape of women has been displaced by an anxiety about the rape of children, especially evident in the hysteria around child abuse cases in the late 1980s and onwards.
In 1993, the War Crimes Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia codified rape as a “crime against humanity.” Since then mass rapes in Bosnia, Somalia, and the issue of Korean “comfort women” have focused attention on rape as an instrument of war and political torture. Against this backdrop, gang rape is an event that happens “elsewhere,” in war-torn regions and presumably less civilized parts of the world. It’s easy to forget that the rescue of these women is also a way to exercise domination.
This was never clearer than in November 2001, when Laura Bush addressed the nation from the White House arguing that the liberation of Afghani women was a central reason for US military actions. As she put it, “Only the terrorists and the Taliban forbid education to women. Only the terrorists and the Taliban threaten to pull out women’s fingernails for wearing nail polish.” Bush’s wilful amnesia about history made it possible to forget the social and political contexts of brutality against women. Her rationale for invasion ignored the fact that the Taliban were put in place by the US.
The gang-rape of Mukhtaran Bibi did not incite an invasion of Pakistan, but it does allow for a logic of “bad” Islam to enter into a discussion of Muslim women that is bound to effect how the US sees its place in the world. Nicholas Kristoff wrote about Bibi in 2004: “I firmly believe that the central moral challenge of this century, equivalent to the struggles against slavery in the 19th century or against totalitarianism in the 20th, will be to address sex inequality in the third world – and it’s the stories of women like Ms. Mukhtaran that convince me this is so.” Presented with this smug, neo-colonialist forgetfulness and recasting of history, it’s particularly difficult to take a leftist or progressive position on an incident like Bibi’s rape. After all, here it’s the US that actually seems to make links between gender inequality and politics. But Kristoff and others also perpetuate the notion that women are to be saved from “bad” Islam and “bad” culture.
None of this is to assert that Bibi’s story is less valid, or that she is any less brave for coming out against her rapists. The case of Mukhtaran Bibi proves that gender is still at the heart of the central issues facing the 21st century – poverty, war, social inequality. Yet, the rush to denounce this rape as a symptom of the oppression of Muslim women has meant that the media ignores the issue of Muslim men except in equally reductive and pathologising terms. Over and over again, history is forgotten in favor of narratives about “cultural difference.” Even the most progressive readings of the Abu Ghraib photographs fall back on the supposition that the images were especially degrading to Muslim men who, because of religious beliefs, are mortified by even the appearance of homosexuality. But the average straight American man is no more likely to be comfortable with the perception of gayness; “gay panic” is still used as a defence in US court cases involving homosexuality.
What might we do with Bibi’s story? It’s hard not to feel horror and revulsion at the details of her case. But it’s imperative, especially in a post 9/11 world, to remember that such stories are filtered through the logic of “culture and civilization.” Ultimately, it’s important to be much less comfortable about “our” culture, and to remember our own ongoing histories of domination.