Cover Story

A Futile War

A series of questions and doubts have been raised about
Cynthia Ritchie’s purported agenda. The response by feminists
and rights activists towards her claims is tepid.

By Taha Kehar | September 2020

The allegations of sexual misconduct levelled against senior Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) politicians by American blogger and filmmaker Cynthia Dawn Ritchie have been overshadowed by her perceived affiliation with the deep state. Inextricably linked to Ritchie’s image as a modern-day Mata Hari who is believed to have the establishment’s ear, these claims have polarized public opinion in the country.

Over the last few months, Ritchie’s allegations have been punctuated by intense political debates about the underlying friction between the ruling elite and opposition leaders. At this critical juncture, it is vital to take the issue at face value, depoliticize it and analyze it within the context of Pakistan’s Me-Too Movement. This is essential because Ritchie’s case stands out as an anomaly within the country’s social movement against sexual crimes and has elicited a negative reaction from the outset. Eliminating political biases may help us understand the impact of this case on the struggle against sexual misconduct.

On June 6, 2020, the American blogger released a video message on Facebook wherein she accused former interior minister Rehman Malik of raping her in 2011. In addition, Ritchie claimed that she was “physically manhandled” by erstwhile premier Yousuf Raza Gilani and ex-federal minister Makhdoom Shahabuddin.

At first glance, these allegations bore the same power and poignancy as the other claims that have surfaced in the country since 2017, and were fuelled by a seemingly sincere quest for justice. The reaction to Ritchie’s charges wasn’t entirely unexpected. The PPP leaders bluntly denied the American blogger’s claims and viewed them as a hostile response to the backlash against her for making scathing remarks against former PM Benazir Bhutto. As expected, a series of questions and doubts have been raised about the accuser’s purported agenda and ‘character’, which is nothing out of the ordinary in inherently patriarchal societies such as Pakistan’s. But the degree of skepticism shown by a few rights activists and feminists to Ritchie’s allegations has come as a surprising development. Many of them have either distanced themselves from the matter or categorically resorted to victim-blaming. This has raised concerns about the future direction and overall effectiveness of the country’s Me-Too Movement.

The tepid response shown towards Ritchie’s claims by feminists and rights activists marks a radical departure from the widespread notion that survivors of sexual crimes must be believed at all costs. At its core, the idea that the survivor’s testimony should be accepted is a mere political slogan that challenges age-old practices of discrediting claims of sexual violence. Though it cannot be construed as an alternative to the legal presumption of innocence, it reminds us that the accuser’s political affiliations and background as well as the timing of the allegations are immaterial to the discussion surrounding the incident.

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