The recent release of a video showing the flogging of a girl by the Taliban in Pakistan has created a stir across the web. Various articles have been published about it, both on mainstream news sites and blogs. The reason for the whipping remains unclear: media outlets report intercourse before marriage, rejection of a marriage proposal, and going outside without a male escort as the possible reasons for the flogging. Whatever the Taliban’s reasoning for the flogging, the video itself presents a host of issues and concerns, not only for the government of Pakistan (which has to deal with the consequences of a recent deal with the Taliban in the Swat region) but for women in the region, especially in regard to how to organize grassroots movements.
The video itself was leaked to news outlets by women’s rights activist Samar Minallah. The obvious intent was to show women’s rights being violated by the Taliban and to possibly get the Pakistani government to rethink their recent agreement with the Taliban. However, I do wonder how effective this will be, especially for the women most affected by Taliban rule, the women in Swat region. The Taliban itself was not moved by the leak of video and defended the flogging saying that the only thing wrong was that the flogging was not done in private. This may put pressure on Pakistan’s government to rethink its agreement with the Taliban, but I still wonder how much leverage this video has. Surely, people in the government knew of the Taliban’s track record with women long before this video showed up on news channels and on the web. Women’s rights under the Taliban appeared not to be a pressing concern for Pakistan’s government then and I’m not sure it will become one now. Once this story is no longer a headline, will this incident simply become a minor embarrassment for Pakistan’s government? I hope that the leak of the video does effect change, but I also remain skeptical.
What was really disturbing about the video, even more than the flogging itself, was the spectator aspect of it. We see a group of men standing all around the woman, seemingly unaffected by her cries for mercy. They’re literally spectators to the whipping, making it seem like any other mundane public event instead of a violent beating. It shows how desensitized we have become to violence, especially violence against women. The flogging almost appears to be a form of entertainment for the spectators. The video was sent to many people, not just Samar Minallah. Did the recorder of the video shoot it to shame the Taliban or was the recorder sympathetic with the Taliban and hence saw nothing wrong with their actions? If the recorder was the former, then the motivation for recording the video seems to be obvious. However, if the recorder is the latter description, then why would he record the flogging? Was it part of the spectator aspect of witnessing the event?
We may never know. Still, the video makes us all spectators to this event and it allows people like me, who have never been in that region of the world, to become passive participants in the event. I know what took place in the video was horrid but at the same time, there is still the issue of how much I can relate to it. After watching the video, I could go back to my daily life, whether that meant cleaning the house or watching a movie. For a lot of people looking at the video on YouTube or on a site like The Guardian, I doubt the experience was very different from mine. They could watch in horror for the five minutes that the video takes place and they could form an even more horrible opinion of the Taliban, much like my mother did. But then what would come about after that?
This brings up the issue of what this video means, which relies a lot on who is watching the video. For women and human rights activists the world over and especially in Pakistan, this video is a brutal example and reminder of why they keep up the fight. For some people in Pakistan, this video is an embarrassment to their nation; to others, it is an example of how their country should be ruled. Most of all, it is an example of the personal pain that can be wrought on women under repressive rule.
But in all of the stories and talk about the video, there is little talk of the personal agony that was endured by the young woman in the video. Her pain and suffering is being used as rallying call for women’s rights, yet I doubt her permission was even sought for the release of the video. There is little known about her feelings and what this video means to her. That defines what this video means to me more than anything else. It is the public display of a violation of a woman who never asked to become the face of the brutality of the Taliban nor the face of how to “properly” execute a punishment under Shari’ah. It is the violation of her autonomy and dignity.