29 Jun Testing the Hypothesis of Sexual Repression in Pakistan
By Anjum Altaf
My response to Christopher Hitchens’ article in Vanity Fair was not well written because it got hijacked into areas that I did not intend to stress. In this post I will try and refocus the discussion on what I consider germane to the objectives of this blog, i.e., to examine a hypothesis critically in order to establish its validity.
The task therefore is to describe the hypotheses proffered by Hitchens and suggest how they may be fairly tested. As part of this exercise, I am not concerned with disputing or establishing the truth of facts; the emphasis is solely on the exercise of reasoning through the arguments assuming the facts to be true.
The central concern for Hitchens is the situation in Pakistan. This concern is well placed and thoroughly justified. The challenge that Hitchens assumes is to identify the most fundamental cause that explains this situation.
Hitchens starts with a fact: There are honor killings in Pakistan and women can be sentenced to be raped by tribal and religious kangaroo courts. Let us take this to be true leaving aside the issue of its incidence. Hitchens than offers a hypothesis: This phenomenon is the outcome of the crucial part played by sexual repression in the Islamic Republic. He draws support for this key hypothesis from Salman Rushdie’s “brilliant psycho-profile of Pakistan,” his 1983 novel Shame.
Hitchens then extends the consequences of this hypothesis: “If the most elemental of human instincts becomes warped in this bizarre manner, other morbid symptoms will disclose themselves as well.” This is immediately put to use to explain, for instance, the ‘unmanliness’ of President Asif Ali Zardari. Because Pakistan’s problems pre-date Zardari, I am guessing the latter serves as a stand-in for all past and present leaders of the country who “swell” their “puny chests” and indulge in “puffery and posing” as a direct consequence of sexual repression.
The more serious symptoms are that Pakistan has turned into a state that is “completely humorless, paranoid, insecure, eager to take offense, and suffering from self-righteousness, self-pity, and self-hatred.” As a consequence, this “degraded country,” “our goddam lapdog” is also taking surreptitious revenge on us [the US] by providing a kennel for “attack dogs,” i.e., hiding Osama bin Laden and his deputies in Pakistan.
Let us accept all this to be true and ignore the rest of Hitchens’ article which does not have a bearing on the validity or otherwise of this hypothesis. My academic interest is to establish whether the occurrence of all these symptoms can be traced to the phenomenon of sexual repression in the Islamic republic. On what basis should the Hitchens hypothesis be accepted or rejected?
It is here that one needs to refer to India because, as was mentioned in one of the comments on my response to Hitchens, India and Pakistan provide the closest one can get to a natural experiment. India functions as the control group against which hypotheses about Pakistan can be tested. In addition, on the prevalence of honor killings, the key fact on which the Hitchens hypothesis rests, the countries that are mentioned most frequently in global forums are Pakistan, India and Bangladesh (see the report here that terms honor killings a sub-continental phenomenon. This report, if accurate, suggests further hypotheses because it locates most honor killings within India to North India with killings in the South and East being rare).
So, despite the fact that it serves as a distraction for many, India is in the discussion only because it best serves as a test for the validity of the Hitchens hypothesis.
The test proceeds as follows:
Do honor killings occur in India as well? If no, this does not serve as a good test.
If honor killings occur in India as well, are they due to sexual repression? If no, what are they due to?
If they are due to sexual repression, does the sexual repression result in other morbid symptoms in India as well? If not, why not?
If it does result in other morbid symptoms, what are they and how do they manifest themselves? Clearly India is far from a state that is “completely humorless, paranoid, insecure, eager to take offense, and suffering from self-righteousness, self-pity, and self-hatred.” Therefore, the symptoms must be manifesting themselves in some other way.
If honor killings do occur in India, are they confined overwhelmingly within the Indian Muslim community?
If yes, the Hitchens hypothesis that sexual repression is related to Islam is tentatively supported by the evidence. The next step would be to test if this relationship is peculiar to the sub-continental variant of Islam or whether it holds in general. One would then have to extend the testing to other Muslim countries like Turkey and Malaysia.
If no, the Hitchens hypothesis that sexual repression is related to Islam is seriously challenged and one has to seek an alternative explanation for the phenomenon of honor killings in Pakistan.
Has the incidence of honor killings in the areas now constituting Pakistan changed before and after the creation of the country?
If no, it weakens the hypothesis that honor killings are related to the Islamization of the country after 1947.
If yes, can a distinct point in time be identified at which the incidence of honor killings spiked? This would help develop a more finely-tuned hypothesis to explain the phenomenon of honor killings in Pakistan?
Readers have to think through this hypothesis-testing exercise individually and reach their own conclusions that can be discussed to advantage on the blog. I wrote my response to Hitchens because personally I was not convinced by the hypothesis although I do remain open to changing my opinion. I felt his article, as a factual denunciation of the double-dealing by Pakistani authorities, although saying nothing new, would have carried a lot more weight had it not ventured into this contested territory and tried to explain the facts via a defect in the psychology of an entire population. And he would have been helped in this if he had not conceptualized Pakistan as a unitary actor.
Opinions can and will no doubt differ on the issue. That is always the case in the evaluation of hypotheses and closure is often only provided by the passage of time. Of course, as one knows, the moving finger never does stop writing: The Germany of the 1870s was not the Germany of the 1940s and is not the Germany of today.
For a very different hypothesis about the cause of the monstrous contradictions within Pakistan, see The Double Game: The Unintended Consequences of American Funding in Pakistan. Note also the ephemeral verdicts of history: The article refers to India in the 1950s as a “byword for basket case.”