When no one listens, where does public outrage go?

When no one listens, where does public outrage go?

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Last week, a new idea was brewing in Pakistan’s Immigration and Passports Office: divorced women must include their former husband’s names on their passports. This appears to have become the only proof of paternity for the children of that unsuccessful marriage. Marriages end for lots of reasons. Some are ugly, some uglier still. But it’s safe to assume that if the relationship is over, all associations – legal, or otherwise – are slowly removed from a shared life. 

Men have no such legal compulsion to place their ex-wives’ names on their passports. There is no mention of any woman on any of their identity documents.

Naturally, there is outrage. Rarely does it change things.

I was told that outrage isn’t enough. That it needed to drive purpose, not become it.

- Rimmel Mohydin

If it did, there wouldn’t be daily reports of gender-based violence. Not after the horrifying rape of a woman in front of her two young children on the National Highway in September 2020. Or the brutal killing of Noor Mukaddam in July 2021. Or the bludgeoning of Sara Inam by her husband in September 2022. Or the sexual assault of a 20-year-old woman in a park in Islamabad in February 2023. If all our collective, burgeoning and righteous anger could do nothing to save these women, then where does all our outrage go?

Anger is always a reaction. It is not an emotion that exists on its own. It requires a stimulus, a lit match, a room slowly filling up with gas, with no ventilation. When we constantly bear witness to suffering and injustice, the only moral response is anger. At the wrongness of it. The unfairness. It is worsened by the powerlessness that accompanies this feeling. There is always an unwelcome reminder that cuts through how fragile normalcy is, and how weak our grip over it is.

Perhaps that is why we look for comfort in the collective. Why we make placards, why we become activists, and why we find strength in numbers. Evidently, power structures around the world are failing us, and failing us some more. Since October 7, the number of people calling for an end to Israel’s gratuitous atrocities dwarfs those that somehow, still defend them. The streets of major and minor cities on every continent have thronged with pro-Palestinian protesters every week. The message is clear and loud: make the calls, write the orders, do whatever it takes to stop the violence. This is not to say that the anger is not making a dent, but tangibly, there has been no end to the starving, the bombing, the killing, and erasure of Palestinians. In Rafah, bodies of Palestinian beheaded babies have been unearthed from the rubble. 

When I started working in human rights, I was told that outrage isn’t enough. That it needed to drive purpose, not become it. There is wisdom to that, especially if one is in the business of making change. And there is an online outrage machinery that is unproductive, thrives off hot take downs and keeps impossible standards from the wrong idols. And sadly, the consequences that stem from a so-called “cancel culture” are ephemeral, lasting for as long as public memory is short. It reinforces that we, the outraged people online, never had real power anyway.

One could be forgiven to think our cries fall on deaf ears, but it’s mostly a case of selective hearing. The state does respond to public anger, every now and then. When hard-line parties express their rage over cases of unproven blasphemy, they find a willing audience. The leadership rushes to prove their allegiance, placating them with affirmations of their own faith first – never mind the victims. 

In August last year, the Senate of Pakistan passed a bill to tighten the country’s blasphemy laws by increasing the punishment from three years of imprisonment to at least 10. Eight days later, 19 churches and 86 homes were destroyed in Jaranwala, after a mob torched predominantly Christian neighborhoods over a rumor. And just this weekend, hundreds attempted to lynch yet another Christian man in Sargodha. 

There would have been more anger if the bill had been revoked.

Why does their rage carry more weight than ours? The answer is simple: the power it wields is not the kind that listens to protest. It draws its strength from the consequences it promises if it isn’t heeded. It is compelling, not because people see its purpose, but because of its ability to inflict violence, destruction and even death. The message from our leadership, when they listen to them and not us, is clear: not all furies are created equal. 

I often wonder how our deadened nerves can still feel rage. And I am reminded, that rage is the necessary first stage of grief. When there is so much to mourn, there is comfort in knowing that the outrage will never be enough.

Rimmel Mohydin is a human rights and public advocacy expert. She tweets @Rimmel_Mohydin

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