Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf's offhand remark about women and rape, made in an interview in New York last week, was apparently intended to polish his country's image. Instead, it has ignited a firestorm of outrage at home and abroad and undermined his efforts to publicize his new governing principle of "enlightened moderation."
In an interview with the Washington Post, Musharraf suggested that Pakistani women were making false or exaggerated claims of rape as a way of procuring financial support and visas from foreigners.
"You must understand the environment in Pakistan," he was quoted as saying. "This has become a moneymaking concern. A lot of people say, `If you want to go abroad and get a visa for Canada or citizenship and be a millionaire, get yourself raped."'
In response to the ensuing outcry, he first said he was merely summarizing the sentiments of some of his compatriots, and not necessarily expressing his own opinion. Then he denied making the remark at all. The Washington Post followed with a statement standing by its article.
Musharraf's comments reflected the frustration in the government over two prominent rape cases, which have deflected attention from things like a booming economy or Pakistan's role in the fight against Islamic militants, which the government would prefer to emphasize.
The first concerned Mukhtar Mai, a woman from a small town in Punjab Province who said she was raped at the orders of a village jury in 2002. The men accused in the case have been released on bail and arrested several times, and her legal battle continues in the Supreme Court.
Then there was the reported rape of Shazia Khalid, a physician attacked inside a government hospital quarters in Baluchistan Province early this year. The rapist has not been arrested, and Khalid says she received threats that forced her to leave Pakistan.
The government has been at loggerheads with human rights groups ever since. Mukhtar, who has continued to press for her attackers to be punished, has become an international celebrity. Khalid has moved to Britain.
"The entire justice system has failed," said Farzana Bari, a human rights activist in Islamabad. "Suddenly such cases have exposed the nature of the state."
Musharraf sought to impose travel restrictions on Mukhtar earlier this year.
"She was told not to go," he said at the time. "I don't want to project the bad image of Pakistan."
The travel restrictions were lifted in June under pressure from Washington.
A government-sponsored conference on "violence against women" this month ended in controversy when the general criticized nongovernmental organizations for maligning Pakistan and emphasized that Pakistan should not be singled out for its record on violence against women, saying it is a global problem.
"He says he is a moderate, but he has become a patriarch," Bari said. "How is he different from a typical Pakistani male who wants to break the legs of a woman if she talks about domestic violence outside her house?"
Advocates for rape victims note that the recalcitrance of law enforcement officials sometimes stems from their own involvement in rape. In one high-profile case, Sonia Naz, 23, alleged that a senior police official had raped her in Faisalabad; she had been arrested four months earlier for entering the parliament building without permission.