ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — An outcry has erupted in Pakistan after Prime Minister Imran Khan blamed a rise in rape cases on how women dressed, remarks that activists denounced as perpetuating a culture of victim blaming.
Mr. Khan made the comments on a live television show this week when asked what the government was doing to curb an increase in sexual violence against women and children. Mr. Khan acknowledged the seriousness of the problem and pointed to the country’s strict laws against rape.
But, he said, women had to do their part.
“What is the concept of purdah?” he said, using a term that refers to the practice of seclusion, veiling or concealing dress for women in some South Asian communities. “It is to stop temptation. Not every man has willpower. If you keep on increasing vulgarity, it will have consequences.”
The uproar was swift.
The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, an independent group, demanded that Mr. Khan apologize for his remarks, which it called “unacceptable behavior on the part of a public leader.”
“Not only does this betray a baffling ignorance of where, why, and how rape occurs, but it also lays the blame on rape survivors,” the group said.
Seeking to tamp down the anger, Mr. Khan’s office issued a statement on Wednesday saying that the prime minister’s remarks had been misrepresented.
“The prime minister spoke about the societal responses and the need to put our efforts together to eliminate the menace of rape completely,” the office said in the statement. “Unfortunately, part of his comment, consciously or unconsciously, has been distorted to mean something that he never intended.”
Mr. Khan’s government has faced immense pressure to speed up justice for rape survivors after a series of assaults sparked demands for the death penalty to be applied to such cases. In December, the government passed a measure that said men convicted of rape could be sentenced to chemical castration.
There are few reliable statistics on rape in Pakistan, but rights activists say it is a severely underreported crime, in part because victims are often treated as criminals or blamed for the assaults. Thousands of protesters took to the streets last year after a top police official in the eastern city of Lahore said that a woman who was raped on a deserted highway was partly to blame for the attack.
To critics, Mr. Khan’s comments this week reinforced misogynistic attitudes that made the problem worse for women.
“Victim blaming and policing women’s clothing choices both perpetuate rape culture,” said Laaleen Sukhera, a Lahore-based author and public relations consultant.
“Everyone and everything seems to be blamed except the actual perpetrators,” she said.
Even Mr. Khan’s first wife, Jemima Goldsmith, a British heiress, weighed in on Twitter. “The problem is not how women dress!” she wrote in one post. In another, she said that she hoped that Mr. Khan had been misquoted because the man she knew had different opinions.
Before he became prime minister, Mr. Khan was a cricket star and A-list celebrity who cut a glamorous figure and was known as a ladies’ man. He married Ms. Goldsmith in 1995, and they divorced in 2004. But he became increasingly conservative in the mid-1990s after he entered politics, and has been accused of being overly sympathetic to the Taliban in recent years.
To women’s rights activists, Mr. Khan’s comments this week were only the latest example of the challenge they face in finding support for their causes in the deeply conservative society. Organizers of women’s rights marches on International Women’s Day last month have said they have been accused of “vulgarity” for seeking equal rights.
“It’s already tremendously challenging for women of all ages in public spaces in Pakistan, whether on the streets or at work or in the digital space, even in their own homes,” said Ms. Sukhera, the author in Lahore. “Regressive preaching prevents women from reclaiming what’s rightfully theirs, and must be addressed.”