violence against women

Pakistan could take lessons from Indian civil society in dealing with crimes against women

Indian voters have transformed the politics around rape. Pakistanis should follow.

In June, the victim of a  gang-rape was killed and hung from a tree in the Layyah area of Pakistani Punjab. Muzammil Bibi, 20, had been attacked by three men in a field. Her case bore chilling resemblance to the fate of the two sisters who were killed and hung in Uttar Pradesh. Though the forensic investigation now suggests there was no sexual assault, the UP case sparked a number of protests in India. But the Pakistanis rape brought no public demonstrations.

Around the same time, another gang-rape victim, from Faisalabad, identified the three sons of a member of the National Assembly as her attackers. She withdrew her complaint swiftly.

Since the much-publicised New Delhi rape case of 2012, there has been persistent pressure from the Indian public for the authorities to tackle crimes against women. India and Pakistan share a common culture of male domination, corruption and a weak justice system. This is why there is the need for extra pressure to ensure justice in rape cases. While this push is being orchestrated by Indian civil society, this is not happening in Pakistan.

Hudood Ordinance

One of the cause of Pakistan’s national detachment from rape is the Hudood Ordinance, promulgated in 1979. The ordinance was an offshoot of General Zia’s Islamisation policy, which blurred the legal line between fornication, adultery and rape, placing the burden of proof on the victim. Four male witnesses with a “pious background” were required to establish a rape had occurred; otherwise the victim was booked for adultery.

In 2003-'04, according to the Human Rights and Legal Aid Team for Karachi Women’s Prison, 7,000 women and children were in jails ‒ 88% under the Hudood Ordinance.

The Hudood Ordinance was amended in 2006 and victims no longer require four Muslim, male witnesses to prove their case. But the ethos of the ordinance is now securely embedded into the popular culture.

Sanction by jirga courts

Many rapes are committed as acts of revenge, or are indeed served as punishment by jirga (unofficial courts) for alleged crimes committed by the girl’s family, just like the orders handed out by India's khaps. In these cases, the police and judiciary routinely turn a blind eye.

The jirga, like khap panchayats in India, is comprised of males. It imparts fast, cheap and local justice, often at the cost of women. NGOs like the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, War Against Rape, Lawyers for Human Rights and Legal Aid sometimes manage to report these crimes and help these rape victims – but they have been increasingly threatened, attacked and killed. Usually such organisations are perceived as a threat to the status quo and are seen as western proxies. Some try to involve local prominent males and seek government support. This can be useful, but often also limits their scope, because the police and judiciary usually share a traditional mindset and are hesitant of the NGOs.

After the act

Most rape victims in Pakistan’s rural and tribal areas are expected to commit suicide after their “honour” is compromised. In April and June, three gang-rape victims committed suicide in separate incidents. In south Punjab, a teenager committed suicide after a gang-rape in July and another one did in August.

The chief minister of Punjab, Shahbaz Sharif, brother of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, has recently started visiting some victims. He is careful to only visit children or the families of those victims that are dead. In Pakistan, politicians are never questioned for failing to curb sexual violence in their constituencies. In fact, some politicians actually beat up victims to gain recognition.

Some of the victims, like the first-year college student Amina Bibi, attempt self-immolation in desperation. In March, Amina  Bibi set herself on fire outside a police station near Muzaffargarh in Punjab to protest against the release of the person accused in her case. She later died. In mid-August, another one self-immolated along with her husband in Khushab (Punjab). On September, a 22-year-old alleged gang-rape victim died nine days after a self-immolation attempt in Dera Ghazi Khan, also Punjab.

In March, Punjab’s law minister declared Amina Bibi a liar. In 2010, a member of the National Assembly from Muzaffargarh threatened a high-profile rape victim also from his constituency to withdraw her case from the Supreme Court. The legislator, Jamshed Dasti, angry that Mai was ruining the reputation of his constituency, said that Mukhataran Mai had never been raped, though one of the accused was convicted by the Supreme Court.

The case itself is typically tragic. Mukhtar Mai survived gang rape as a form of honour revenge in 2002, on the orders of the tribal council of the local Mastoi Baloch clan, which was richer and more powerful than her Tatla clan in the southern Punjab village of Meerwala.

Ruining our reputation

The expectation was that she would commit suicide, but instead Mai spoke up. She registered a first information report with the help of human rights activists. The case became one of the most high-profile in Pakistan’s history, putting the military dictator ruling Pakistan at the time, Pervez Musharraf, on the defensive. He put Mai’s name on the Exit Control List in 2005 and commented: “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.” He later confessed on his blog that he feared this case would bring a bad name to Pakistan abroad. Jamshed Dasti faced no repercussions and was re-elected in 2013. Gang-rapes and self-immolation continue in his constituency.

In India, on the other hand, when Madhya Pradesh’s Home Minister Babulal Gaur, described rape as “sometimes it's right, sometimes it's wrong”, Mahila Congress workers protested outside his residence in Bhopal. Similarly, when BJP Cabinet minister Arun Jaitley described the 2012 Delhi rape as a “small incident”, he was mocked until he was forced to issue a clarification.

Of course, India still has a long way to go. Nonetheless, the politics around rape in India has been reformed by the voters and not the politicians. Pakistani voters must follow their footsteps.

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