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EFSAS Commentary

Two recent rapes in Pakistan have yet again underscored the dire need to ensure women’s rights


Two incidents of rape that occurred in Pakistan last fortnight happened in separate provinces of the country, hundreds of kilometers apart. The age of the victims, the circumstances in which they were forced to endure the horrific ordeals, as also the eventual fate that the victims met were very different. The revoltingly inhuman nature of the two crimes was, however, unmistakably similar. The massive, predominantly women-led, public outcry that followed was not only a vent for the immediate outrage and frustration that the two rapes had kindled, but equally as much a desperate cry against the brutalities and injustices that generation after generation of Pakistani women has had to suffer. In addition to the socio-religious and economic factors that have relegated women to a second class status, human rights activists also believe that the national and provincial governments in Pakistan have made little genuine effort to address this crucial issue. Despite Prime Minister Imran Khan saying on 10 September that “Such brutality and bestiality cannot be allowed in any civilized society” and that “Such incidents are a violation of our social values and a disgrace to society”, the present situation has clearly been allowed to come about as a result of the callous apathy of successive Pakistani governments, including the one that Khan leads.

The harsh reality confronting Pakistani women is that their current large-scale protests and evocatively worded placards and slogans may still not be enough to dent indelibly the milieu of male dominance, discrimination and subjugation that a large proportion of them are subjected to everyday. Before that eventually happens, unfortunately, many more rapes will have taken place and many more large, indignant protests would have been staged.

On 4 September, a 5-year-old girl in the southern port city of Karachi stepped out of her home to buy cookies from a nearby shop. She never returned home. Her body was found two days later, and an autopsy revealed that she had been raped, hit on the head, and set on fire. On the night of 8 September, a woman in her early thirties set off with her three children from Lahore, the capital of Punjab province, for the city of Gujranwala. On the way, her car ran out of fuel so she called the motorway police for assistance. She was told that she was out of the area of jurisdiction of the motorway police, so they could not help. She also called a relative. While she and her children were waiting for him to arrive, two men approached the car, broke the driver’s-side window with sticks and stones, and dragged the woman and her children off the road. The woman was raped multiple times in front of her children. The men then stole her bank cards, jewellery and cash and made away.

The young child’s rape and murder ignited public rage that Mehnaz Akber Aziz, a member of Pakistan’s National Assembly representing the opposition Pakistan Muslim League - Nawaz (PML-N) and a prominent children’s rights advocate, described as the largest groundswell of anger in a case of child rape and murder that she had seen on social media in recent memory. Underlining that “there is a lot of indifference” to such cases from Pakistani officials, she added, “There is no empathy, only silence. That is changing, because the public is pushing back”. Aziz told The New York Times that most of the child rape and abuse victims in Pakistan were from small towns or villages, and their cases did not usually catch fire on social media. She also said that officials rarely visited the victims, and that the perpetrators are often quietly released after the public outrage has subsided, lending a sense of impunity after the crimes. As Aziz put it, “You are signaling to these people, the rapists, that ‘It’s OK, you can continue doing what you’re doing and there will be a way out, even if you’re arrested’”.

If the online rage generated by the rape and killing of the 5-year-old girl was unprecedented, the rape of the woman on the highway brought thousands of Pakistani women on to the streets. The uncouth remarks of Umar Sheikh, the Police Chief of Lahore and the lead investigator of the case, who put all the blame for the rape on the victim, added fuel to the fire and galvanized the protestors into action. Sheikh rebuked the woman for driving down the motorway late at night without a man accompanying her, adding that no one in Pakistani society would “allow their sisters and daughters to travel alone so late”. Sheikh also said that since the victim was a resident of France, she “mistook that Pakistani society is just as safe”.

Sheikh’s comments were widely condemned. Lawyer and women’s rights activist Khadija Siddiqi, who was stabbed 23 times in an attack in 2016, told AFP that Sheikh’s response to the case was an unfortunate manifestation of the “very rampant” culture of victim blaming in the country. She also told Al Jazeera that police officers who dealt with gender-based violence were often part of the problem. “They are complicit. Such people shouldn't be in these posts in the police sector where we expect them to be protectors of the State”. Shireen Mazari, Pakistan’s Human Rights Minister, in a tweet termed Sheikh’s remarks “unacceptable”, adding that “For an officer to effectively blame a woman for being gangraped by saying she should have taken the GT Road or question as to why she went out in the night with her children is unacceptable & have taken up this issue. Nothing can ever rationalize the crime of rape”. Journalist Ailia Zehra tweeted “If a top police officer can openly engage in victim blaming imagine how junior policemen treat rape survivors. THIS is why women don’t report sexual crimes”.

Last weekend, thousands of people took to the streets in Pakistan’s largest cities of Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi to protest against the rapes. The protests were organized by the Asma Jahangir Legal Aid Cell, Women Democratic Front, and Aurat (Women) March. The demands of the protestors included an end to violence against women; a change in the law to criminalize acts of sexual violence that do not include penetration; structural reform to increase police accountability; training for police, prosecutors, and judges in handling sexual violence cases; protection for victims and witnesses; services and legal assistance for survivors; an end to abusive and scientifically meaningless ‘virginity examinations’ including in sexual violence cases; an end to the culture of patriarchal violence and control; making all public spaces safe for women; an increase in government spending on women’s health, education and safety; and the immediate removal of Lahore Police Chief Umar Sheikh.

At several of the protests locations, participants shouted slogans such as “mera jism, meri marzi” (my body, my choice). In Islamabad, Ismat Shahjahan, the president of the Women Democratic Front, alleged that women, children and even animals were not safe in Pakistan. “They (women) are unsafe around their relatives at home and around male colleagues in their offices”, she asserted. She demanded changes to “Pakistan's society, traditions and laws”. Shahjahan added that a State that failed to provide justice was unacceptable, and called for effective punishment instead of strict punishment. “If you demand public hangings, will you hang half of Pakistan on street corners? There are rapists (in this country) from mosques to the Parliament”.

Harris Khalique, the Secretary-General of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), brought out a larger diabolical picture related the motorway incident when he revealed that the victim had pleaded with the police that the case not be made public. He said, “The gravity of the situation of the incident on the highway is the woman begging the police for the case not to be made public. Stigma is attached to it and the victim is blamed.  A woman is raped in front of her children, and the police chief of Lahore has the gall to say why she was driving late at night on her own. Legal and policy measures need to be taken. The attitude change in society has to be brought, the increasing misogyny and intolerance of difference of opinion are all linked to each other”. The HRCP, in a tweet, said that “The horrifying gang rape of a woman in the #motorwayincident is a grim reminder that Pakistan has become an increasingly dangerous place for #women. Not only must the perpetrators be brought to justice, the Motorway police must also be taken to task for failing to respond”.

The HRCP’s contention that Pakistan has become a dangerous place for women is borne out by the fact that the police in the province of Punjab alone have registered as many as 2,043 cases of rape and 111 cases of gang rape this year. Pakistan was nearly at the bottom of the 2020 Global Gender Gap Index, placing 151st out of 153 countries listed. Only Iraq and Yemen ranked worse. The situation with the safety and well being of children was no different. As per the KidsRights Foundation, a research and advocacy group in The Netherlands, Pakistan ranks 147th out of the 182 countries that have ratified the United Nations (UN) Convention on the Rights of the Child.

The abject conditions that a large percentage of Pakistani women are subjected to are not a recent phenomenon. Pakistan has been on the wrong side of the global tide towards women’s empowerment by a long way and for quite a long time. A September 2019 report in Deutsche Welle ranked Pakistan as the 6th most dangerous country in the world for women. In 2014, the gender gap report of the World Economic Forum ranked Pakistan 141 out of 142 countries. In its ‘Status Report 2020 on Young Women in Pakistan’, the United Nations National Commission on Status of Women (NCSW) noted in July this year that as many as 48 per cent of young Pakistani women aged 15-24 were not in education, employment or training, as compared to only 7 per cent of men. Less than 2 per cent young women owned physical assets, including a house. On decision making and empowerment, only 24 per cent of the young women made decisions about their education and employment, and a mere 1 per cent could decide on their marriage alone. One fourth of young women needed permission to seek healthcare, while another 71 per cent do not want to visit a health facility alone. 29 per cent of young women experienced controlling behaviors by husbands, while 44 per cent of young married women and men saw no harm in wife beating. As for employment, 52 per cent of young women were unpaid family workers.

Pakistan is not the only country in South Asia where the status of women merits considerable improvement. As a UNICEF report on gender equality notes, “In all South Asian countries, patriarchal values and social norms keep gender inequalities alive. Discriminatory practices begin even before birth and affect every aspect of a child’s future. Girls are systematically disadvantaged across the region as structural inequalities and the low status of women affect their rights… Patriarchal societal norms weaken the participation of women and children in family and community decision-making, especially adolescent girls. This reduces their ability to demand fulfillment of their rights to education, health and protection”.

Pakistan’s case, as the data above demonstrates, is rather extreme. The protests witnessed last week appear to be a sign that the women of Pakistan, or at least a brave and influential section among them, have decided that enough is enough. A worried PM Imran Khan had quickly tweeted that he was following the cases closely, and that his government would work towards strengthening laws to address the threat posed by a surge in rape cases involving women and children in recent years. He added that he had directed the investigators to arrest and sentence those involved in the incident as soon as possible. Later, rattled by the scale and the pitch of the protests, the PM seemed to lose his composure. He called for public hangings and chemical castration of rapists. “They (the rapists) should be given exemplary punishments. In my opinion, they should be hanged at the chowk (square), he said.

Such statements were at odds with what Khan had earlier said. As Pakistani analyst and commentator Saad Hafiz had observed in an article titled ‘Pakistan Won’t Progress Until It Empowers Women’ in March this year, women’s empowerment does not figure in the priorities of the government of PM Khan. Hafiz pointed out that despite his Oxford education, Khan’s views on women’s rights were rather narrow. He quoted the example of Khan reacting to women’s marches by implying that Western ideas of gender equality and women’s empowerment had infected a few urban women activists. Khan had also earlier claimed that Western feminism downgraded the role of the mother. Hafiz had also opined that “the State itself has proved to be an obstacle for women to gain their rightful place in society. This has helped to reinforce Pakistan’s negative image as a misogynistic society that allows the oppression of women”.

It is not without reason that Saroop Ijaz, Senior Counsel of the Asia Division of Human Rights Watch (HRW), on 14 September urged PM Khan to listen carefully to what the protestors were saying. He asserted in a dispatch that “Pakistan’s government should take these demands seriously. Women and girls in Pakistan face abuses including impunity for so-called ‘honor violence’ against them, danger on the way to school, abuses in prison, denial of care in hospitals, and sexual harassment in the workplace. Worse yet, police themselves have been implicated in rape in Pakistan. Women and girls will not have the freedom they are entitled to – to study, work, or live – until the government does more to protect their rights”.

It is imperative for the sake of Pakistan’s women that PM Khan recognizes quickly that unless his government actually does more and soon, Pakistan will remain, to quote Khan himself, mired in “brutality and bestiality”, and the yearning to be accepted as a “civilized society” will continue to remain a distant dream.