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A girl abandoned by the state

By: Ghazi Salahuddin

A crying shame it is for this country that it is not shaken to the core by the suicide of an 18-year-old near Muzaffargarh. We have no evidence of opinion leaders and civil society outfits getting together to express their outrage over this great human tragedy and what it tells us about the state of our society.

This first year student was returning home from college on January 5 when four men accosted her and she was allegedly raped by the gang in a deserted area in the rural setting. She had the courage to report the crime and had identified the main accused. An FIR was filed and that person was arrested.

When this culprit was granted bail on Thursday, on the basis of the report filed by the investigating officer of the police, she went to the police station to lodge a protest against the police official who had favoured the accused. Then, she doused herself with petrol and set herself on fire outside the police station. This dreadful event was captured on camera. On Friday, she died in a hospital.

Yes, the Supreme Court has taken suo motu notice of the incident, regretting that it was not a “flattering commentary” on the justice system and the working of the police. Notices were issued to the inspector general of Punjab and the district police officer of Muzaffargarh to appear before the court on Monday. On Thursday, when the rape victim attempted self-immolation, the main accused was rearrested and two police officers were also taken into custody.

But there were no signs of a public outcry or an expression of shock and concern on the part of the political elite. On the face of it, it is just another headline that adds to our grief and sense of helplessness about what is happening in the country. True, Friday was another day of horror as at least 10 persons were killed in a bomb explosion in Quetta and nine persons were killed in Peshawar in a suicide bomb attack. Meanwhile, killings in Karachi have continued and this was a particularly bloody week.

In spite of these acts of terror and other major distractions, including the peace talks that the government has initiated with the Taliban, the soul-destroying suicide of a rape victim demands serious attention. It is significant that we had to suffer this tragedy just a few days after we had celebrated the International Women’s Day with so much enthusiasm and some reflections on how the women in Pakistan were moving forward.

In a press statement on Friday, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), “pained beyond words by the death of the 18-year-old gang-rape victim”, said that her sacrifice has exposed the ordeal that rape victims in the country face when they try to bring their tormenters to justice. As it is, just a small number of courageous rape victims take the matter to police and court and “this tragic incident would only discourage victims of sexual violence from trying to get justice”.

The saddest part, according to HRCP, is that it took an 18-year-old girl, who lacked legal training, two months to find out that the odds were stacked against her. It is sad and symbolic in equal measure that “the justice system and the state have let a woman down so brazenly”.

Incidentally, on the same day that this girl set herself on fire in Muzaffargarh, the Delhi High Court in India upheld the death sentence awarded to four men for the gruesome rape and murder of a 23-year-old student on December 16, 2012. The judges said the case fell under the “rarest of rare category” and justified the awarding of these sentences. Of the six accused in the case, one was found dead in his cell and the other was juvenile at the time and will be tried under separate terms.

For us in Pakistan, it is instructive that this case had sparked a country-wide outcry. India’s civil society was mobilised into action and huge processions were taken out. This protest led to changes in the law and in the procedures of how the police and the courts must now deal with rape cases. A debate was initiated on India’s age-old gender norms.

Sadly, the situation remains very alarming and grim. I want to refer to the launch of the second season of Bollywood star Amir Khan’s ‘Satyamev Jayate’ television show that is meant to create a debate on social problems. The first topic for season two, broadcast on March 2, was rape and some of us who were able to watch it would certify the great impact it made on the audience. As a media person, I would prescribe this show as a lesson for our professionals in terms of how meticulously should an issue be researched and projected.

Anyhow, I read a newspaper report about how Amir Khan, when shooting the episode on rape, was so overwhelmed by the account of some victims that he could not hold his tears back and the shooting had to be stalled for 30 minutes. This is how all sensitive and civilised human beings would be expected to respond to the plight and the misery of the oppressed sections of our society. Women have to particularly bear the burden of the brutality of primitive social norms that still prevail in our traditional sector.

It so happens that we also had another reminder this week of how religion is invoked to undermine the human and democratic rights of women. The Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) held its session and announced some rulings that certified its essentially retrogressive impulse. On Monday, it declared that taking the first wife’s permission before a second marriage is un-Islamic. This requirement was mandated by the Muslim Family Law Ordinance of 1961.

On Tuesday, the CII issued the ruling that laws related to minimum age of marriage were un-Islamic and that children of any age could get married if they attain puberty. Observers saw these moves as an attempt to open a new front against women and bolster the militants’ case against the state. We should recall that in May 2013, CII declared the DNA test unacceptable as evidence in cases of rape. In this perspective, we may question the very justification for CII’s existence.

In any case, it is crime against women, mainly sexual violence, that deserves the attention of the state and its relevant institutions. We do hope that the Supreme Court’s intervention will have some impact but it will make little difference to the girl who is no longer alive. Do we have any tears left for her?

The writer is a staff member. Email:

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