By: Zaigham Khan
Amina Bibi, the 18-year-old college student who set herself on fire on March 14 outside a police station in the Muzaffargarh district, was wrong on many counts and took her life in vain. Had she analysed her own situation thoroughly and looked at lots of other countrywomen sharing her circumstances, she might have reached a different conclusion and taken a different course of action.
Self-inflicted violence as a form of protest is a manifestation of extreme hopelessness. The young gang-rape victim was wrong in thinking that she was facing an incomparable tragedy demanding such extreme demonstration. Perhaps Amina did not know that there are thousands or even hundreds of thousands of women lurking in the shadows, living a life of shame and dishonour, without ever venturing to come in public or mustering the courage to knock at the doors of justice.
According to a report prepared by Aurat Foundation, an NGO working on gender rights, the media reported 822 cases of gang rape and rape in Pakistan in 2012, out of which 676 were from Punjab. Amina belonged to the small minority of rape survivors who, ignoring the stigma attached with reporting rape, decided to fight it out through the legal system.
Amina did not know that she was not worst placed in her community of rape survivors. She lived a full 68 days after her rape on January 5 and during these days of her existence as a rape survivor, her family did not declare her kari and kill her to cleanse the family honour. While no one is keeping count of such cases, the media reported at least 432 cases of honour killing in the country in 2012. This act of kindness on the part of her family resulted in her proper Islamic burial and she was interred in the family graveyard alongside her deceased relatives, a privilege not available to women declared kari.
Amina was also lucky that her family and the village panchayat did not marry her off to one of her rapists as it is often considered the best solution to settle such ‘disputes’ and redeem the izzat (honour) of competing clans. In such a scenario, some of her close female relatives might have also been forced to marry the gang members. In return, some male relatives of Amina might have also been (force) married to sisters or daughters of the rapists.
As Claude Levi-Strauss, the French anthropologist, tells us, such exchange of women is at the very foundation of human society – that is, it belongs to the period of caves or even before that. This Straussian logic does not work only under the village banyan tree but finds its way to the court rooms of the republic as well. According to Sarah Zaman, former director of War Against Rape (WAR), a civil society organisation, “We have had judges sitting in their own chambers, calling in the accused and the survivor and try(ing) to strike some kind of reconciliation through monetary compensation or otherwise, or even just asking the survivor or the guardian of the survivor to forgive the accused. It’s a very warped system.”
According to Amina’s family, she was angry at the police for taking bribes from her rapists, refusing her a medico-legal examination and failing to record her statement correctly. In essence, protecting the perpetrator. Because of her death, these crucial pieces of evidences have been lost forever. She was wrong in helping her rapists and the honourable law minister of Punjab in proving their claim that she was not raped at all. The next logical step is for the holy men and allies in the media to declare that she torched herself to get cheap publicity. After all, many young girls her age are dying to get an appearance on television.
Amina was wrong in assuming that the police officers might have been able to help her by just acting more honestly and professionally. Even if the police had moved ahead and produced conclusive DNA evidence, she had hardly any chance of getting justice in the absence of four adult, good Muslim men as witnesses. She surely did not know the story of an 18-year-old woman who was gang raped last year, not in a village in Muzaffargarh but in the city of lights, Karachi, at one of the holiest shrines in the country – Jinnah’s Mausoleum.
That girl’s rapists were set free despite conclusive DNA evidence, which reportedly proved the guilt of the accused. The court gave the accused the benefit of the doubt because the victim could not produce four eyewitnesses to the rape. Weeks later, the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) decreed that DNA evidence in the absence of four righteous men as witnesses to rape is not sufficient for conviction under Islamic law.
Amina did not know that the police were kind to her even when they were hobnobbing with her tormentors by not booking her in a case of adultery. She definitely was not aware of the cases of dozens of rape survivors who have been booked on cases of adultery for being unable to produce good Muslim men as witnesses.
She was also lucky that the president of the Islamic Republic did not accuse her of having herself raped to improve her chances of getting a visa. She must have been too young to read newspapers in 2005 when former president Musharraf had stated that rape was a “money-making concern” and for many was a way to get money and a visa to emigrate.
If she was expecting the wheels of power, or the rotors of helicopters, to move, they did move, not because her death was more important than hundreds of other women who meet a violent end every year, but because it became such a big news item and not responding to such news coverage can harm political careers.
The powerful chief minister of Punjab reached her home within 24 hours and passed orders to suspend and transfer some police officers. However, if she was expecting that her protest would result in police reforms that can make this Draconian monster women-friendly or poor-friendly, she was totally wrong. Punjab was imagined as a police state, the recruiting ground of the armed forces, by our erstwhile British masters in the mid-19th century and our present rulers have an unflinching commitment to keep it that way.
Like most innocent Pakistanis, Amina might have hoped for a suo motu notice by the chief justice of the Supreme Court as her only hope for getting justice. She did not know that suo motu notice is a lottery available to one in a million litigants and she would be able to win her lottery only posthumously. The chief justice of Pakistan, who was born in the same district, did take suo motu notice and some heads may roll temporarily. However, if she thought that the court would review laws that result in denial of justice to rape victims in Pakistan, she was mistaken. At a time when our main preoccupation is appeasement of the Taliban and their cheerleaders, such hope borders on the ludicrous.
Amina was right in thinking that there was no hope of justice for her. However, she was wrong in ignoring a role model in her area who was gang-raped and denied justice like her but instead of burning herself, decided to turn herself into a guiding star for girls like her. The only chance that Amina had to take her revenge on her rapists and their direct and indirect supporters was to live like Mukhtaran Mai, not die like Amina Bibi. She has lost this opportunity and we can only hope that other Aminas don’t miss this point.