By: Zulfikar Ali Bhutto
On May 25 seven dacoits scaled the walls of a house in Rasulabad in Khairpur, Sindh. They robbed the family of everything they had and then raped the four women of the house – three sisters, one being the wife of the owner of the house – Paryal Memon – and as his young niece.
In the courtyard of their home where I went last week, Paryal’s wife cried for justice while her sisters lay on a charpoy, not wanting to talk or open their eyes.
Those seven rapists not only robbed the four women of their material processions but also of their right to live a complete and happy life. To commit a rape is to rob someone of their agency, to deprive them of their pride and dignity. It is a crime of unspeakable anger.
What happened next is an all too familiar scenario in rape cases in Pakistan. The family of the victims went to the police station to file an FIR and the police discouraged them from filing a rape case and told the victims that for the sake of their honour they should instead simply say they were robbed. The police did not rush to protect the victims, they did not consider the violation of these four women a matter for the law to address. Instead they bamboozled the victims into changing their testimony.
When the police discourage you from filing a rape case you have no choice but to heed their demand. In Pakistan you require police permission for a hospital to conduct a rape test and naturally to file an FIR.
In Pakistan women have no voice. If they are lucky they are granted one by their male relatives. Women here survive by ventriloquism. In most villages, outside their families women are not known by their own names but by the names of the nearest male kin: daughter of so and so, wife of so and so. We are a nation in which half of our population is invisible – cooking, cleaning, sewing, and taking care of the children, but never seen or heard.
Things are, however, changing. After waiting for something to be done, for someone to bring justice to four gang-rape victims, the larger community of Rasulabad decided a simple dacoity report was not enough. With the help of the whole community, their village and tribe, they eventually filed an FIR for rape. Since then there have been protests, sit-ins and camps in Sukkur and Karachi taken out in their support. Their belief in honour was put to the side for the sake of justice. But justice is a slow process in Pakistan. And only two of the seven rapists have been arrested.
Despite laws such as the Hudood Ordinance, which criminalises victims of rape – the ordinance makes it virtually impossible to prove a rape, rather than adultery or the crime of fornication – it is not the first time victims of such horrific crimes have been supported and protected by their communities.
Mukhtaran Mai was gang raped in her village in Muzzafargarh Punjab in 2002. Although vocal after the incident, it was not until the Imam of her local mosque spoke out against the violence that had been inflicted onto her that her case received media coverage.
It was not until 2005 that the Lahore High Court took notice of Mukhtaran’s case but even then she was denied justice. The court acquitted five out of six of her rapists as there was ‘insufficient evidence’ against them. Unfortunately, although she took her case to the highest courts in the land, Mai was ultimately denied justice.
There are some brave voices in this country, but they are few, certainly not enough to stem violence against women in this society. Of course Pakistan is not alone; misogyny exists everywhere and must be challenged wherever it exists. If women are not endowed with a voice then they must seize a voice for themselves and not be silenced. Mukhtaran Mai and the people of Rasulabad have proven that this can be a reality.
Pakistan’s many problems can be blamed on illiteracy, poverty and continually corrupt governments. Persecution against our minority groups has been blamed on foreign influences, on desperate people coerced into seeing their neighbours as their enemies. Our water problems and high crime rates are due to rampant corruption and perpetual mismanagement; these are services that any government ought to easily provide.
We cannot, however, scapegoat gang rape. It is an act of violence and anger, it does not reveal a person’s economic status, literacy or desperation; it reflects a complete breakdown in the individual’s humanity and the decay of society as a whole.
Bacha Khan, a brave, non violent activist, known as the Frontier Gandhi, famously declared: “If you wish to know how civilised a culture is, look at how they treats its women”. Statistics are hard to find on rape in Pakistan but in southern Punjab alone there were 2,713 reports of violence against women in 2012.
How civilised does that make Pakistan?