In an incident that has become depressingly familiar in Pakistan, a teenage girl was forcibly stripped naked and made to walk through the streets of her village near Dera Ismail Khan. The ‘punishment’ was imposed on the girl because her brother had reportedly been romantically involved with a member of the offender’s family. A panchayat, which included the tehsil nazim, had earlier fined the brother Rs105,000 for his ‘infraction’ but that wasn’t enough for the perpetrators, who felt the need to torture and humiliate a 16-year-old girl. They then went even further by concocting a case against the girl’s family so as not to be punished for this crime. Needless to say, the main culprits are the nine men who brutalised the girl and they should be dealt with harshly in accordance with the law. Eight of them have now been arrested and remanded into custody. But there is plenty of blame to go around and the police too should not escape criticism. They agreed to file the false charges against the victim’s family even though they had to know the motivations behind them. The only reason they have taken action now is because of the media attention on the case. Even now, some reports say the family may have been forced to change their story since they now claim that the girl was not paraded in the streets but was assaulted in the home of one of the perpetrators.
Beyond the individuals involved and law enforcement, though, we need to ponder why such incidents keep repeating themselves. Many have decried the concept of collective punishment, often upheld by jirgas and panchayats, but the real issue here is how warped notions of ‘honour’ lead to punishments being meted out to women and children for the alleged crimes of men in their families or tribes. That these punishments are often sexual in nature shows that the aim is to assert a power dynamic where men can treat women as disposable property to be used at their leisure. Such crimes usually go unpunished because the police, reflecting the society they serve, do not consider the violation of women to be a transgression. The political class upholds the status quo by serving in jirgas and panchayats even though they have long been declared illegal. They even justify the crimes by claiming they are a part of tribal or rural tradition. But the gross mistreatment of women is not restricted on the basis of geography and wealth. ‘Honour’ killings, rape and sexual humiliation are equally prevalent throughout the country. Changing that mindset cannot happen just by introducing new laws or responding to a media outcry; it will require mass societal change.