PAKISTAN: Unheard and Unwanted, Rape Continues to Be Used as a Tool to Suppress Women

Wednesday, March 7, 2012
Asian Human Rights Commission
Central Asia
Southern Asia
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 
Sexual and Gender-Based Violence

The women's international day on March 8 is generally celebrated throughout the country with enthusiasm and jubilation, to assert the achievement of the rights gained by women through their continued struggle. There is no doubt that the women of Pakistan and the leadership of feminist organizations have achieved remarkable success for getting stronger laws in favour of women and their rights. In the recent past, and especially in the last year, the women activists, women's organizations and the women legislators have obtained many rights through the passing of historical legislation. Putting the passage of such laws in perspective with the previous legislative vacuum concerning women's rights, the rights activists in Pakistan consider it a huge leap forward.

On the occasion of International Women's day the Asian Human Rights Commission expresses its deep concern at the increase in the violence against women as the strongest form of suppression and undermining of their self-esteem. Rape and especially gang rape is one of the worst forms of violence against women in Pakistani society, which claims itself to be an Islamic State and constantly repeats that it is promoting gender equality according to the teachings of Islam. In general, the state and the society are not seriously committed to getting rid of the menace of rape from Pakistani society. Instead, the government praises its policies to eradicate rape, though they have largely failed to diminish sexual violence from the society, to hold the perpetrators accountable and to alleviate the pain that a victim of rape bears for the rest of her life. The issues of rape and gang rape have not been properly addressed to identify the root causes of this evil. The governments and judiciary have both failed to stop the increasing incidents of rape and gang rape because of their gender biased approach and adherence to the 1500-year-old fundamentalist teachings.

When a country declares itself as a religious homogenous society, everything is seen through it as a spectacle of religion and demolishes the rights of the fragile section of society. When states and governments repeat that they are the custodian of Islamic Teachings, they always ignore the rights of women and treat them as a sexual commodity as if they were a gift of the holy Islamic wars. This is the basic approach which is dominating Pakistani society and that is why it will never attempt to eradicate rape and diagnose the root causes.

Violence against women makes up 95 per cent of the cases of violence reported in Pakistan. These statistics are even more chilling, bearing in mind that 70 per cent of cases of violence against women do not get registered. It is reported that a rape occurs in Pakistan every two hours and a gang rape every eight hours. The persistence of violence against women in Pakistan reveals the failure of the judicial system which is affected by a strong feudal system, religious and social taboos, traditions, customs, a homogeneous religious society, a vast gender gap and a policing system and sexual discrimination in economic and social activities.

Women are treated as a man's property; rape has become a form of violence against women and also a method of revenge against men in that it shamed them in society.

Lack of gender-focused education, sexual stereotypes and decadent myths impede the necessary growth of individuals and transitions in societal norms and attitudes. Several attributes commonly associated with rape victims, like their visibility, mobility, reputation, location, drinking, and seductive behaviour or clothing, serve to cause a victim-blaming attitude. One of the reasons for the increasing incidents is the glamorization through the media, which never played a positive role to stop but rather sensationalized cases of rape and on many occasions the media has put the burden of rape on the victims equating it with their personal characters.

The law enforcement authorities are one of the causes of promoting incidents of rape and strengthening the perpetrators by refusing to lodge cases of rape. A "false accuser" phenomenon compels the victim not to report which actually encourages the powerful people of the society to get impunity by the law enforcement agencies. As they are unable to find legal remedies, the families prefer to seek out of police and out of court solutions for the rape.

As women are still branded as carrying the "honour" of the family, rape is used as a way to seek revenge when a dispute arises between two families. The notion of "honour" being tarnished when a woman is raped only adds to the sufferings of the victims. The women have always been accused of tarnishing the honour of the family and are generally forced to marry the perpetrators, and in many cases the judicial officers compel the victim to marry the attacker.

Women's rights based groups in Pakistan believe that a narrow interpretation of Sharia has proved harmful to the rights of women, as it reinforces popular attitudes and perceptions around a women's body and sexuality. It also contributes to an atmosphere where discriminatory treatment of women is accepted more readily.

Also in the incidents of rape there are many cases which were reported in the media that women were paraded naked in the streets after some personal dispute or on the accusation of having an illicit relationship. The government usually announces that they will take strict action but, to date, not a single person has been convicted. Even in the cases of gang rape always the perpetrators get impunity through the courts. 1) because of insufficient evidence from the prosecution and 2) the patriarchal and biased attitude of the judiciary. The case of Mukhtaran Mai is the best example mentioned here where the courts have always negated the evidence produced by the victim and the civil society. In 2005 when she appealed in the Supreme Court against the decision of the High Court for exonerated of the perpetrators from the charges of gang rape, the Supreme Court has kept this appeal almost for five years and when the civil society pressured the Supreme Court it rejected the appeal and released all perpetrators except one.

The failure to protect women from sexual violence remains of serious concern. It is emblematic of how a discriminatory patriarchal mindset permeating all spheres of the society, including the justice and policing system, continues to prevent women from enjoying their fundamental rights, freedom and dignity and hampers their active participation, equality and development, to the detriment of the general welfare of the Pakistani society.

In the aftermath of 9/11, the cases of rape and violence against women increased tremendously and women have become more vulnerable on the one hand by the state repression, law enforcement agencies, biased behaviours of judiciary on the other hand through the Talibanisation of the society. In all this the most common thing is that the rape of women folk is not taken as a serious issue by the government, the judiciary and the law enforcement agencies.

Patriarchy permeates all the layers of the society and the state institutions are not exempt. The judicial system is perverted by a continuous discriminatory attitude against women stemming from traditional and religious beliefs, as a result encouraging and promoting sexual violence.

Here are few cases of rape where the judiciary acted in a very biased manner and used the crime of rape as the source of lust and sex. In the case of gang rape of Kainat Soomro, the 17-year-old girl, the additional district and sessions judge Nizar Ali Khawaja conducted the trial of four men who allegedly gang-raped her in 2007, over a three day period in Dadu district, Sindh. The girl, who was expecting an in-camera trial (one in the judge's private chambers), was asked by the judge to describe and even demonstrate her rape in detail in front of the accused and in open court. The victim felt very insecure as around 100 persons were inside and outside the court and enjoying the story of the rape while the judge was asking about minute details about the rape. Due to the judge's biased attitude the perpetrators were encouraged and at the end allegedly murdered her brother who had been pursuing the case of his sister which was very rare in the Pakistani society.

Uzma Ayub was 16 when abducted by policemen and a soldier when she was studying in secondary school in October 2010. She was held captive and repeatedly raped by several persons, including policemen and an army official, had miraculously escaped from her captors on September 19 while being six months pregnant at that time. The courts including high court of the province and government took very liniment cognisance of her case. In this case also her brother was murdered inside the court premises by the perpetrators but court even then ignored the seriousness of the case and when police officials demonstrated against the court then high court took the case and ordered for the arrest of all perpetrators. In the eyes of the courts the rape in custody is no more important but if it comes against the 'honour' of the court then courts act on them.

It can be said that judiciary, media and legislators were in complicit in the promotion of rape in the 'Islamic Society' to usurp the basic rights of women and to keep them under the thumb of patriarchal society.

Still the respect which women generally receive from the society is so far behind their expectations. To ruin the respect of the women in the underdeveloped societies like Pakistan, rape is the best tool at the hands of the tribal, feudal and Islamic society to crush the ego and the pride of the women. To substantiate the efforts to undermine the respect of the women such societies encourage the fundamentalist religious organizations that are in support of the patriarchal society. Women make up 49% of the population of Pakistan, yet are continuously marginalized and discriminated against by members of civil society and through the political, social and economical structures of this country.

The AHRC congratulates the women of Pakistan for those historical achievements but is aware that a lot more remains to be done to guarantee that this legislation translates into an effective legislative tool to protect women's rights and to be more powerful than just words on paper. Many questions remain such as how will the law be enforced given the persistence of a feudal and tribal system, dominated by strong patriarchal trends which permeate attitudes and behaviours even within the justice institution itself?

One has to take the opportunity of the international women's day to thoroughly assess whether, after developing a significant legislative framework for the women's rights the empowerment of Pakistani women has increased, enabling them to enjoy and claim their rights? Women's struggle to get rid of the shackles of the patriarchal society is deemed to be a long and arduous one. The tribal, federal and religious customs and tradition remain as persisting obstacles hampering the women, particularly the recognition of womenfolk as equal citizens.