Breaking the silence in Pakistan
On April 11 a young Pakistani school teacher was kidnapped, brutally gang raped, and then dumped in a field in the Punjab province of eastern Pakistan. She reported that five men had raped and tortured her for more than two days. (http://bit.ly/13cG8K9, http://bit.ly/11rzxy7) Such incidents of rape and violence against women are a daily occurrence in the rural areas of Pakistan. Newspapers report rape incidents daily, and the public is largely indifferent and de-sensitized to such repugnant assaults.
In a patriarchal country such as Pakistan, women are supposed to stay home and obey the orders of men. Otherwise, they are beaten by their husbands in most rural areas. The situation is not quite the same among the urban educated elite class. However, women are still expected to obey their husbands, who are considered the major decision makers in most families.
But why are Pakistani women often so helpless? Why are they unable to do much about the brutalities inflicted upon them on a daily basis?
One main reason is that with the exception of a small, educated, urban elite class in Pakistan, the majority of the people are illiterate and cannot afford such basic necessities of life as food, bread, and water. Amidst sky-rocketing poverty rates, most men face enormous frustrations, both at home and in the workplace. As a consequence, they resort to restricting the women in their lives, treating them as their personal property in order to assert some sense of power and control. The fact that they are uneducated does not help, and given the reality that women are strongly discouraged from pursuing education, they are not aware of their own rights.
How will these women fight for their rights when they don’t even know what those rights are?
Last summer, I volunteered with War Against Rape (WAR), a leading non-government organization in Pakistan. WAR is making great strides in providing shelter to rape victims, offering them counselling, and helping them to report their perpetrators to the police, in hopes the criminals will face justice. The punishment for rape is death in Pakistan, but people are reluctant in bringing the perpetrator to justice due to lack of evidence confirming that the rape actually took place. This is largely due to the “islamisation” project that spread through Pakistan during General Zia-ul-Haq’s regime in the 1970s, when discriminatory ordinances were put into practice. According to these laws, in order for a woman to prove that she had been raped, she has to produce four male witnesses that can attest to the crime. The system is absolutely ludicrous and steps need to be taken to change these policies.
When talking to some of the rape victims who chose to seek shelter at WAR, I was horrified to learn that many of the poor women who come from rural areas are raped by their own family members, and are victims of incest. Added to this ugly reality is the fact that the majority of the cases of sexual abuse, harassment and rape against women are grossly underreported because of the stigma and disgrace attached to the crime.
If a woman chooses to report a rape case, her own family often disowns her. Take the example of Dr. Shazia Khalid, who in January 2005, was blindfolded, and raped by a masked army officer in the heavily guarded government-owned natural gas plant. Her family was told to keep quiet about what had happened, and the gas company denied that any such incident had occurred. The family of Shazia’s husband, Khalid, told him to divorce her immediately. They felt her rape had disgraced the family’s honour.
It is deplorable how women are continuously blamed for “bringing it upon themselves.” The common refrain is “Look at the way she used to dress. Such scandalous clothing!”
The reality is that whether a rape victim is adorned from head to toe in a burqa or whether she wears “scandalous” and “provocative” clothing, she is always blamed and nagged by family, relatives and the media. I often wonder why a rape victim is harassed by the media and her photo is splashed across the pages of every newspaper and magazine? Why aren’t any photos of the culprit taken and published in the newspapers? Shouldn’t the rapist be the one being condemned?
The criminal justice system and the police in Pakistan are not trained or sensitized towards the problem and frequency of rape in Pakistan. The problem most victims of rape and other sexual assaults encounter when approaching the police to file a First Information Report (FIR) -- to report the crime -- is that the police often mock the victim and blame the woman’s character, which supposedly led to her being assaulted in the first place.
In Pakistan, there are separate police stations for women and men precisely so that women who prefer to cover themselves in a burqa can easily talk to a female inspector about a rape incident. However, most female police stations do not even have the authority to file an FIR, and so women have no choice but to approach the male police stations to file a report.
Women hesitate to approach male police stations because they do not want to share the circumstances of their personal trauma or the intricate details of it with men. Even if some women gather up enough courage to report the rape and the case manages to reach the courts, the reality is that most victims do not get justice even after years of fighting for their rights in court.
Judges are not sympathetic either, and most often the rapist is acquitted by the court. This is not due to the severity of the punishment of rape, but largely due to the fact that in a patriarchal society, men don’t like to accept the fact that violence against women happens. On top of that, the fact that the women usually cannot produce four male witnesses to attest to the crime results in the judge acquitting the perpetrator. Something needs to be done to change the discriminatory laws that were brought about by Zia in an attempt to “islamise” the country.
Recently, both Pakistan and neighbouring India have received enormous international media coverage to highlight the atrocities committed by men against women. The recent Delhi gang rape cases in India, and the documentary films made on violence against Pakistani women have stirred debate on the issue of rape in these countries. These are actually significant developments since public awareness is the first step in bringing about any kind of systemic change.
The best examples of the growing possibilities for change can be found among those victimized women themselves who have chosen to break the silence, fight against the stigma, and raise their voices against the abhorrent practice of rape.
Mukhtaran Mai is one such exceptional warrior who decided to fight back. She was a quiet peasant woman in the Muzzafargarh district of Pakistan’s Punjab. She was the courageous survivor of a barbaric gang rape that was inflicted upon her in the village of Meerwala. Mukhtar was gang raped on the orders of the Mastoi Baloch clan because her brother allegedly “committed fornication” with a woman from their clan. Normally, a woman in her circumstance would commit suicide. Not Mukhtar. She fought back and reported her perpetrators. In September 2002, the anti-terrorism court sentenced her four rapists to death. However, the culprits were acquitted due to “insufficient evidence” by the Lahore High Court.
Refusing to stay silent, Mukhtar Mai started the Mukhtar Mai Women’s Welfare Organization, recounted her traumatic story in an autobiography, and was lauded by international magazines such as the New York Times and Glamour Magazine for her bravery. Although she continues to receive death threats, she refuses to stay silent.
Another courageous woman is Kainat Soomro, a 13-year-old girl who was gang raped in 2007 by four men at Mehar, a small town in the Sindh province of Pakistan. She told the media that she stepped out of her house to buy a toy for her niece, and was kidnapped by the men who raped her. She managed to escape after being tortured and assaulted for three terrifying days. When her family fought back, and reported the heinous crime to the media and the police, they were harassed and threatened and the alleged rapists killed Soomro’s brother. The family moved to another town, but they continue to face daily death threats.
Women such as Mukhtar Mai and Kainat Soomro are inspiring examples who hopefully shall one day bring change in Pakistan. They are symbols for other women, and the fact that a few women have raised their voices to fight for their rights is a huge achievement for the country.
Moreover, the bravery of these women who will not be silenced has resulted in Pakistani media suddenly reporting about the unjust system, making films, documentaries, and shouting out to change the system. Kainat Soomro’s daring decision to speak out against her rapists instead of resorting to suicide inspired two female journalists, Habiba Nosheen and Hilke Schellmann, to produce Outlawed in Pakistan, a short documentary film that depicts Kainat’s fight against rape. It was selected for the 2013 Sundance Film Festival. Nosheen is a Pakistani-Canadian journalist who has received several awards for her reporting, including the Gracie award given by the Alliance for Women in Media Foundation in 2012
Gender inequality is an ugly reality that exists in all countries not just in Pakistan. However, due to the warped laws, religious extremism, and the patriarchal mindset that pervades the country, Pakistani women suffer more injustices than most, and infinitely more than women from developed countries. However, human rights organizations and journalists are now taking a stand against the violent crimes that are committed against women.
Rape is not the only issue that plagues women. Other problems such as honour killings, prostitution, and acid attacks on women are frequent occurrences. But the public is taking notice and speaking out.
In 2012, Pakistani-Canadian journalist Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy launched her much-acclaimed documentary, Saving Face, which highlighted the plight of women who suffer horrific injuries when they are attacked by having acid thrown on them. Sharmeen Obaid became the first Pakistani Oscar winner when the film won the 2012 Academy Award for Best Short Documentary.
These awareness-raising campaigns, through the production of films, documentaries and newspaper articles, are positive steps in breaking the silence on violence against women in Pakistan. One can only hope that the government will take radical steps and change some of its discriminatory laws and do something about punishing the felons who commit these heinous crimes.
Women of all classes should be made aware that they have rights and that they are not “objects” to be owned by men. They also need to be made aware of their inner strength and the support system of NGOs that is now available. Such resources were not accessible a few years back.
It is only when women will start fighting for their own rights that change will come. It shall be slow and painful but there is great hope because a woman has enormous strength and resilience. Strong women such as Mukhtaran Mai, Dr. Shazia and Kulsoom Soomro, who have been victims of rape are inspiring examples. They are women who kept on fighting and refused to give up even when all hope seemed lost. I hope they keep fighting, build awareness, and raise their voices in order to change the very structure of society and allow women to live free lives without fear of threats, persecution, rape, and harassment. As the American writer C. Joybell once said, “The strength of a woman is not measured by the impact that all her hardships in life have had on her; but the strength of a woman is measured by the extent of her refusal to allow those hardships to dictate her and who she becomes.”
Let us join hands, and fight to change the system.