Eighteen years old, headscarf wearing, college student Amina Bibi was gang-raped as she walked home from her college on January 5. This was duly confirmed by a medical report. Dousing herself with petrol she set herself alight last Thursday when the suspects – allegedly after bribing the ‘right officials’ – were granted bail by a local court in Muzaffargarh following a police report negating the rape incident. The girl died on Friday after resorting to a rare public act of desperation by an abused woman in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.
Punjab CM Shahbaz Sharif’s visit to the family, the announcement of Rs0.5 million compensation and the suspension of the concerned DPO are but a reflection of quick-fix solutions for political face-saving rather than a genuine effort to implement effective strategies to curtail violence against women. This is unforgivable given that the National Crime Data (2008-2013) shows that most of the districts from where the highest prevalence of violence against women has been reported are in Punjab. It also shows the horrific figures of 1,366 cases of gang rape and 15,082 incidents of rape from all over Pakistan between 2008 and 2013. These figures obviously do not include unreported cases.
The Protection of Women Act 2006 enacted during the military regime of General (r) Pervez Musharraf removes strict punishments under the Zina Ordinance, and duly favours rape victims. Yet in the absence of proper implementation it has so far failed to bring about an effective system of deterrence.
According to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), one rape occurs every two hours and a gang rape is committed every four to eight days. Clearly, judicial and law-enforcement systems have failed to do their duty. The Supreme Court’s decision to acquit the perpetrators of Mukhtaran Mai in 2011 remains a question mark on the state’s capacity to deliver justice and the society’s moral courage to condemn injustice.
The New Delhi gang-rape case resulted in sustained outrage that contributed to speedy justice. On the contrary, the plight of women who face sexual assault in Pakistan has been largely confined to newspaper articles, agonisingly slow court cases, and frequent dropped charges through financial inducements, threats of further violence and family pressure on the rape victim to avoid further ‘shame’.
None of the Pakistani political leaders, conservative or liberal, have found the issue of violence against women important enough to mould public opinion and build pressure groups to prevent such obvious wrong through the implementation of relevant laws. The politically powerful mullah keeps a discreet distance from condemning such acts even as the Council of Islamic Ideology is busy protecting men’s right to polygamy minus the existing wife’s permission while also legitimising child marriage for good measure.
It is a sad commentary on our social norms that those who witnessed Amina’s desperate act lacked the humanity to intervene and stop her. The fact thus remains that it is the society as much as the state that should be held responsible for Amina’s tragedy. The state after all comprises the powerful elite that hails from the same social setup and carries preconceived attitudes towards rape based on patriarchal traditions of misogynistic taboos and distorted notions of ‘ghairat.’
There are those around us who see rape victims as promiscuous and thus the architects of their own tragedy. A majority of victims are forced to be silent either by the familial custodians of their ‘honour’ or because they fear social stigmatisation and police harassment. It is, therefore, not surprising that the ratio of unreported cases is remarkably high according to published reports.
Some might maintain that this is not peculiar to Pakistan. Indeed a survey carried out in 2010 in London found that the majority of respondents said there were circumstances when a rape victim should accept some responsibility for an attack. Another survey showed that nearly three-quarters of those polled as perceiving the media unsympathetic to women who reported rape while more than half said the same was true of the legal system and society as a whole.
That said, statistics show that countries where allegations of rape are investigated and rapists prosecuted have seen a reduction in this heinous crime. Pakistan, however, has yet to find ways of giving exemplary punishments to rapists and perpetrators of other violence against women.
It is usually suggested that lack of education is one of the major reasons for indifference to rape and male perception of women as exploitative commodities. Interestingly, however, research has shown that attending school or university does not necessarily cultivate a more sympathetic view of rape-victims.
Conditioned social responses based on myths of ‘only bad girls get raped’ are absorbed and reinforced by many other social, cultural and religious factors outside the formal educational environment. Such social attitudes impact the victim’s self-perception and can increase feelings of stigmatisation.
Documentary evidence shows that rape-myths appear in the belief system of laypersons and professionals alike. Such myths facilitate denial of injury or even blame the victim for her own victimisation. Thus it is not only the attitude of the police and the local court but also the kind of support Amina may or may not have received from her immediate family, neighbourhood and medical professionals that is important to take into account if one is to genuinely understand her act of self-immolation.
Let there be no confusion; Amina’s death is murder and not suicide and for this the society is just as responsible as the decision-making elite in the corridors of power. Unabated violence against the weaker segment of society makes one wonder if we have totally lost the ability to think, feel and empathise; whether we have wilfully forsaken the capacity to speak the truth in the face of gross injustice or whether the sanctity of human life and dignity has become meaningless to us.
For any improvement in this sorry state of affairs social attitudes towards women need to change. The state has to find long-term sustainable strategies of providing speedy justice to victims of rape and other forms of violence so that victims like Amina are not forced to make the ultimate sacrifice in a bid to awaken the slumbering conscience of a decaying society.
The writer is a post-doctoral researcher at Birmingham University.
Email: [email protected]