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Fifth column

May 5, 2018

A return to the dark ages


May 5, 2018

Pakistan is turning increasingly hostile towards its women. The traditional structures that ossified the marginalisation of women are finding new forms of expression through increased violence, assaults and terror, in conjunction with continued institutional apathy and indifference.

The situation is exacerbated by politicians holding senior official positions whose vilification against women’s participation in grassroots politics offers lifeblood to such a callous mindset. Raising doubts about the personal character of women who participate in political events or marches – a classic misogynistic tool – is aimed at deliberately denying them agency and empowerment; and controlling and forcing them into submission.

Recently, there have been uninterrupted news reports of terrible incidents of violence directed against women and girls, including newborns. The latest report of the Edhi Foundation about the murders of hundreds of newborn girls in Karachi in particular, and across the country in general, suggests a sort of return to the period of ‘Jahiliyya’, when girls would be killed or buried alive for supposedly being inferior beings. The government seems to have abandoned women as it has failed to show any serious commitment to wield the stick of the law against perpetrators.

Ulema also seem to have forgotten to raise awareness on issues confronting women as they negotiate their life’s day-to-day challenges. Same is the case with Islamic (political) parties, too busy dispensing otherworldly promises to attach any priorities to the ephemeral needs of the people.

In the past two weeks, almost a dozen cases of rape and murder of women were reported from across the country. These included the gruesome incidents of rape and violent deaths meted out to minor girls. The latest news came from Peshawar where, a week ago, a husband killed his wife who happened to be one of the first female drivers of an online taxi-hailing service. On March 31, the body of a 16-year-old girl who had been missing for three weeks was found in Rawalkot in Azad Jammu and Kashmir; there were visible torture marks on her body. Medical reports confirmed she had been gang-raped before being murdered. The father of the deceased told journalists that despite filing a missing persons report with the police, the latter showed no willingness to initiate any action. In a similar incident, a student of MA of a government college in Faisalabad was kidnapped and subjected to rape before being killed. Several other incidents, under almost similar circumstances, were reported in other parts of the country as well.

There has been an increase in incidences of sexual violence against young girls, to the extent that they seem to have lost all value to elicit any serious public reaction. Late last month, nine-year-old Saima was kidnapped, raped and then killed in Larkana. Her father talked about the traditional slovenliness of the police who showed no duty of care that might have saved the girl. Earlier in April, a seven-year old girl from Faisalabad was raped and then killed.

The continued failure of the heavily politicised police force coupled with their traditional incompetence has forced the higher judiciary to intervene – even to regulate the smallest functions of the executive. In the above mentioned incident, as well as the Larkana case, the chief justice took a suo-motu cognisance, directing the police authorities to directly report to the Supreme Court about the case’s progress. Earlier, the CJP had also taken notice of another gruesome rape and murder of a minor girl in Jaranwala. In the Rawalkot case, and several other cases, the bereaved have also directly appealed to the chief justice for speedy and rightful conclusion of the cases.

Love also attracts vicious violence, particularly the one that culminates in marriage. About a week ago, a couple from Fata who had married of their own will were killed, apparently in the name of ‘honour’. The slain, both in their early 20s, were cousins who fled to Karachi to escape the shackles of tradition, only to be visited by a heartless and gruesome death. In another incident, a couple from Abbottabad was killed under similar circumstances by the girls’ family, for bringing ‘dishonour’ by marrying of her own accord. Usually, most of these cases end up in the scrap heap of files, unless of course, those slain have some strong outside connection or promise to bring new western funding for a plethora of motormouth NGOs which would bring about ‘women’s empowerment’.

The recent murder of an Italian-Pakistani woman allegedly at the hands of her family led to the exhumation of her remains for investigation after international focus was brought upon it. Reportedly, 26-year-old Sana was killed by her father, brother and uncle for refusing to marry a Pakistani relative. She wanted to marry back home in Italy.

In cases where women belong to minority sections of society, the possibility of justice becomes even more remote. Sadly, women from Hindu and Christian backgrounds are seen as fair game, and can invite undue attention and assault even from people who are not powerful enough to dare commit any misdemeanours against women of their own community. A recent case where a young Christian woman was doused in gasoline for refusing a marriage proposal from a Muslim man is a case in point. Asma Yaqoob, who later died in her native city of Sialkot, was targeted for being unwilling to reciprocate ill-conceived advances.

In the past too, several incidents of Hindu women being coerced into marriage and forced to convert were reported from Sindh. But there has been little progress to put a stop to such a heinous practice. Thankfully, the mainstream Pakistani society or politics does not approve of these targeted assaults, but the conviction rate for such crimes is rare because of the corrupt police that is designed to pander to power.

In such a depressing milieu, a proactive and determined judiciary is trying to bring some order and hope for the aggrieved. The personal interest taken by Chief Justice Mian Saqib Nisar raises strong hopes, but these are only interim measures. To deal with such issues on a long-term basis would need a dedicated bottom-up reform supported by a top-down commitment.

Twitter: @murtaza_shibli

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