Protecting taboos, promoting silence

Print edition : October 21, 2005

Pakistani journalist Khawar Mehdi Rizvi, himself arrested and tortured by Pakistani authorities in 2003, protests in Washington against Musharraf's remarks on rape. - PRAVEEN SWAMI

The complete absence of laws that prohibit sexual harassment and the punishment and maligning of victims of sexual crimes is an illustration of the low priority that the current and past Pakistani governments have given to the welfare of women.

WHEN General Pervez Musharraf brazenly declared to his interviewers from The Washington Post that rape in Pakistan "has become a moneymaking concern" and "a lot of people say if you want to go abroad and get a visa for Canada or citizenship and be a millionaire, get yourself raped", he did human rights advocates an incredible favour. He laid bare the seething, insidious misogyny that most Pakistani politicians of his stature manage to conceal under a veneer of superficial support for women's causes.

His vindictive condemnation of the motives of Pakistani rape victims, like Dr. Shazia Khalid and Mukhtaran Mai, revealed the grotesque insincerity of his regime's vacuous commitment to women's welfare and empowerment. The General's words are emblematic of the collusion of social, political, legal and cultural forces that conspire to impose a restrictive silence on victims of rape in Pakistan. In maligning those that break the silence, and parting the curtains of deception that deny the existence of the problem, Musharraf has declared that it is a taboo that must be safeguarded at all costs.

With his proclamation designed specifically to deter future victims of rape from speaking publicly about their ordeal, he has chosen the route of continued denial and self-deception over the courageous path of admission and cure. The General's attitude resonates through the legal, social and political institutions of Pakistan, all of which provide meagre respite for rape victims who choose to seek justice against the perpetrators of the crime.

The hotchpotch of parallel courts that together formulate Pakistan's failed experiment with legal pluralism offers little hope for rape victims. The jurisdictional ambiguities that exist between the country's parallel civil courts, Sharia courts and special terrorism courts (all created by different regimes with different agendas) make the likelihood of a single enduring verdict nearly impossible.

Even if a victim is able to navigate the court systems and actually obtain a court date, further hurdles await in the form of severely discriminatory laws and evidentiary requirements, all designed to make rape convictions next to impossible. In 1979, General Zia-ul-Haque promulgated the Hudood Ordinance under his "Islamisation" programme, designed to make Pakistan a "land of the pure". Under this ordinance, the crime of "zina", or sexual intercourse without being married, was made a crime against the state and was declared a non-compoundable, non-bailable offence punishable by death (Human Rights Watch 1002:34). In addition, the ordinance defines rape, or "zina-bil-jabr", as sexual intercourse outside of marriage occurring "without consent", thus blurring the line between adultery, fornication and rape. In order to prosecute a rapist, a rape victim must produce "four adult male witnesses" who "abstain from major sins" and who actually "witnessed the act of penetration".

The cumulative effect of the Zina Ordinance is that if a rape victim chooses to lodge a complaint against the offender, and provides a statement regarding the incident, her own statement can later be used to prosecute her for fornication or adultery if she is unable to provide four male witnesses to the rape.

It is estimated that over half the women in Pakistani prisons are imprisoned on charges of "zina". While less than 5 per cent of these women are ever convicted, many do receive the lesser punishment of "tazeer" or public whipping of 30 lashes. According to Asma Jehangir and Hina Jilani, both women's rights lawyers, these public whippings take place often. Meanwhile, while rape convictions are few, the number of rapes continues to grow unabated in Pakistan with a total of 800 cases of rape and 400 cases of gang rape in the last reported year (Human Rights Commission of Pakistan 2002). It is important to mention that statistics represent only those cases that are reported to the media and do not reflect an accurate account of the actual number of rapes and gang rapes that take place in Pakistan, which presumably is far higher.

In 1997, the National Commission on the Status of Women, headed by retired High Court Judge Majida Rizvi, convened a 17-member committee to look into all aspects of the Zina and Hudood Ordinances and the impact they had on the women of Pakistan. The committee recommended that the Zina and Hudood laws be repealed and highlighted the fact that the problems lay not just in the content of the laws but also in the poor drafting and ambiguous wording which allowed grave misinterpretations and gave judges unwanted discretion.

However, many of the Islamist parties in Pakistan, such as the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal, which had been an ardent supporter of the laws during General Zia's regime, demonstrated against the proposed repeal. Evidently, General Musharraf shares their views and has refused to consider the committee's recommendation.

Many in Pakistan have also fallen prey to the religious propaganda that conflates opposition to the Zina and Hudood laws with opposition to Islam and hence are reticent to voice their opposition. Their silence imposes great costs on rape victims, who are denied avenues for justice for their suffering.

Police attitudes toward rape victims present further problems. Like Musharraf, law enforcement personnel question the motives of the complainants and many view victims of rape as commercial sex workers or morally loose women who were complicit in the crimes. As in the case of Mukhtaran Mai, the police rarely make any effort to apprehend the perpetrators of the crime or collect any evidence that would help the victim prosecute her case. Few police stations, if any, have female officers trained in collecting evidence in rape cases. There is no use of rape kits or other evidence collection measures that would aid the victim in the prosecution of her case. If anything, public acknowledgement of the crime is considered a confession of moral laxity and many rape victims face even further sexual harassment from the police.

THE feudal social structures that dominate most of Pakistan's rural areas impose even more strictures on rape victims. Most of Pakistan's population subsists on agriculture and the absence of land reform means feudal systems, with their own archaic systems of parallel justice, continue to remain deeply entrenched in rural society. In many areas of Sind and Punjab controlled by feudal landlords, justice is meted out not by the court system but by local jirgas and panchayats.

These informal courts outdo even the Zina and Hudood Ordinances in their despicable treatment of women. The decisions promulgated by these informal justice systems do not just fail to punish rape crimes but actually promote rape and sexual violence against women by using sexual crimes as tools of revenge and punishment. As in the case of Mukhtaran Mai, where a tribal jirga actually issued a sentence promulgating the gang rape as an act of revenge against her tribe, these jirgas and panchayats routinely enforce the forcible exchange and persecution of women as a means of enforcing justice.

In reported cases, girls as young as five are married to men over the age of 40 in exchange for land disputes and other matters. Transgression by male members of tribes can be punished by ordering rapes of their wives, daughters or sisters. In a crude, archaic and draconian manner, women's bodies are presented as sites of torture and revenge and are completely dehumanised and denigrated. Reports of these crimes appear daily in Pakistani newspapers, yet the government persists in its obstinate denial of the fact that sexual violence in Pakistan is a problem worthy of official concern.

General Musharraf's repeated insistence that "rape occurs everywhere" illustrates the staunch and dogged denial that defines the government response. While, admittedly, rapes do occur in all parts of the world, there are few comparable examples of instances where informal justice networks like "jirgas" and "panchayats" actually issue sentences of rape and sexual torture as part of criminal justice. Despite the fact that a Sind High Court decision issued in 2004 declared all jirgas unlawful, they continue to mete out and enforce decisions in large parts of the country.

Women's groups in Pakistan have been drawing attention to the obstacles faced by victims of sexual violence for many decades. Activists such as Anis Haroon and Asma Jehangir have faced serious backlash from the Musharraf government for being vocal about his regime's superficial commitment to women's causes. They have met with severe opposition from the Musharraf administration and have been labelled "westernised fringe elements" with extremist tendencies.

The Asian-American Network Against Abuse of Women (ANAA), which has sought to draw international attention to victims of sexual violence in Pakistan, has also faced all manner of threats, intimidation and smear campaigns for publicising the ineptitude of the Musharraf administration in dealing with problems facing women. When ANAA invited Mukhtaran Mai to a speaker tour in the United States, the Musharraf government actually placed her under house arrest and used a variety of psychological and other pressure tactics to force her to cancel her tour. In order to detract from the real issue of women's rights, a variety of lies about ANAA's funding and intentions were circulated by the administration among the press and ANAA was publicly accused of defaming Pakistan and playing to neo-conservative and anti-Pakistan elements within the Bush administration.

The overview of the collusion of legal, social and political forces against acknowledging the breadth of the problem of sexual violence in Pakistan illustrates how the General's words are a garish and disturbing reflection of the social and institutional challenges faced by rape victims in Pakistan. The President, in accusing rape victims of complicity in being raped, reflects the callous, disrespectful and misogynistic attitude rape victims face in their search for justice. The evidentiary requirements, the punishment of rape victims instead of the perpetrators of the crime, the relegation of women to the status where their bodies become instruments of torture and revenge all reflect the paltry status of women in Pakistani society.

The estimation of a woman's worth can be weighed in terms of the institutional safeguards provided to women in protecting their bodies, lives and persons. The complete absence of laws that prohibit sexual harassment and the punishment and maligning of victims of sexual crimes is an illustration of the low priority that the welfare of women is given by the current and past Pakistani governments.

The inability of the current administration even to recognise the intensity of the problem and its malicious denigration of women who choose to speak publicly about their ordeal reflect a system and a social and cultural mindset that does not see respect for and empowerment of women as a worthy goal.

Taboos fulfil an important role in society. They allow people to avoid dealing with issues that are uncomfortable to confront and that detract from idealised self-images of purity and moral righteousness. As victims of rape, such as Dr. Shazia Khalid and Mukhtaran Mai, come forward and rupture the delicate fabrics of denial that hide the garish ugly reality of sexual crimes against women in Pakistan, they are subjected to an onslaught of suspicion and malice borne out of an unwillingness to confront and deal with the problem of sexual violence. General Musharraf's words are a prime example of the malevolent backlash of a social, political and legal system that would rather bask in the comforts of denial than deal with a festering problem that grows unabated.

ANAA's mission is to assist the courageous survivors who choose not to give in to the malicious and subversive intimidation tactics and draw attention to a problem that must be confronted if it is to be solved. Along with civil society organisations in Pakistan, we hope to focus on the incredible courage and resilience of the Pakistani woman. We make it clear to all detractors that Pakistani women are worthy of protecting; breaking taboos and speaking out against the injustice of rape is an act of courage worthy of praise and admiration.

Rafia Zakaria is a lawyer and member of Asian-American Network Against Abuse of Women.

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