August issue 2002

By | News & Politics | Published 22 years ago

Ghulam Farid Gujjar sits in a state of quiet despair surrounded by a group of sympathetic relatives, neighbours, policemen and onlookers outside his small house in the village of Meerwala, Tehsil Jatoi, 115 kilometres south west of Multan. Every now and then he rises to greet the media personnel and government functionaries who arrive at his door. There is nothing unusual about the day’s happenings. They have become a daily ritual in the life of the 67-year-old farmer ever since his eldest daughter was gang-raped by four men on the night of June 22, at the behest of a so-called panchayat or local non-official court.

Inside the kutcha house, the 35-year-old victim, Mukhtar Bibi, swathed in a worn-out chaddar, head bowed in shame and anguish, relates for the umpteenth time, to the pressmen and government officials who approach her, the events of that horrendous night.

The Gujjar family owns two acres of agricultural land which is the sole source of sustenance for them. Near the Gujjar household, resides Abdul Khaliq Mastoi along with his family. Abdul Khaliq belongs to the Mastoi tribe of about 20,000 people, who have vast expanses of agricultural land in the area and enjoy the political backing of Nasrullah Khan Jatoi, a local feudal landlord. The head of the Mastoi tribe, Faiz Buksh Mastoi, one of the accused in the rape case, is Nasrullah Khan Jatoi’s close-aide and the local police have a history of favouring the Mastoi tribe.

On June 22, at 3:00 pm, Abdul Khaliq’s younger brother, Pannu, heard Salma, his 18-year-old sister, talking to a male while she was working in the fields adjoining their house. When Pannu enquired about his identity, Salma informed him that Abdul Shakoor, Ghulam Farid’s 14-year-old son, was harassing her. Soon thereafter, an enraged Pannu, accompanied by his cousins, Jameel and Manzoor Ahmed, allegedly abducted Shakoor and the men sodomised him in turn in the nearby fields, in the process also cutting him with knives.

Fearing retribution, the assailants took Shakoor to Abdul Khaliq, who locked him inside a room in his house, along with his sister, Salma. He then informed his tribesmen that he had caught Abdul Shakoor sexually assaulting Salma and had locked him in his house. As a result, a crowd of 70 odd Mastois gathered outside Abdul Khaliq’s house, some of them heavily armed, and demanded vengeance.

Meanwhile, Mukhtar Bibi and her mother informed their brother, Hazoor Buksh, who was working in the fields, about the incident. Hazoor Buksh rushed to the police station and reported the incident. At 7:30 pm, ASI Mohammad Iqbal, accompanied by three policemen, arrived at the scene and asked the Mastois to release Shakoor. Abdul Khaliq refused and stated that this was their personal matter and hence, would be settled in the panchayat, comprising the horde of Mastois gathered outside Abdul Khaliq’s house.

Since Abdul Khaliq refused to hand Shakoor over, the ASI approached Faiz Buksh Mastoi for help and he secured Shakoor’s release and handed him over to the police party. Taking him into custody the police detained him in Jatoi Police Station. In the meantime, the police party asked the Mastois and the Gujjars to mutually settle the matter and asked them to report to them the terms of the settlement. Despite the fact that Shakoor had narrated the incident of his rape to the ASI, no action was taken against the Mastois. In fact, Shakoor was taken into custody not for the purpose of a medical check-up which should have been conducted to determine the veracity of his charge, but to secure a bribe in exchange for his release.

After the police party’s departure, the Mastois, represented by Mohammad Ramzan Pechar, informed Ghulam Farid that if he did not come to the panchayat, his house would be attacked. Accompanied by Maulvi Abdul Razzaq and Manzoor Hussain, Ghulam Farid thus went to the Mastoi panchayat, and after much debate and argument it was proposed that Abdul Shakoor should be married to Salma and Mukhtar Bibi to Pannu. The proposal infuriated Abdul Khaliq, since he viewed the Gujjars as belonging to an inferior caste. He rejected it outright, going one further and demanding that Mukhtar be presented before the panchayat, and threatening to attack Ghulam Farid’s house and rape all the Gujjar women if his demand was not met.

Fearing for the safety of his family and on account of the assurances provided by the panchayat that Mukhtar would not be harmed, Ghulam Farid and his brother-in-law, Sabir Hussain, brought Mukhtar Bibi to the panchayat. There the Farids’ ordeal was compounded manifold. Four men from the assembly — Abdul Khaliq, Allah Ditta, Fayyaz Hussain and Ghulam Farid — forced Mukhtar into a room and gang-raped her as the remaining tribesmen restrained Ghulam Farid and Sabir Hussain, who could do nothing but plead to the heavens for mercy.

After the rape, Mukhtar Bibi was sent out of the room in a semi-nude state, a symbolic gesture signifying that the Mastois had exacted reprisal and hence, had upheld their honour. Following the rape the Mastois allowed the Gujjars to leave, but their ordeal was far from over since Shakoor was still in police custody.

Ghulam Farid had to sell one of his cows at a throwaway price to rustle up the 10,000 rupee bribe demanded by the police for Shakoor’s release. By this time, the incident had come to the notice of the SHO and the entire staff of the Jatoi Police Station, but still no action was taken.

Cognisant of the political clout enjoyed by the Mastois and the partisan attitude of the local police towards the latter and terrified of reprisals, Ghulam Farid chose to keep the matter under wraps. When a local landholder, Mureed Abbas, tried to motivate him to take legal action initially, he refused. However, a week later he decided to seek justice. In any case by then, a member of the press, who, reportedly, had been fired from his job, had gotten wind of the story and filed it upon the condition that the newspaper should retain his services.

criminal-2-aug02As a result of the intense media coverage and Ghulam Farid and Mukhtar Bibi’s complaint, on June 30 a case was registered in the Jatoi Police Station. This notwithstanding, human rights activists of the area alleged that the SHO of the police station tried to falsify the information and presented Faiz Buksh Mastoi as an “innocent bystander” in the FIR. Furthermore, he failed to mention the sexual assault on Abdul Shakoor. However, on July 4, following intensive media coverage of the incident and due to Abdul Shakoor’s statement, another case was registered in the same police station in which the complainant accused Manzoor Ahmed, Mohammed Jameel and Pannu of abduction and rape.

The innocence and dignity of a woman are not all that have been lost in Meerwala. So too have the farcical state-projected claims of a gender equitable Pakistan. The writing on the wall: women in Pakistani society are considered lesser beings, at par with family property, and repositories of the family honour.

According to reports, in the Punjab, one woman is raped every hour and gang-raped every fourth day. According to the HRCP (Human Rights Commission of Pakistan), 150 women were sexually assaulted between January-June 2002, out of which 64 were married and 86 unmarried.

Furthermore, 82 women were murdered and 40 women became victims of honour killings during the same period.

The two main factors that contribute to violence against women are conceptions of honour and women’s commodification. Women are seen to embody the honour of the men to whom they ‘belong,’ and as such they must guard their chastity. By being perceived to enter an ‘illicit’ sexual relationship, a woman defiles the honour of her guardian and his family. She becomes kari and forfeits the right to life.

In most communities there is no other punishment for a kari but death. A man’s ability to protect his honour is judged by his family and neighbors. He must publicly demonstrate his power to safeguard his honour by killing those who damaged it and thereby restore it. Honour killings consequently are often performed in full glare of the public.

A man’s honour, defiled by a woman’s alleged or real sexual misdemeanor or other defiance, is only partly restored by killing her. He also has to kill the man allegedly involved. Since a kari is murdered first, the karo often hears about it and flees.

To settle the issue, a faisla (agreement, meeting) or jirga is set up if both sides — the man whose honour is defiled and the escaped karo — agree; it is attended by representatives of both sides and headed by the local tribal chief (sardar), his subordinate or a local landlord. The tribal justice dispensed by the jirga or faisla is not intended to elicit truth and punish the culprit. Justice means restoring the balance by compensation for damage. The karo who gets away has to pay compensation in order for his life to be spared. Compensation can be in the form of money or the transfer of a woman or both.

In the context of the Meerwala incident, the focal point of the media coverage has been the fact that the gang rape of Mukhtar Bibi was done on the orders of the jirga but the fact of the matter is that the so-called panchayat or jirga that assembled on June 22 in Meerwala consisted solely of Mastoi tribesmen which basically is in contravention of the true essence of the jirga, which stipulates that the composition of the jirga should be of tribal elders (with no vested interests in the issue at stake) and equal representation of the involved parties. In Meerwala the jirga was headed by Faiz Buksh Mastoi, the chief of the Mastoi tribe. Therefore, rather than viewing the verdict as being a jirga decision it should be seen as a case of a stronger and influential tribe wreaking havoc on the lie of a weaker rival.

Most tribal chiefs in Pakistan have enjoyed higher education; many hold office in the country’s legislature on the basis of their tribes’ allegiance and bloc voting pattern; all are at least locally, and many nationally, influential. However, many tribal chiefs do not appear to integrate their roles in national politics and their tribal milieu, keeping the norms, standards and discourses well apart. They hold jirgas with unquestioned authority, then fly to Islamabad to take part in a formally democratic system based on the notion of equality for all.

criminal-3-aug02The view that the jirga system serves the tribal community best is widespread among these tribal chiefs. Ome Kalsoom, District Coordinator of CRC (Child Rights Committee) Muzzafargarh, says that in most cases both sides to a conflict have trust in the tribal chief as arbitrator and therefore do not lie before him. This makes it easier for the chief to settle a dispute than the regular judiciary where people lie and bribe the police.

Local commentators point out that most tribal chiefs are loath to introduce change for fear of losing their hold on tribal society. “The winds of change which come with education, economic development and exposure to the outside world have not been allowed to blow in the regions inhabited by the tribes of Pakistan,” said an analyst.

The concept of women as a commodity, not human beings endowed with dignity and rights equal to those of men, is also deeply rooted in the country’s rural tradition. Advocate Rashid Rahman, a Multan-based human rights activist, explains: “Women are considered the property of the males in their family irrespective of their class, ethnic or religious group. The owner of the property has the right to decide its fate. The concept of ownership has turned women into a commodity which can be exchanged, bought and sold. ”

The commodification of women is also the basis of the tradition of vani when a woman is handed over to an adversary to settle a conflict, as was the case in an incident that took place on July 23 in the village of Abbakhel, located at a distance of 12 kilometres from Mianwali. In this instance, four murder convicts managed to save themselves from the gallows after agreeing to pay eight million rupees and eight girls of their family as ‘compensation’ to the aggrieved party.

The four convicts, Sardar Khan, Muhammad Akram Khan, Muhammad Ashraf Khan and Asmatullah Khan, were awarded the death sentence in 1988 by the District and Sessions Judge Mianwali, for the 1986 double murder of Noor Khan and Saadullah Khan. After the rejection of their appeals by the superior courts and the President of Pakistan, the convicts and their relatives sought the help of influentials of the area. They approached the Nawab of Kalabagh, Malik Asad Khan, who wielded considerable influence on the aggrieved camp and was on close terms with the deceased Noor Khan. The head of the aggrieved camp, Atta Muhammad Khan, demanded 12 million rupees in compensation and 20 young girls as per the local tradition, but upon the intervention of the Nawab of Kalabagh and other influentials of the area, the aggrieved party brought down its demand to eight million and eight unmarried young girls.

The conflict between these two families, who belong to the Niazi tribe and are related to each other by way of marriage, dates back to 1956 when Noor Khan, Atta Muhammad Khan’s brother, murdered Bahadur Khan, father of the convicts, over a property dispute. At the time, Bahadur Khan’s father forgave Noor Khan without demanding any compensation and the terms between both the families improved. But in 1986, Noor Khan bought four kanals of land near Sardar Khan’s property. This rekindled the conflict, since Sardar Khan suspected that this demonstrated Noor Khan’s intentions to usurp his property. As a result, Sardar Khan along with Muhammad Akram Khan, Muhammad Ashraf Khan and Asmatullah Khan, brutally murdered Noor Khan and his nephew Saadullah Khan.

According to a member of the convicts’ family, due to the fact that the mercy petition had been rejected by the President of Pakistan, Atta Muhammad Khan, who really wasn’t interested in reaching a settlement, laid down harsh terms which the the convicts’ family were forced to accept to save the lives of their loved ones.

The most horrifying aspect of this deal was the fact that two teenaged girls, Waziran Khatoon, 17, and Tasleem Khatoon, 15, were married to 77-year old and 55-year old men of the aggrieved family. Atta Mohammad Khan, 77, selected Tasleem Khatoon, 15-year daughter of Sardar Khan, for himself while his 55-year old nephew and father of six, Meher Khan, selected Waziran Khatoon, the 17-year-old daughter of Akram Khan as his wife.

Luckily for the girls, the matter was leaked to the press, reportedly by some members of the aggrieved party who opposed the practice of vani and had earlier refused to marry the girls as per the terms of the settlement. Thus the local police authorities besieged the village on July 24 and stopped the rukhsati of Wazeeran Khatoon and Tasleem Khatoon, whose nikahs had been performed earlier in the day. The police forced the grooms to sign the divorce papers and hence the girls were saved from being sacrificed for the sins of their fathers.

In addition to Waziran Khatoon and Tasleem Khatoon, one-year old Ifra, five-year old Iqra, six-year old Zeenat and seven-year old Samina, were due to be betrothed to various males of the aggrieved family once they were of age. The remaining two rishtas were yet to be determined, since Aslam Khan, headmaster of the local primary school, whose wife is incidentally Abdullah Khan’s cousin, refused to give his young daughter’s hand in marriage and agreed to pay an additional one million rupees to the aggrieved party.

Upon annulment of the marriages, there was fear in the community that the settlement would disintegrate, but both the parties met in Kalabagh on July 27 at the residence of Malik Asad Khan, Nawab of Kalabagh, and agreed to adhere to the revised deal: eight million rupees minus the girls.

What is perturbing is how the local community and the involved parties reacted to the intervention by the administration, which lead to the revision of the original terms of settlement. A village elder said the compromise was in accordance with the age-old traditions of the area to end an old enmity and the administration had no right to interfere in such matters. Zafarullah, another family member, criticised the government for excluding the girls from the deal. “People of this area do not mind exchanging their girls in such deals. It is a custom here. What matters to us is the money.” He feared the release of the convicts might not end the rivalry between the two tribes because a huge sum of money was involved.

Abdullah Khan, son of the deceased Noor Khan, said his family had now forgiven the six girls. He added, that initially he was not too keen about involving the girls in the settlement but his uncle, Atta Muhammad Khan, who, according to Abdullah was a traditionalist, made the demand for the girls since he thought that this would go a long way towards ending the old enmity and enable the two families to share cordial relations. He also contended that a major share of the blame rests upon the judicial system, since he had spent five to six million rupees on the murder case and had been made to suffer for the last 17 years.

The two would-be grooms Meher Khan and Atta Muhammad Khan meanwhile, were not enthusiastic about the revised terms of settlement. They alleged that the police had tortured them to sign the divorce papers and that after the revision of the settlement it didn’t seem too likely that the enmity between the two families would end.

For their part, Waziran Khatoon and Tasleem Khatoon, the two girls whose lives hung in the balance, both with two years of college to their credit, were extremely critical of the vani tradition. They maintained that although they had consented to marry Atta Muhammad and Meher Khan, they did so only to save the lives of their respective fathers, but did so fully cognisant of the inevitable nightmare that lay ahead.

As for the three convicts, Muhammad Akram Khan, Muhammad Ashraf Khan, they contended that the marriages would have averted the loss of numerous lives in the future — almost a certainty since the feud between the concerned families was not over because one side had reneged on the deal struck.

Aziz-ur-Rahman, a Mianwali-based lawyer, commenting on the incident, stated that “the interplay of tribal codes, Islamic law, Indo-British judicial traditions and customary traditions [have] created an atmosphere of oppression around women, where any advantage or opportunity offered to women by one law is cancelled out by one or more of the others.” Traditional norms, Islamic provisions (as interpreted in Pakistan) and statutory law diverge in many areas relevant to women’s lives, including control of assets, inheritance, marriage, divorce, sexual relations, rape and custody. The government of Pakistan has failed to wake women aware of their legal and constitutional rights and to ensure that these rights and freedoms take precedence over norms which deny women equality. The lives of women who are by and large confined to the private sphere do not benefit from constitutionally secured fundamental rights.

Among statutory laws, the 1990 law of Qisas and Diyat covers offences relating to physical injury, manslaughter and murder. The law reconceptualised the offences in such a way that they are not directed against the legal order of the state but against the victim. A judge in the Supreme Court explained: “In Islam, the individual victim or his heirs retain from the beginning to the end, entire control over the matter including the crime and the criminal. They may not report it, they may not prosecute the offender. They may abandon prosecution of their free will. They may pardon the criminal at any stage before the execution of the sentence. They may accept monetary or other compensation to purge the crime and the criminal. They may compromise. They may accept Qisas [punishment equal to the offence] from the criminal. The state cannot interfere; in fact, it must do its best to assist them in achieving their objective and appropriately exercising their rights.”

This reconceptualisation of offences has sent the signal that murders of family members are a family affair and that prosecution and judicial redress are negotiable but not inevitable.

The law of Qisas and Diyat prescribes that the death penalty may not be imposed for murder as either qisas [punishment equal to the offence committed] or tazir [discretionary punishment, when the evidence is insufficient to impose qisas] when the wali [heir] of the victim is a direct descendant of the offender. In such cases the court may only impose a maximum of 14 years’ imprisonment. Thus, if a man murders his wife with whom he has a child — who then is the victim’s heir and the descendent of the offender — he can at most be sentenced to 14 years’ imprisonment.

All of this notwithstanding, tribal laws, which are at the core of the incidents in Meerwala and Abbakhel, are received rules and guidelines for behaviour in a particular society. They have evolved, withstood the test of time and actually work in their environments. Tribal laws aren’t introduced in committees, debated by tribal lobbyists and lawmakers, written in stone or in a big book of tribal laws, or enforced by tribal policemen. Tribal laws are unique for each society because each society inhabits a unique environment — what works for aggressive, xenophobic desert people wouldn’t necessary work for laid-back, hospitable forest dwellers. Tribal laws generally don’t try to change human nature because people are just as likely to be selfish, boorish, disruptive or hostile as they are to be generous, gracious, or peaceable. Rather, they work to bring balance to the system and to correct the damage that occurs when people behave in ways that aren’t beneficial. Tribal laws don’t require people to be angels in order to work — they accept the fact that people will behave like people have always behaved. Yet, they can be pernicious, especially when women feature in the equation.

But there are some pockets of hope, like the youngsters who refused to partake in the vani tradition in Mianwali and leaked the details of the incident to the local press, which was essentially what saved the innocence of Waziran Khatoon and Tasleem Khatoon. Unfortunately, what transpired in Mianwali was an exception rather than the norm. Unless concrete steps are taken by the government to ensure that barbaric and archaic customs are abolished in the country and women are granted the legal protections available to them and those guilty of crimes against women are punished severely, shame will continue to walk the streets of Meerwala and Mianwali and women will continue to live in a state of constant fear. This state of affairs was poignantly described by a pubescent girl in a small Sindhi village: “My brother’s eyes forever follow me. My father’s gaze guards me all the time, stern, angry… We stand accused and condemned to be declared kari and murdered.”