May Issue 2016
Prisoners of Gender
“Going by the statistics, each day 12 women suffer rape in the “land of the pure,” according to a statement released by the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) on 18 April, 2016. Which means that a rape occurs every two hours in Pakistan.
In April 2016, a jirga in the Ghulam Nabi Shah area of Umerkot, settled the gang rape case of a 14-year-old. The compensation awarded to the victim: 30 maunds (approximately 200 kilos) of wheat. The local influential claimed the settlement was by mutual consent between the victim and the rapist’s family. The rape survivor’s father, however, claimed he was forced to settle on terms set by the jirga which had been formed by the same influential. This, despite the fact that the case had been registered with the police.
The same month in PIMS, the capital’s foremost hospital, a paralysed 22-year-old female patient in the surgical ICU, was sexually violated by a male nurse. The hospital delayed notifying the police about the incident for two days — despite the victim’s father having lodged an immediate complaint. Furthermore, the hospital administration gave assorted versions of the incident, basically stating the incident was perhaps a misguided attempt to rape, not rape itself. The investigating police officials, were however, having none of it. They termed the delay in reporting the crime tantamount to criminal negligence.
At the end of February, a 13-year-old studying in the fourth grade in a school in Larkana was found to be nine weeks pregnant as a result of being repeatedly raped by her teacher. After a fact-finding mission, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) said that, apart from the dire impact of the crime on the victim, the incident had also had an adverse effect on girls’ education in the area, since parents were now afraid to send their daughters to the school as it had no female teacher.
In early January, a seven-year-old boy went missing from Moza Soda Basti in Bahawalnagar, and a day later his corpse was discovered near a Christian district in the Punjab. A post-mortem examination revealed he had been killed after being brutally gang-raped. Subsequent investigations yielded more information: the perpetrators were four men from affluent families who were drunk when they had abducted the boy and brutalised him.
These are a few examples of the assorted, ongoing sexual crimes against women and children in the country that have surfaced in 2016. The gang rape of Mukhtaran Mai in 2002 broke the glass ceiling of the hitherto highly taboo subject of rape. But following Mai’s courage to stand up and fight back, rape cases became popular media fodder. And the sensationalism witnessed in rape reportage was singularly insensitive: media men didn’t hesitate to give out names and details of rape victims. Finally PEMRA stepped in and took measures to address such practice. That did not, however, lead to any significant change in rape reportage.
According to War Against Rape (WAR), a non-profit organisation that works specifically in this field in Karachi, although the filing of official reports of rape has seen a decrease, it is hard to tell whether this is due to a decrease in crimes of a sexual nature or whether there are just fewer reports being filed.
Rukhsana Siddiqi, a programme officer with WAR who has worked with rape survivors for the last seven years, says, “Generally when the rape survivors are of a young age, people are more sympathetic. But when the victims are older — in their late teens or early twenties — people assume they have been having affairs and rule out rape.” She says previously getting an FIR registered in a rape case was extremely difficult; a supreme achievement in itself. Now, she concedes, at least that has been made easier in the city — but it is still not without problems. Siddiqi has observed a decrease in reported rape cases in Karachi in the last couple of years despite the media highlighting the issue. She says, “Earlier we used to have several files on rape investigations, but now we have fewer by comparison. People are not stepping forward as much as they used to.”
The reluctance to file a First Investigation Report (FIR) for rape is not difficult to comprehend. Difficulties abound from the onset. First the accused, along with his family, try to prevent the victim from lodging an FIR. When it becomes clear that the FIR is inevitable, the accused and his family resort to availing technical loopholes by trying to manipulate, influence or bribe the police from leaving out Section 376 (for rape) or 376/34 (for gang rape) in the report, thereby creating doubt about the rape itself.
Even once the case has been filed, the victim’s ordeal is ongoing. A rape survivor’s family has to deal with numerous issues in the aftermath. Eking out a livelihood while pursuing the case, dealing with the media glare, social stigma, and threats, blackmail etc., often result in families withdrawing their cases. And in several instances, families of rape survivors in Karachi have had to relocate, not once, but several times because of endless harassment.
Take the incidence of Kainat Soomro’s abduction and gang rape by four men in 2007, when she was just 13 years old. When her family refused to accept she was a kari, (a woman accused of sexual impropriety), as declared by the village elders — and therefore subject to honour-killing — her entire family was forced to flee their village in Dadu, but not before one of her brothers was killed. Almost a decade later they still haven’t been able to return. Against such a backdrop, victims of rape and their families don’t want to face similar situations. They are also advised by others to back down. “The kind of pressure and difficulties the survivors’ and their families face, especially during trial, takes a great deal of courage to face,” says Siddiqi.
It also takes lawyers great resilience to fight rape cases, especially if it’s a woman representing a victim, because she also faces the same threats, harassment and abuse from opposing counsels and their clients as the victims do from their perpetrators. Successful convictions can take years, but in 2015 seven sexual assault cases that WAR supported, received guilty verdicts. The cases took from a year to six years to achieve convictions, but the average is between two to three years.
Advocate Asiya Munir, who works for WAR, has won 32 rape cases between 2003-2015. She says, “Since the victims know nothing of the process, it is up to their lawyer to guide them step by step and they need a lot of counselling, almost on a daily basis. The first statement is given under the CrPC Section 164 before the magistrate, after the FIR and medio-legal officer’s report. It is always very stressful for the victims, especially since the investigating police officers are all males.”
Rape survivors are invariably tense coming to court and need constant reassurance that the predators will be punished if they persevere with their case. In order to minimise their anxiety and allay their fears, Munir coaches them on how to give statements and preps them on the type of questions and accusations the defence lawyers will hurl at them. She also keeps reiterating that they must never be provoked into losing their temper.
While Munir agrees that families of rape survivors are afraid of media attention, she also adds that the longer the case drags on, the more it benefits the accused. The repeated visits to court with no end in sight disheartens the complainants, and the other side keeps extending the dates on some pretext or another. Finally, concerned for their daughters’ future and marriage possibilities, families often tend to give up. They feel the worst has already happened, and justice is elusive.
Munir cites the case of a masquerading spiritual healer who raped his friend’s daughter. As a pir baba, he promised to heal his ailing friend and soon the entire family came under his spell. He abused the family’s trust and raped his friend’s 22-year-old daughter after giving her something to drink and took several videos as well, which, when the case came to light, were presented in court. The lawyer of the fake healer tried to prove that the victim was a willing party to the healer’s sexual advances, but Advocate Munir demurred and the charlatan ‘holy man’ was convicted, imprisoned and fined. He has now appealed the verdict.
“When we talk about rape against women and children, our research shows that the majority of the survivors of sexual violence are children. The average age of sexual violence is seven. We have cases in which victims are as young as four-years-old,” said Dr. Bari, a WAR working committee member, to a stunned seminar audience. In five out of the seven cases won by WAR last year, the rape victims were between the ages of six and eight. Two were awarded the death sentence, four received life imprisonment, and one got 17 years in prison. Munir says perpetrators can be neighbours, relatives, acquaintances and are usually people from the area the victims live in.
Bashir Ahmed was a predator who was convicted in two separate cases of sexual assault. In the first case, an eight-year-old minor had gone missing from his neighbourhood in Joharabad one evening and a search ensued. Luckily, a young boy passing by heard suspicious sounds coming from Bashir Ahmed’s residence and he immediately informed the minor’s family and the police. The victim was recovered from Bashir Ahmed’s house. The offender was also found guilty of kidnapping and murdering a six-year-old, with his friends from the same neigbourhood. He was convicted and awarded life imprisonment for the first case and received the death sentence for the latter.
The punishment for rape is life imprisonment or capital punishment, but getting a verdict can take years. A judgment for a case that began in 2009 is a case in point. The case was decided in 2015 because during the first trial, the accused didn’t have a lawyer. Without a defence lawyer, a rape trial cannot take place. Advocate Munir reminded the judge that the accused was without legal counsel, and the government should provide one to represent him. The judge finally realised his mistake when the case came to the time of judgment. He did not give a ruling, as he knew this would only benefit the accused. So the case had to be retried and took another three years. Six years after the crime had been committed, the rapist was finally given a life sentence. Only three women’s police stations are in operation in Karachi, but according to WAR, very few rape cases are referred there. This may be because people usually go to the nearest police station they can find to report a crime. Also, because there are only three women’s police stations, often people are not even aware of them, so rape cases do not get reported there, although these stations are empowered to deal with rape cases for all of Karachi. As a result, Advocate Munir and Siddiqui point out, all rape cases are investigated by male police officers, who choose not to refer them to the womens’ stations. This could be because the male officers reportedly make money from rape cases, blackmailing either the victim or the accused in exchange for help with their cases.
It is very stressful for rape victims to recount sexual assaults they were subjected to before the male police officers investigating their cases. Most are reluctant to give the lurid, ugly details. Rukhsana Siddiqui emphasises, “It should be made mandatory for all rape cases to be investigated by women police officers. Rape survivors and their families would then be more at ease in stepping forward to report such incidences. Also, there should be a female police cell in each and every police station instead of separate women’s police stations.” The court order is that DNA evidence is not necessary in every case. Three important anti-rape bills lapsed in 2015 after being passed by the Senate because the National Assembly session did not convene within the prescribed time for their approval. These bills sought to amend the Pakistan Penal Code, the Code of Criminal Procedure and the Qanoon-i-Shahadat “to improve the rate of prosecution, make DNA tests mandatory within 24 hours of the receipt of rape report, resolution of rape cases within six months, protection of the rape victim’s identity and the imposition of penalties for publicly revealing personal details of rape victims,” (HRCP Annual Report 2015). These included: The Anti-Rape Laws (Criminal Laws Amendment) Bill 2015, the Anti-Honour Killing (Criminal Laws Amendment Bill) 2015, and The Torture, Custodial Death and Custodial Rape (Prevention & Punishment) Bill 2015.
Custodial rape is an even darker aspect of the crime, especially because it is committed by men in uniform. “It is not simply a matter of blaming a proportion of perverts in society, when state functionaries are themselves indulging in rape with abandon,” says the AHRC. Rape victims justifiably fear approaching police stations, not just for being shamed again, but also for fear of falling prey to abuse by the police officials themselves — who are notorious for such criminal behaviour.
It is no secret that that accused and imprisoned women are commonly subjected to custodial torture and rape by law enforcement officials, but these crimes receive minimal attention as they are committed far from the public eye — usually behind the very bars the women are confined by. And on those rare occasions, when these offences do come to light, they are soon hushed up. Law enforcement officials are also known to extract confessions — even false ones — from individuals by raping their female relatives, sometimes in front of them.
Last October, 20-year-old Sonia Bibi from Muzaffargarh committed self-immolation as a protest in front of a police station in Punjab when the police refused to register her case. Her rapists were three police officers. It was only at her deathbed that her case came to the attention of the media, and the police officers were arrested.
Sometimes police officials abduct women from the streets or from their homes with the intent of rape, especially in rural areas. On April 6, a 20-year-old mentally disabled woman was kidnapped from her house and raped by the station house officer of Digri Police Station in Badin District. After an FIR was registered, he was suspended and later arrested, but with the aid of his friends-in-arms, he escaped police custody.
Zohra Yusuf, Chairperson of HRCP says, “Convictions don’t take place because of a lack of evidence, as well as a lack of interest among the police and the prosecutors. The evidence usually isn’t available because women don’t know what to do after a sexual assault, and their families want to hush it up. Also, there aren’t enough medico-legal officers for such cases. If a city like Karachi has only a few, imagine the dearth in rural areas.”
“The role of a medico-legal officer is crucial to win a rape case,” said assistant police surgeon and senior medico-legal officer, JPMC, Dr. Kaleem Sheikh, during the WAR seminar. “It’s the medico-legal department that makes the case. It’s their examinations and report that are shown in court. Unfortunately, considering the population of Karachi, there are only a total of nine medical legal departments — with the major ones at the Civil Hospital, Abbasi Shaheed Hospital and the JPMC, which work round the clock. The other six are minor ones and don’t have the necessary facilities.”
He continued, “Also there are very few women medico-legal officers (WMLO). JPMC had three — one retired, one got transferred and the third received her transfer orders yesterday, which I refused to approve because then we’d have no one left to examine female cases. Male doctors cannot do physical examinations of rape victims or the post mortem of women. And the reason we don’t have the necessary female power is because in rape cases, the defence lawyers and the families of the accused harass and threaten them to the extent that no woman wants to join this profession.”
According to the HRCP Report of 2015, the recorded victims of sexual violence, which include gang rape, rape, harassment, sodomy and stripping, numbered 939. Although efforts were made at both the public and private level to address this increasing menace, the level of convictions is shockingly low. Lack of consistency, coordination, effective mechanisms and a serious commitment at the government level on the implementation of laws, are the ground realities. The system itself is flawed because it is male-oriented to the extreme.
“We get annual updates on data and incidents of violence against women and girls, including rape and gang-rape, primarily from the HRCP and the Aurat Foundation’s annual reports. These organisations themselves do not claim that their figures tell the whole story, as both compile their data from the incidents reported in newspapers/media and police records. However, as we know only too well, the overwhelming majority of crimes against women are never reported to the police or in the media, especially in the vast rural hinterland of Pakistan — for well-documented reasons. Hence, the data found in these reports is just the tip of a huge iceberg,” says Tahira Abdullah, a women’s activist.
And given the resistance to the legislation aiming to protect women from even domestic violence — the Punjab Protection of Women Against Violence Act continues to be virulently opposed by the self-professed custodians of Islam — chances are that crimes against women are not likely to cease any time in the near future.
But women will not be silenced.
On March 8, International Women’s Day, at a conference in Karachi titled, ‘Hum Aurtain — No More Violence,’ a charter of demands prepared by the Tehrik-e-Niswan, was endorsed by 700 women who attended the event. Among the demands, a message: “Our message to all past, present and future rapists and those who perpetrate violence against women and girls is, ‘Our honour is not in your hands, your body, or your mind. Our honour is also not in our bodies, which you seek to control by brute force. Our honour is inherent and intrinsic; it resides in our minds, hearts and souls, where you can never reach; and which you will never control.”
In October 2011, Tahir, a cleric who taught children at a local madrassah in Korangi the recitation of the Quran, called out to six-year-old Kiran, who was on her way to a nearby shop, to come to him. She was not one of his pupils, but she complied. On some vague pretext he then convinced her to climb up to the roof of the mosque, where he proceeded to rape her. Kiran’s cries eventually forced him to let her go and he fled.
Somehow Kiran reached home, where her parents’ worst fears were realised. Her blood-stained clothes were evidence enough, but Kiran’s narration of the facts was even more damning: their daughter had been raped. They immediately took her to the madrassah to lodge a complaint with the pesh imam against Tahir. At first he refused to listen and the mosque administration denied having any connection with the cleric. When the family persisted, however, they were allowed to enter the mosque to see for themselves where Kiran said she had been assaulted. Inside Kiran saw her rapist. With no hesitation, she told all those present what he had done to her.
When Kiran’s mother expressed her outrage, the mosque’s administration officials threatened to have her and her husband beaten if they didn’t leave. Kiran’s parents were undeterred: they filed an FIR and then had a medico-legal officer conduct a physical examination of their daughter. When they learnt of this case, the WAR office immediately contacted Kiran’s family and offered their services.
As the days wore on, Kiran became increasingly disturbed. She started suffering from psychological problems, had difficulty sleeping, stopped attending school and was too scared to go out to play. She also became progressively weak physically, and contracted a urine infection. The family’s misfortunes continued as during the court case that ensued, Kiran’s father lost his job and her mother, a seamstress, lost all her customers — mostly neighbours — because they stopped giving her their clothes for stitching. Already economically constrained, this compounded their financial problems manifold.
Next they lost their home, when their landlord refused to extend their lease. And if this weren’t enough, the family of the accused continued to alternately threaten them, plead for forgiveness, or offer monetary compensation. Kiran’s family resisted all attempts to convince them to drop the charges — and paid a heavy price for it. Meanwhile, WAR set up therapy sessions with a psychologist for Kiran, after which she slowly began to recover, and arranged for Kiran and her brother’s school fees so that they could continue their education.
The NGO also purchased a chip-making machine for their father so that he could earn a living as a street vendor. After three-and-a-half years, largely thanks to WAR and Kiran’s family’s refusal to give up, the rapist-cleric was convicted. He was awarded 25 years in jail and a Rs. 50,000 fine.
However, the accused’s family appealed the judgement. The case is now in the High Court, and his family still persists in trying to make the victim’s family withdraw the case through blackmail, a smear campaign, bribes — even an offer of marriage for Kiran, now 10 years old, to the accused — the almost 20 year age difference and sheer audacity of this proposal notwithstanding. Kiran’s father is reticent about this series of events. But Kiran’s mother remains steadfast and is vocal about what transpires in the family’s life. She complains of being followed when she steps out of her house, and has even submitted an application to the police in this regard.
The police customarily tells her to come to the station to identify her stalkers — basically presenting another set of problems for a woman who observes purdah and prior to the case, used to work only from home. Now she is forced to work as a baby-sitter because of financial difficulties. Resilient but visibly distraught she pleads with whoever will listen: “In the name of God, please let us live!”
The writer is a documentary filmmaker and activist. She is working with the Newsline as editorial assistant.