Understanding Pakistan’s culture of rape: a primer
Rape has long plagued the women of Pakistan. In a country where it is estimated less than four percent of rape cases result in conviction, it has become more than sex. Rape has become a tool of power, leaving its victims vulnerable in a world that resembles state sanctioned misogyny and oppression. From forensics to judicial safeguards, political perspectives to cultural misnomers, it leaves women powerless in one of the most populous countries on earth.
With protections continually being stripped, it is both important and difficult to unspin the entire ball of thread that is sexual assault, power, and religion in Pakistan.
A brief history of rape in Pakistan :
Rape, and other forms of sexual assault and abuse have been an intrinsic part of Pakistan’s history, stemming from the violent convulsions of the region that resulted in partition:
“Right before partition took place in August 1947, there were what we now know as the “Rape of Rawalpindi,” where Sikh and Hindu women killed their baby girls and then threw themselves into wells to avoid further “dishonor” or being raped. Women were bartered for the safety of families and some were killed by their kin, again, to protect the ‘honor’ of the family. During the Bangladesh Liberation War, more than two hundred thousand Bengali women and girls were sexually assaulted by the Pakistan Army and the religious militias.”
As if to highlight this is about power and politics and not sex :
“The rape of Muslim women by Hindu males during this period is well documented, with women also being complicit in these attacks. As was the rape of Hindu and Sikh women by Muslim males”
Yet, rape remains a contradictory nexus of shame and dominance:
It’s not hard to find veterans of the partition violence who admit sometimes with remorse, sometimes with an obscene pride that, yes, they rioted, and perhaps even killed. No one will admit to rape. Yet in 1947, there were tens of thousands of rapists Hindu, Muslim and Sikh exacting what they saw as communal vengeance, or taking advantage of the breakdown of order to brutalise and humiliate women.
The human cost during, and after partition, was severe:
Sheila Sen Gupta witnessed something of the agony of the women victims of partition when she worked with Mridula Sarabhai in locating and exchanging women who had been abducted. Khorshed Mehta served as a medical welfare worker in 1947, meeting the refugee trains as they arrived from Punjab at Old Delhi Station. She reckons that almost half the women she helped as they arrived, near destitute, had been assaulted.
Again, during the Bangladesh Liberation War:
….it is estimated that between 200,000 and 400,000 women and girls were sexually assaulted by the Pakistan armed forces and the Al-Badr (“the moon”) and the Al-Shams (“the sun”) militias that supported them.
Which of course carries a high human price :
The rapes caused thousands of pregnancies, births of war babies, abortions, incidents of infanticide and suicide, and, in addition, led to ostracisation of the victims. Recognised as one of the major occurrences of wartime rape anywhere, the atrocities ended after armed forces from neighbouring India intervened. Initially India claimed its intervention was on humanitarian grounds, but after the UN rejected this argument, India claimed intervention was needed to protect its own security, and it is now widely seen as a humanitarian move.
In 1979 Pakistan passed into law the Hudood Ordinance, which made all forms of extra-marital sex, including rape, a crime against the state. It also began, many activists say, thirty years of a nexus between the state and sexual crimes as a means to keep a geocentrically male ordered Koranic society. In 2006, Pakistan passed “The Protection of Women Bill” which sought to fix the perceived problems inherent in the Hudood Ordinance.
Between 1979 and 2006, rape was lumped together with laws criminalizing zina - extra marital sex and adultery - all of which carried a potential punishment of stoning to death if four male witnesses to the crime could be furnished. Without witnesses, rape and zina could be tried as lesser offenses under the criminal code, but police were often untrained and unwilling to collect forensic evidence that would prove force was used. Unable to prove their allegations, women were then often charged with zina based on their admission that they had had intercourse. While top courts threw almost all of the cases out on appeal, rights groups claimed thousands of women languished in prison for years awaiting the final verdicts.
In 2006, rape was moved back to the criminal code, to be prosecuted based on forensic evidence, and the practice of pursuing zina cases against women who could not prove rape was specifically prohibited.
Pakistan claims this has solved much of the issue, and that hysteria and profit are behind claims to the anterior, but i am not so sure.
“A report presented to the Senate last October said 10,703 rape cases were registered in Pakistan since 2009. According to War Against Rape (WAR), a Karachi-based NGO, less than four percent of Pakistan’s rape cases result in a conviction.”
rape is an even larger problem for women in captivity :
” Asma Jahangir, a lawyer and co-founder of the women’s rights group Women’s Action Forum, reported in a 1988 study of female detainees in Punjab that around 72 percent of them stated they had been sexually abused while in custody.
for female ‘bonded laborers:
“While bonded Labour exists throughout Sindh Province, the majority of those bonded in the north belong to the Muslim majority, while most of the bonded agricultural labourers in southern Sindh Province belong to dalit 2 (untouchable) and to tribal communities who have migrated from the drought-prone area of Tharparkar desert. Poverty and starvation have forced these communities to accept the landlords’ cash advances, and to be available for work from dawn to dusk. Bonded labourers may be detained or guarded to stop them escaping and in these situations of total ownership rape of women is not uncommon.”
And, of course, children :
In a study of child sexual abuse in Rawalpindi and Islamabad, out of a sample of 300 children 17% claimed to have been abused and in 1997 one child a day was reported as raped, gang raped or kidnapped for sexual gratification.
Pakistan’s justice problems are not necessarily restricted to rape and violence against women and minorities :
“Violent crime goes largely unpunished in Pakistan - even cases tried in special anti-terrorism courts net only an 18 percent conviction rate “
“… in the case of rape, a host of problems keeps the conviction rate in the single digits. Those include a lack of resources for DNA analysis, a dearth of female medical examiners, and a reluctance of victims to come forward. “
one reason victims may feel reluctant to come forward:
WAR is an NGO whose mission is to publicize the problem of rape in Pakistan; in a report released in 1992, of 60 reported cases of rape, 20% involved police officers.
and of course, misogyny :
“One senior police official told a delegation of local human rights activists that “in 95 percent of the cases the women themselves are at fault.”
And, while misogyny is a driving force, there are other, namely regional and cultural issues, at play:
“In our society, prosecutors and police think a crime is something to be settled among the parties.”
“Over the last five years, Karachi authorities conducted 1,482 medical examinations of suspected sexual assault victims, but only registered 387 cases. By law, police are required to always register cases.”
“This attitude is reflected in the way police handle cases of rape brought by a woman. We found that police routinely refuse to register such complaints, particularly if the complaint is lodged against a fellow officer. We also found that police officers often illegally detain women in police lock-up for days at a time without formally registering a charge against them or producing them before a magistrate within the required 24-hour period. Women can thus be held indefinitely without the knowledge of the courts. It is during these periods of “invisibility” that most sexual abuse of female detainees occurs.”
Very recently, DNA has become an area of heightened tensions within the general debate on rape and justice :
Until now, police have relied heavily on DNA tests to determine cases of rape. The Council of Islamic Ideology (CII), however, has declared that DNA tests are not admissible as the main evidence in rape cases.
In a meeting of the council on Wednesday, religious scholars observed that while the tool could aid investigation into rape complaints, it could not be taken as evidence. It could, at best, serve as supplementary evidence but could not supersede the Islamic laws laid out for determining rape complaints.”