Motorway incident and violence against women in Pakistan
Last week, a woman was gang-raped in front of her children on a major highway in the province of Punjab, the largest and most flourishing federating unit of the country, while she was driving between Lahore and Gujranwala. Ever since we have witnessed social media fury, street protests, newspaper write-ups and television shows dedicated to the incident. Many have called for the public hanging of the criminals—as if it will prevent such tragedies in the future or solve the deep-rooted problem of rape culture and misogyny that is embedded in our daily life.
If the solution to this problem was so straightforward, why does it still exist?
What we have forgotten is that last week’s gang-rape is not a one-off occurrence. Violence against women, particularly rape, is not just widely prevalent but also considered somewhat acceptable. From catcalling in the streets to more serious crimes of sexual and physical abuse, most women and girls have faced some form of violence at least once in their lives. The worst thing is that perpetrators of such offenses function with complete impunity, knowing that no formal nor informal reprimand is ever likely to take place.
Most cases remain unreported—untold and buried in the recess of the survivor’s mind and body. However, the few that make it to the news cycle are horrific: Young girls raped and murdered; women subjected to sexual violence by those who seek revenge for an alleged wrongdoing of a family member and paraded naked in the streets; or women killed under the abstract concept of honor.
Broadly, there are a few important aspects to keep in mind regarding violence against women or, more specifically, the rape culture that goes unchecked and remains rampant.
From catcalling in the streets to more serious crimes of sexual and physical abuse, most women and girls have faced some form of violence at least once in their lives. The worst thing is that perpetrators of such offenses function with complete impunity, knowing that no formal nor informal reprimand is ever likely to take place
Despite the constitutional guarantees of equality, unequal power relations, driven by discriminatory laws between the sexes, exist in Pakistan. The rule of dictator Zia-ul-Haq, through discriminatory policies and laws, allowed for patriarchy and a violent masculinity to move from the informal setting of the family to the institutions of the state. Violence against women and expecting them to remain silent became acceptable at all levels. Many discriminatory laws have been repealed, but the culture that was allowed to exist is yet to be tackled.
But how does the cycle of inequality continue?
Approximately, 32 percent of girls in Pakistan are out of school. Among other things, this translates into a lack of opportunities and employment, early marriages and an insecure future, feeding into an ongoing cycle of deprivation. There is a lack of representation of women as public officials. In the criminal justice system, there are only 1.9 percent of women in the total police force in Pakistan—and this includes all levels of police hierarchy. There are no female Supreme Court judges and very few women that occupy the remaining landscape of criminal justice system. Countries where the gender divide is large usually witness more discrimination. And it is in the context of discrimination and inequality that violence takes hold and breeds.
The views of the Lahore Capital City Police Officer (CCPO) regarding the motorway gang-rape case sprouts out of the same problem. “We cannot hold men accountable but we can, and will, keep controlling women,” is how one can paraphrase his statement. His views only bring to light the complex and misogynistic nature in which law enforcement operates in this country. Unsurprisingly, for Pakistan’s police, whether it is a dispute between a husband and wife or a murder of a woman in the name of honor, all matters can be resolved between two parties. There is no recognition that the state has a responsibility toward a disempowered citizen.
The remaining criminal justice system, particularly the lower judiciary, is no better. Crumbling under long delays and complicated procedures, there is also a lack of trained judges who can justly and sensitively deal with the cases of violence against women. Despite the 2016 amendments to the anti-rape law, which allow for in-camera proceedings, sensitive information is frequently presented before an open court. Often enough language used by defense lawyers and in judgements makes a mockery of Pakistan’s constitutional and international commitments toward women and defies the legislators’ purpose for the 2016 legal amendments.
From the police to medico-legal collection of evidence to the courtroom, the common and most obvious thread is that there is a lack of accountability of public officials who reduce the chances of justice in such cases and fail to protect women who seek redress.
Under the cultural and religious guise, Pakistan’s state and society have created a false pretense of looking out for women’s interests through many pro-women laws, international treaties that promote emancipation, lighter sentences in court cases compared to the harsher penalties handed down to men, or even letting us pay our bills before the men waiting in queue. All this hides the sinister non-existence of the state when domestic violence, “honor” crimes, and rapes take place.
The motorway incident has brought the subject of violence against women to the forefront. If this momentum is not used to make some real changes, we will lose another generation to violence.
*Benazir Jatoi is a barrister, working in Islamabad, whose work focuses on women and minority rights. She is a regular contributor to the op-ed pages in various Pakistani newspapers.