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How Pakistan Failed Its Women


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On July 20, the night before Eid ul-Adha, the biggest Muslim holiday, Pakistan was shaken to the core. A 27-year-old woman was tortured and eventually beheaded, allegedly by Zahir Jaffer, son of a business tycoon, at his residence in an elite locality in Islamabad. The security guards present at his house reportedly informed Jaffer’s parents that a girl was being held hostage and tortured. The parents, who were out of the city, made a call to his friends and the organization he had first sought therapy from and then became a practicing therapist with. None of the people contacted informed the police and by the time the call was made, it was too late.

Pakistan has a high rate of gender-based violence, which has been blamed on a number of factors, including lack of education, lack of awareness, poverty, and rampant misogyny in the country. However, the recent surge in crime against women also points a finger at the complicity of the state for its inability, or even a lack of desire, to protect women.

Pakistan was ranked 153rd out of 156 nations by the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap 2021 index; it placed 151st out of 153 in 2020. In a Thomas Reuters Foundation poll in 2018, Pakistan was ranked as the sixth-most dangerous country for women.

The Human Rights Commission Pakistan (HRCP) registered a rise in complaints of domestic and online violence last year, indicating the increased vulnerability of women during the pandemic. The HRCP recorded 430 cases of honor killing in 2020, involving 363 female victims. The Punjab Police have registered 53 cases of gang rape in the first four months of 2021 in one province alone.

But those holding office in the country have a different outlook on the plight of women. In April, Prime Minister Imran Khan was asked during an interview with the BBC about the rise in sexual assault cases in the country, to which he replied that in a place like Pakistan women need to cover themselves up to prevent temptation in the society. This statement was heavily criticized by human right groups, who called Khan a “rape apologist.” Khan also stated on national television in another interview this year that sexual assault was a product of obscenity. A similar situation had taken place earlier when Maulana Tariq Jameel, a powerful cleric, stated during a television program, in which the prime minister was present too, that the pandemic had been caused by “the lack of modesty of women.”

These statements have shocked all those who are trying to grapple with stories of violence against women on a daily basis. Many people criticized such comments for promoting a culture of silence among women. “We can’t have state representatives victim blaming, which is the norm,” said Roshane Zafar, a development activist working in the field of women’s economic empowerment. “Women are equal citizens and the state is required to protect their rights but the state is complicit.”

She further stated that conviction rates for gender-based violence, are less than 4 percent, further discouraging women from reporting such crimes. Access to justice is terribly biased against women and it starts from the point a First Information Report (FIR) has to be made, Zafar explained.

Last year in September, a woman was gang-raped in front of her children on a highway in Pakistan. The woman was waiting for help after her car ran out of fuel when two men emerged and raped her at gunpoint. The accused were handed death sentences and life imprisonment, marking the first time convicts in a gang rape case have been condemned to death in Pakistan. However, even as Pakistani women experienced a collective trauma as details of the incident were made public, the Senior Superintendent of the Police (SSP) working on the case said on national television that the victim should not have taken the route she took – once again holding the victim responsible.

“Victim blaming and shaming actually can not only cause trauma to be retriggered or made more acute, they also prevent other victims from speaking up,” said Jasmyn Rana, a psychologist, and psychotherapist based in Lahore. “When Imran Khan and other people in power put the blame on victims, they give more room to abusers in our system to feel confident and comfortable to get away with further violations, and perhaps even justify their actions.” She further explained that the prime minister has enormous reach, and his words could potentially have a huge positive impact on people from every strata of society: “Instead here we are, putting the entire burden of the actions of men on the shoulders of women.”

According to the Aurat Foundation, 2,297 cases of violence against women were reported in the four provinces of Pakistan, as well as Gigit Baltistan, last year. These violent incidents included murder, abduction/kidnapping, rape/gang rape, honor killing, and domestic abuse. Fifty-seven percent of the cases were reported from Punjab, the country’s largest province. Researchers agree that the reported figures are a drastic undercount of the true number of crimes committed against women.

In April 2021, the Domestic Violence (Prevention and Protection) Bill was introduced in the National Assembly and passed the same day. However, when the bill reached the Senate, the opposition demanded that it should be sent to a standing committee for amendments. Following the amendments, the bill was again sent to the National Assembly. After being approved by the Senate, and as it waits for presidential assent, the prime minister’s parliamentary affairs advisor, Babar Awan, has written a letter to the National Assembly speaker asking for a review of the bill by the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII), claiming that the definition of “domestic violence” is too broad in the bill. The bill states that domestic violence includes all acts of physical, emotional, psychological, sexual, and economic abuse committed against women, children, or any other vulnerable persons or any other person with which the accused has been in a domestic relationship that causes fear of physical or psychological harm to the aggrieved person.

Awan’s request has caused much stir in the country, with human rights groups and liberals fighting for the bill to be passed without involving the CII. In the past the CII has rejected proposed legislation trying to protect women; in 2016, the council even proposed a law allowing husbands to “lightly” beat their wives.

“The struggle right now is having domestic violence recognized as a proper offense in the country; currently it’s not,” said Hiba Akhbar, who teaches law at Lahore University of Management Sciences. “Punishment will come later.”

Akhbar noted that the CII is not involved in the formation of other laws, but somehow always seems to be given a say when the matter at hand concerns women’s rights. The fact that the CII’s recommendations are not legally binding and are only given importance in these matters is something worth objecting to, she said.

According to Akhbar, keeping in mind that Pakistan is a federal entity, and each province has its own laws to protect women, Sindh’s domestic violence laws go the furthest in its definition – including psychological harm to the victim as well. “The Punjab Protection of Women Against Violence Act, 2016, does not do that at all, it actually doesn’t even call it a crime,” said Akhbar. “It also only applies to one district in the entire province, which seems like a joke.”

Earlier this month, Shah Hussain, a man convicted of stabbing a female law student, Khadija Siddiqi, 23 times in broad daylight, was released from jail a year and a half early, out of his five year original sentence. After a huge uproar by civil society and celebrities, the Punjab Police blamed “technical remissions” as the reason for the convict’s early release.

Siddiqi has stated that she was not informed by any official authorities of the early release of her attacker and finds it unnerving that there are no measures taken to ensure the safety of the victim when releasing a perpetrator from jail or when she is fighting for justice. “I still think that it is a huge landmark judgement that my assaulter was convicted and sets an important precedent for other women,” said Siddiqi. “But for such convicts is there any psychological testing? Is his psychiatric well-being ascertained before his release? This remains a huge question mark.”

Given the history of violence against women in the country, the insensitive way these cases are dealt with by the media and the police, the kind of callous statements that are passed by statesmen, and finally the decisions made by the judiciary – it’s past time to admit that the state is playing a key role in the rising amount of gender-based violence in Pakistan.

“This is a hard place for women and is only getting harder until we call out misogyny and hold the state and ourselves accountable,” said Zafar. “But this is a tall order since we have normalized violence against women.”

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