Where women feel unsafe

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

THE recent incident of gang-rape of a young woman in Meerwala (Muzaffargarh) on the orders of a tribal jury is a blot on the nation’s conscience. Tragically, it has many appalling dimensions and it is impossible to express the sense of outrage one feels at something so barbaric which can take place in a country that claims to be civilized.

Pakistan has never had an impressive human rights record. The state itself has emerged as the biggest violator of human dignity and civil freedoms. Society has followed suit. If a person has the ill fortune of having been born to parents from an under-privileged class or caste, he is most likely to be abused by his fellow men as well. The Meerwala case was the outcome of a caste conflict. The victim belonged to the Gujjar clan which is socially regarded to be inferior to the supposedly superior Mastoi tribe.

It is shocking that social conventions and tribal customs continue to be so strong that people in many parts of the country still turn to a panchayat to seek redress for a perceived wrong. What is worse is that in such cases the jirga manages to convene and overrule the law of the land. That is precisely what it amounted to in Meerwala, for isn’t rape a crime under the country’s laws? Drunk with power and driven by a frenzied desire for vendetta, the Mastois were not deterred from the criminal path they took.

It is equally disturbing that it is common practice in many parts of the country to have jirgas operating as a parallel system of justice — to sit in judgment over what should be the prerogative of a court of law. This reflects a lack of faith in the judicial system of the country. In Meerwala the panchayat usurped with impunity the function of the judiciary, as it pronounced and executed a verdict which has shocked the world.

This anomaly is not entirely unexpected in a country marked with legal ambiguities. After all, we have on the statute books laws such as the Hudood Ordinance, the Qisas and Diyat laws and the law of evidence running parallel to the Anglo-Saxon laws. Many of these contradict each other and some militate against the modern concept of the rule of law. In this scenario should we be surprised when panchayats set out to enforce their own primaeval brand of justice? When we accept in principle the duality and overlapping of laws, aberrations such as the one in Meerwala become inevitable. What we are witnessing now is also the virtual collapse of the state machinery in many regions of the country. That such an incident could take place under the nose of the district administration is quite scary. It took more than a week for the misdeeds of the jirga to become public knowledge outside Meerwala. Obviously not all the people of Meerwala would have condoned this action of the panchayat. Yet so traumatized were they by the reign of terror which prevails in these rural backwaters where the feudal and other influential classes keep a firm grip on the community so that it would have to be a brave man to break the veil of collective silence.

In such situations even the state becomes a party to heinous crimes when its functionaries connive with the criminals and provide them protection. That is what happened in Meerwala, where the police registered the gang-rape case after one week and that too under pressure when a hue and cry had begun to be raised. Even after twelve days none of the accused had been caught. Some members of the local administration have been transferred. But do such supposedly punitive measures after an event really make any real difference?

It was only when the human rights groups and women activists learnt of what had happened and gave vent to their sense of outrage that the state machinery began to move. Still one cannot be certain that the perpetrators of this tribal atrocity will be punished to make this an example to deter would-be rapists and illegal jirgas from such reprehensible acts? If we go by the past record, it is likely that the rapists and their patrons will come to their rescue and make it possible for them to escape retribution. As is the norm in Pakistan, their class status will provide them the best protection they could ever seek.

At the root of the problem lies the issue of the status of women in our society. It is plain that 55 years after this country was born it has still failed to accord its female citizens, who constitute about half of its population, the rights and esteem which they deserve as human beings. All the pious announcements from the rooftop and the umpteen commissions on women notwithstanding, the fact is that Pakistan is regressing in its treatment of women.

It is painful to observe that they do not enjoy equal rights and opportunities as men in all walks of life. More distressing is the common perception that women are the property of their men, as well as the guardians of the family honour. This perception is reflected in the widely prevalent concept of chadar aur chaardiwari and is responsible for the growing violence against women. It reduces women to being treated as chattels if not vassals of the male members of their family.

Had it not been so why would anyone have sought to punish a “wrongdoer” (assuming he had done something wrong) by punishing a woman from his family? This betrays a primitive approach which our society has still not outgrown. The details of what actually provoked the entire episode in Meerwala are not known. Some reports speak of the victim’s younger brother having an “illicit affair” with a girl of the “higher” Mastoi tribe. There are other reports which allege that the panchayat was a cover-up for the sexual abuse to which the brother had been subjected.

To a perverted mind the natural course to adopt in an inter-clan quarrel would be to take revenge by gang-raping a woman from the other side. Rape has a horrendous political dimension and has been used by one group as an instrument of control over another. That is why war brutalities are generally accompanied by incidents of mass rapes.

In Pakistan’s context, all this is very disquieting. It is now coming to light that in some areas where tribal customs still prevail it is not uncommon to inflict public punishments on innocent young girls or women as a form of retaliation against their family. The world was shocked by the Nawabpur incident in 1984 when influential landlords had paraded some women naked on the streets to punish the men of a lower class. But we now know that many Nawabpurs are enacted in Pakistan every now and then.

The only positive thing to have emerged from this dreadful episode is the discovery by civil society in Pakistan of its capacity to play a role in changing the status quo. The women’s rights activists and the human rights workers have made a useful contribution to consciousness-raising on important social issues. They are serving as a pressure group vis-a-vis the government on issues of human concern. The Meerwala incident has given them the opportunity to define and focus their strategy and mobilize supporters from all over the world behind their cause.

The Internet is globalizing the women’s movement, and now government leaders have to face a barrage of e-mails in situations where a woman is being victimized. Recently the Nigerian president had to put on hold the verdict of a Nigerian court sentencing Amina Lawal to death by stoning. In Pakistan itself, Zafraan Bibi, who was to meet a similar fate, won reprieve, thanks to the efforts of civil society. Way back in 1981, the case of Fahmida, the first woman to be sentenced to death under the Hudood Ordinances, had led to the birth of the Women’s Action Forum which managed to get the verdict changed.

It is time to move on. Vigilance helps keep a check on such abuses. But we can’t continue living in a society where this cat and mouse game becomes a normal happening. More pre-emptive measures are needed so that such incidents do not take place at all. Moreover, there is need for greater gender balance in the activism for human rights and women’s rights. These should be the concern of men as of women in Pakistan.