Women in France

Published in Dawn

Public hanging. Chemical castration. Ibratnaak executions.

It’s an unlikely few phrases for making us feel better, but they’re said all the same. They also miss the point.

The motorway rape occurred on 9 September. Outrage over the assault met outrage over type of punishment, until both died down. As of this writing, the prime accused, Abid Malhi, is still at large. The state wants to castrate a man it can’t even capture.

The media cycle has also moved on, mostly to the novel idea of politicians meeting generals in secret. That 9 September faded so fast wasn’t unexpected: this is no country for women. It never has been.

But according to the police, women are also deluded for thinking it could be any better. ‘Her family is from France,’ the newly appointed, over-promoted CCPO Lahore said of the motorway assault victim. ‘She did this entire thing because France was in her orientation; she thought our society was safe.’

To recap: the CCPO failed to protect a citizen from a hideous crime. He also failed to arrest the main accused. But per his logic, it was the victim that failed herself: to expect not to be raped isn’t the done thing here. Maybe in Paris.

Since Umer Sheikh hasn’t had the dignity to resign, the PTI government should have the dignity to sack him and censure him. To think this is typical cop bluster misses a darker pattern: the Punjab police (and their cowboy cousins in the CTD) enjoy impunity, from Model Town to Sahiwal to Kasur.

But this piece isn’t just about the police. It’s about where women find themselves in this country, and how its men – including this writer – are on the end of a rigged system, with zero incentive to rebalance the scales.

None of this is for want of opportunities; it’s that those opportunities have been actively foregone. The turning point may well have been the Mukhtaran Mai case (PLD 2011 SC 554). In 2002, Mukhtaran Mai was gang-raped by Mastoi clansmen on the orders of a village panchayat, in revenge for her brother’s relationship with a Mastoi girl. At the appeals stage, the Lahore High Court acquitted every last man save one, whose death sentence was converted to life.  When the case made its way to the Supreme Court, the majority opinion called the crime ‘heinous’, ‘atrocious’, and ‘despicable’. It then upheld each of the acquittals.

One needs only to read Justice Nasir-ul-Mulk’s dissent for the other side – how the prosecution story was dismissed; how glaring evidence wasn’t considered. ‘The accused party not only raped the complainant but sodomized her brother,’ it holds, ‘who out of fear and shame desisted from reporting both the incidents.’ The dissent went on to restore the convictions of four of the accused.

In an alternate universe, where Justice Mulk’s opinion was the majority’s, we may have started to redress – inch by inch – the injustice here.

But we didn’t. The greatest stride for women’s rights in the last quarter-century remains the Women’s Protection Bill of 2006, courtesy the same General Musharraf that linked rape to Canadian visa hunts. Other than that bill, the Mukhtaran Mai case came at the end of decades of defeat for women facing sexual violence.

In even the most wrenching, high-profile cases, the justice system gave way to a boys’ club of state officials: they banded together to rescue the Lahore rapists that destroyed a film star’s life in 1979. They banded together to protect Marwat’s CIA in Karachi in 1991. They banded together to water down bill after bill in Islamabad in 2016.

Our private citizens are little better: emancipated elites write paeans to sexual harassers in leading universities, administrators hush up inquiries into girls’ high schools, and professionals form a Prussian Wall in front of allegations coming out of large businesses and media organizations.

Which leads to a more tragic conclusion: it’s not always the faceless rapist or the faraway panchayat that’s part of the problem. The people that are part of the problem are of us, and are us.

So where to start? DNA evidence has nowhere near the status it deserves, nor the investigators it requires – the guidelines given in Salman Akram Raja v. Government of Punjab need implementing. Gender sensitization is missing from police training and school curricula. The ridiculous two-finger test for victims remains on the books (now challenged by Dr. Sadaf Aziz and other petitioners through their counsel, Sameer Khosa and Maria Farooq, in the Lahore High Court). Higher conviction rates require capable prosecutors, and those prosecutors must be on the same page as the police.

In the end, this isn’t about women in France; this is about men in Pakistan. A start would be standing with the women fighting for a safer country. But standing with someone would require getting out of the way first.