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Destitute Women

by Hina Shahid

February 22, 2007

The recent case of teenage girl's gang-rape is still at a pre-court stage. This is also the test for the Pakistan's new legislation passed in December, 2006 to protect women from crimes committed in the name of defending honour. Nasima, a 16-year-old girl has been gang-raped by 11 men near the village of Habib Labano. She was raped because one of her male relations had eloped with their kinswoman. To add to her humiliation, she was made to walk home without her clothes.
The contexts of social malaise like rape, hunger, displacement, trafficking, prostitution, violence etc, are susceptible to many complex nuances of interpretation that serve different interests or reflect different perspectives. This includes variables like age-old customs, tribal mindset, honour-killings, dispute settlements, barter system of humans called Watta Satta, Vani etc, child marriages, property hassles, exploitation etc. These are indeed contentious issues for women in Pakistan. The government responses have been contradictory and hypocritical. There is much about life in rural Pakistan that has not changed for hundreds of years. The tribal setups routinely offer young girls and women to settle the disputes through gang rapes. That’s what happened to Sonia, Shazia, Mukhtaran Mai, Kainat and to many other young girls and women. If we look back into the year of 2002, when Mukhtaran Mai of Meerwala from Southern Punjab was gang-raped after the decision of Panchayat (Village tribal committee) in favour of feudal landlords of Mastoi family, we see that the case created an uproar in the media. Women activists, opposition leaders, human rights activists, and lawyers protested against this heinous act and asked the state rulers to give justice to the victim. Today, the tribes and their lords are even stronger and everyday young girls are being raped or killed in the name of honour.
Pakistan has mostly lived under the military dictatorships, from Ayub Khan to Yahya Khan to General Zia and now Pervez Musharraf. General Zia-ul-Haq proclaimed the Hudood Ordinances in 1979 in the country appeasing the country’s religious extremists. This law played havoc in the lives of Pakistani women. Thousands of women were languishing in jails because of the Hudood Ordinances. On the other hand, due to tribal setups, the women were afraid to accept the bail and leave prison, because they would then be either lynched or stoned to death. Another aspect is the psychological factor, which means that a woman is supposed to have brought dishonour to the family due to her rape, and the proper thing to do for her is to commit suicide. Thus, she is under a dual pressure: not only being raped, but also accused of being accessory to it. In this kind of social system, the victim is in a great psychological upheaval after being accused to her own rape!
“According to General Zia’s law, if a woman is raped, she needs four eye witnesses to prove that she is raped,” said Benazir Bhutto in one of her interviews. She came into power after the death of Zia-ul-Haq, but could not repeal the controversial law. The law further states, “If the woman files a complaint of rape and fails to produce four eye witnesses, then she has confessed to adultery and is punishable for the crime of adultery. Now, this is a highly immoral law,” added Bhutto. In another interview, Pakistan’s most prominent and brave lawyer, Aasma Jahangir said, “What President Musharraf says and what he does are two different things. President Musharraf can do what he wants in Pakistan. He can get rid of the constitution. He can hold elections and bring in the parliament. What is the repeal of one single law? I mean, surely he can do it, there is no justification for him to say that there is going to be any opposition in any case.”   
The new legislation on the subject is known as the Protection of Women Bill in Pakistan. It is supported by the President and the Parliament, as part of efforts by Islamabad to soften the country’s hardline Islamic image and appease moderates and human rightists, who opposed the old law. Under the new law, which was approved by Parliament, judges can choose whether a rape case should be tried in a criminal court-where the four-witness rule would not apply-or under the old Islamic law, known as the Hudood Ordinance.        
The discovery of a young woman’s dead body in the graveyard of one of the villages near Rahimyar Khan has renewed fears as her dead body was subjected to act of sexual brutality by a some men. “We are very concerned about the possibility that a group of insane people are responsible for this incident,” said Mohsin, one of the representatives of Actionaid, Pakistan. The protest rally in this context, comprised of around 600 males and females from the nearby villages, which was organized to demand justice and conviction of the criminals. One thing, which is common between India and Pakistan, is the incredibly corrupt police, especially in the rural areas. The Northwest Frontier Provinces, an area of unbelievable primitiveness socially and is under the thumb of the influential families and the religious leaders. The mushrooming of an entire industry of the gang-rapists has increased the crime rate within the country.
As far as the abuse of power by the police is concerned, it is clear. But, what about the vulgar and obscene display of the female body for the pleasure of the male on-lookers, which is promoted through Pushto and Punjabi films, and fashion parades and semi-nude depiction of women in Urdu films with the sole intention of jacking up profits? There are reported cases of raids on Pakistani Cinema Halls where prostitution dens were found. The prisons are packed with such women. Most of them are the poorest of the poor. They did not have any friends or relatives. And also, they do not have any identification like identity card or voters cards. These young girls are raped everyday by their customers in the name of prostitution.
Meeting the family members of these ill-fated women is a harrowing experience. Elderly women with infants in arms, ask what they ought to be doing with these motherless toddlers. Young girls in the villages fear the midnight knock. As one undernourished young girl from a village near Multan mentioned, “I had not eaten for a week! Therefore I was weak, and thus I could not feed my three-month-old child, who was starving. If I had not come to Karachi, we would have all died. I have left my baby with my mother in a village and have come here six months ago, so I can earn some money to keep myself, my mother and my child alive!” How does one respond to this desperate pleading for a mere survival, particularly when countered with grave questions like terrorism and national security?
For the media, there are stories each day of rape, violence and exploitation of women. So no matter what the issue, more than half of the screen would be filled with images, which served to arouse the middle class moral ire. For women rights activists, it gives a new cause and newer insights and a feminist awakening regarding the raped women and their concerns. At the end of the entire episode, one can wonder what exactly the raped women gained from this. And more, where are they living and how are they making their ends meet. No one knows and frankly many of the segments do not even care.

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