5 March 2007. A World to Win News Service. Last week’s review of Mukhtaran Mai’s autobiographical book Deshonorée (Die Schuld, eine Frau zu sein) prompted the idea of taking a closer look at the problem of rape and sexual abuse of women in Pakistan and the source of these problems.
In the past few years the internationally notorious cases of Mukhtaran Mai, Shazia Khalid and Sonia Naz have revealed a great deal about the problem of rape in Pakistan. There are no reliable statistics, since 80 percent are believed to go unreported.
The Islamic laws (the Hudood ordinances) introduced three decades ago have played a big role in the dramatic deterioration in the status of women. The US and other Western imperialists have also had a major hand in this. While in recent years the US has declared war on Islamic fundamentalists, especially in this region, the recent history of Pakistan shows how the US can also get along very well with fundamentalists and even strengthen them when they are allied with America, never mind that they oppress women and promote other backward traditions and relations. An examination of the situation of women in Pakistan reveals not only the hardships they endure, but also the hypocrisy of the US, the real values behind what it calls “promoting democracy” and the role it plays in oppressing the people, particularly women, in imperialist-dominated countries.
Mukhtaran Mai, from the village of Meerwala in Pakistani Punjab, was 28 years old in 2002 when she was gang-raped in front of her whole village by decision of the Jirga (assembly of the village elders) for the alleged wrong-doing of her 12 year old brother. Mukhtaran’s case is painful enough, but what’s even more devastating is that such incidents are not isolated but so common they are rarely considered news. In Mukhtaran’s blog for BBC on 15 June 2006, she tells the story of Shamshad Bibi, a very poor woman (even by the standards of a poor village). She “was reportedly gang-raped during a visit to the famous shrine town of Uch Shareef. After being raped she was thrown into a well. The police declared that it was a case of consensual sex while human rights organizations kept insisting that it was rape… Shamshad is bed-ridden now. Her backbone broke when she was thrown into the well. It is estimated that every 8 hours a women becomes the victim of gang rape.”
The case of the assault and rape of Shazia Khalid also acquired international resonance. In January 2005 she was alone, sleeping in her flat when in the middle of the night a senior Pakistani army captain named Hadad allegedly attacked, blindfolded and repeatedly raped her. At the time Shazia was working as a medical doctor at the Pakistan Petroleum Plant in Sui, Baluchistan, in the southwest part of the country, while her husband was working abroad. She was given accommodations in the hospital compound supposedly “protected” by the Pakistan Defence Security Guard. After the incidence, instead of helping her, her employers and the government they did everything they could to protect the rapist. Her employers went to see her when she was still in shock in hospital. “They said there is no need to tell anybody anything. If you do, it’s your reputation that you will lose. If you report it to the police, then they’ll push you around. You’ll have to go to court, and you won’t achieve anything. So keep quiet. I was alone. I didn’t know what to do.” (CBS News, 1 March 2006) Then she was drugged and taken to a psychiatric hospital, with the aim of either silencing her or having her declared insane. Her husband’s grandfather sent word that because Shazia had been raped she had become “a stain on the family’s honour – and must be killed or at least divorced”, he said. When the husband refused, the grandfather began gathering a mob to murder Shazia.
The incident provoked unrest in Baluchistan because the rapist was an officer in an army that has been at war with the people of Baluchistan for years. This ruined the attempts by local and national authorities to suffocate the news. With the support of her husband and her family, Shazia reported the crime. But even in the unlikely event that the police had wanted to help, they would have been unable to, because the army had taken measures to protect its man. The government of army chief/president Parvez Musharraf took the control of the case and destroyed all the evidence.
At the same time stories began appearing in the newspapers claiming that Dr Shazia Khalid was a “loose woman” who wore suggestive clothing. They went so far as to suggest that she was a prostitute. “The president himself said to one of the editors of the newspaper that if he were to speak of Dr Shazia, he didn’t want to but he could say a few things too. I mean what kind of an insinuation is that?”, she later told a reporter. (CBS News, 1 March 2006) But that is only half of the verdict delivered by President Musharraf. Even before the phoney investigation ended, he announced that Captain Hadad was “100 percent innocent”, so there was no need for more investigation or a trial. As intended, these comments put Shazia under such pressure that she began thinking of killing herself. “I went to the washroom and filled the tub with water. I wanted to commit suicide. Khalid and my son started knocking on the door to find out why I was taking so long. I didn’t answer,” she says. “Then Adnan knocked really hard and he said, ‘Mom if you kill yourself then I will kill myself. Please open the door.’ I opened the door.” (CBS News, 28 February 2006)
In order to prevent the further spread of the news and world-wide embarrassment, Shazia and her husband were put under house arrest for two months and advised to leave the country, with the threat that if they didn’t they “might be disappeared”, as she later told The New York Times (2 August 2005). Eventually, they were put on a plane for London, leaving their son behind. Before leaving the officials forced her to make a video in which she thanked the government for helping her.
Another telling and shocking example is the story of Sonia Naz, raped while in police custody. Her account reveals a bit more of the reality of women’s life in Pakistan and also the role of the police. A mother of two from Faisalabad, Sonia was 22 in April 2005 when she went looking for her missing husband, who, she found out, had been taken into custody by the police. She repeatedly visited the police station and filed several inquiries relevant to her husband. When she got no result, she tried the National Assembly in Islamabad. Instead of an answer, she was arrested and handed over to the Faisalabad police. Police chief Khalid Abdullah locked her up in a house for 15 days and ordered one of his officers to rape and beat her repeatedly. After that she was so devastated that she was ready to commit suicide. This is no surprise, since it is common and most often the only solution for victims. She says that the only thing that prevented her from doing that was the thought of what would happen to her two young children. Instead, she found the courage to speak up.
“Strict action will be taken against all those found involved in this incident,” intoned Pakistani Prime Minister Shukat Aziz. Again it is not surprising that what really happened next was a campaign to discredit her as having a “bad character”. Nevertheless Sonia’s mountain of troubles did not stop there. Her husband, for whom she had gone through so much trouble, refused to stand by her and under the pressure of his family refused to take her back. She was beaten by her brother-in-law and her children were taken away for some time. Finally she sought shelter with the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP). Since the judge assigned to her case is a relative of her attacker, what outcome can be expected of any trial?
Rape and Silence
The situation for women in Pakistan is actually much worse than the facts of these rapes alone can bring out. Rape is only the beginning of a long journey to hell for these women. They face depression, suppression and vulnerability to further oppression in the highest degree, especially if they come from poor families. Rape is viewed not as an assault on a woman’s self-respect and integrity, but as an affront to family honour.
The social stigma can ruin a woman’s life forever. If unmarried, she will loose her honour, her “price” as a bride. If married, in most cases her husband will not stand by her and will divorce her instead. Rumours that she is a “loose woman” who “brought it on herself” will float around. If the family does not support the victim, then she will be either killed in order “to cleanse the stain” or she will be left with no choice but to kill herself. Obviously, under these circumstances, if they are raped most women keep it a secret.
Abusive police, unjust courts and anti-women laws
The police are also reluctant to file a “FIR” (First Information Report) so as to prevent a rise in rape statistics for their area, and also because in most cases the police simply don’t believe that the woman was raped.
According to a report by Human Rights Watch, “more than 70 percent of women in police custody experience physical or sexual abuse at the hands of their jailers. Reported abuses include beating and slapping; suspension in mid-air by hands tied behind the victim’s back; the insertion of foreign objects, including police batons and chilli peppers, into the vagina and rectum; and gang rape. Yet despite these alarming reports, to our knowledge not a single officer has suffered criminal penalties for such abuse, even in cases in which incontrovertible evidence of custodial rape exists” (“Double Jeopardy, police abuse of women”) According to the same report, a senior police officer claimed: “in 95 percent of the cases the women themselves are at fault.”
Human rights organisations in Pakistan and abroad have reported numerous cases in which police officers illegally detained women for days without formally registering a charge against them. Most of the abuses, especially the sexual abuse of females, take place during this period.
But even if we assume that a raped woman is lucky enough to have the support of her family and husband, is strong enough to stand up against all the social stigma and force the authorities to file a FIR, and clever (or influential) enough to deal with all the police abuse and insults and humiliation that will fall upon her, she still faces a very biased court system and anti-woman laws. In the Mukhtaran case, even while the world was watching, an appeals court released all but one of her rapists. If it were not for the immense international pressure, what would have happened to Mukhtaran herself is not hard to predict.
Even if the court were sincere enough to seek the truth and abide by the law, Islamic law and specifically the Hudood ordinances brought into force during the US-backed general/president Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq regime (1977-1988) requires four men to testify that they witnessed the rape. That is usually impossible, except in cases such as that of Mukhtaran that took place in front of the whole village. Otherwise, no woman can prove she was raped. While the court requires proof beyond a reasonable doubt to convict accused rapists, if the man or men are acquitted, the woman can be immediately accused of zina (fornication, extra-marital sex), and the evidence already presented for the rape case can be sufficient to convict her. If she becomes pregnant, this makes the case against her even stronger. While there are many such cases, one of the most infamous is that of Safia Bibi, an 18-year-old blind girl who became pregnant. She was unable to prove the rape, and was charged with fornication. Her pregnancy was used as grounds for her conviction. She was found guilty and sentenced to three years of rigorous imprisonment, 15 lashes and a fine of 1,000 rupees. Her attacker was acquitted and freed. Her case happened to come to the attention of human rights organizations. It was only after national and international protests that an appeals court had to acquit Safia of fornication.
Fifteen-year-old Jehan Mina was doing house work for her aunt when, she said, she was raped by her uncle and his son. Her own family members did not believe her and even threatened to kill her. But one of her uncles did believe her and filed a rape case. The court refused to recognize her statement because she had failed to report it immediately. Unsurprisingly, she was immediately charged with fornication and sentenced to three years rigorous imprisonment and ten lashes. The rapists were released for lack of evidence. In other words, the court did not even charge the men with extra marital sex, let alone rape.
The Hudood ordinances and their implication for women
Since the Hudood ordinances were put into effect during General Zia’s rule as part of the Islamization of Pakistan, there have been numerous cases in which rape cases have turned into prosecution of the victim, sometimes in the most brutal way. The Hudood ordinances were intended to implement Sharia (Islamic religious law). Hudood is the Arabic word for limits, meaning, in this context, the limit to what Islamic custom and legal literature considers acceptable behaviour. It applies to things like drinking, theft and “illegal” sex. While some crimes such as murder can be treated as a private dispute between the murderer and the victim’s heirs, these sorts of behaviour are considered an offence against god and are seriously punished.
The implementation of Hudood not only legitimated the oppression of women in the eyes of the state, but also intensified it, especially insofar as it reinforces the tendency on the part of the police and judiciary to see women as guilty until proven innocent. In fact, they can hardly ever prove their innocence unless national and international protest is mounted. At the same time the courts have effectively set a lesser burden of proof for conviction in cases involving female defendants. This has paved the way for false accusations by men, including husbands, fathers, brothers and in-laws. In many cases investigated by human rights activists, the women were wrongfully prosecuted for Hudood offences because they refused to marry men chosen by their families, decided to leave home or married men against their parents will, or sought to separate from or divorce abusive husbands. The majority of these cases are not supported by any evidence and should not have been prosecuted in the first place. Although around 30 percent of such cases end in acquittal, by the time the woman is vindicated she will have spent months or years in prison and very likely been subjected to police abuse. Since the implementation of Hudood, the number of women prisoners has increased tremendously. According to women’s activists in Pakistan cited by BBC (28 September 2005), more than 60 percent of women in prison have been accused under Hudood-related laws and around 50 percent accused of zina.
The Hudood ordinances were brought in by General Zia in the early 1980s. Then the governments of Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif and Musharraf left them in effect. Under national and international pressures during Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif’s governments, commissions to investigate these laws were set up. These commissions did recommend some amendments that would not have led to basic changes, but even those were not followed through on.
After many scandalous cases in recent years put the Pakistani government under pressure, in November 2006 the National Assembly passed the “Women’s Protection Bill”. The main proposed change was to allow rape to be prosecuted under civil law. Musharraf signed it into law in December 2006. The Islamist political parties have attacked it vociferously for being un-Islamic. But it is unlikely to bring about an effective change in women’s situation since Hudood is still in force. Even more importantly, there has been no attempt to abolish the social relations and consequent customs and traditions of which Hudood is a legal expression. In short, the anti-woman social forces that stand behind this kind of rape have been untouched.
In an interview with the Washington Post, Musharraf himself accused the victims, saying: “This has become a money-making concern. A lot of people say if you want to go abroad and get a visa for Canada or citizenship and be a millionaire, get yourself raped.” Women in Pakistan organized protests against these comments, which angered women all over the world. Musharraf later denied saying these words, but the Post had taped them and later put the recording on its Web site. Government interference in all the above cases, especially the direct interference in the Shazia case and its verdict before any trail or even any investigation, are a clear indication of the Musharraf regime’s orientation towards women.
The role of the US
Some people might blame the “backwardness of the people” and “lack of civilisation” as the cause of such brutal oppression against women. Some people think that the West should be ashamed to have such an ally. But not only has the West allied with this anti-women state, it helped make Pakistan what it is today. The US and before it the UK did not invent the backward relations of production and social relations in Pakistan that provide the conditions for such a highly patriarchal environment. But in order to subjugate the country for their own imperialist interests, they established economic and political ties with the most backward forces in that society and acted aggressively in every sphere, from the ideological to the military, to reinforce those reactionary classes and the economic and social relations they represent. This was true from the country’s very beginning, when on the eve of India’s independence in 1947 Great Britain divided its colony along religious lines and established Pakistan as an Islamic state.
Pakistan was encouraged to become a centre of Islamic fundamentalism as a direct result of American policies during the Cold War era, when the US nourished its puppet General Zia. His programme for the Islamization of the country was meant to make Pakistan an Islamic centre in opposition to the Soviet Union, whose influence was spreading in the region due to a pro-Soviet coup in Afghanistan. It was also aimed at setting up a rival centre to the Islamic Republic of Iran that came to power after the Iranian revolution in 1979. Pakistani security services recruited, organized, trained and armed Jihadis (fundamentalist groups) from all over the world to fight the pro-Soviet regime and later the USSR’s invasion of Afghanistan. This “holy war” against the un-Islamic and “godless” invaders was crucial for the US and Western imperialists in their contention with the Soviet bloc. US activities helped spawn the Taliban, Al-Qaeda and other fundamentalist groups in the region and globally. Building such a centre was not possible without the Islamization of Pakistan itself brought forward by Zia’s programme. Zia promised to “transform the country’s socio-economic and political structure in accordance with the principles of Islam.” By the mid-1980s he had Islamized the country’s laws and court system and organized a political establishment based on Islam. The legal and social reinforcement of the oppression of women was a core component of these changes. This part of the US and other Western imperialists’ strategy in their rivalry with the Soviet Union has brought much misery for the people and especially women, who are still paying a high price.
Pakistan continues to be a major ally of the US in the region. Despite contradictions between the two countries, it still ranks as the fifth biggest recipient of US “aid”, most of that military. When American officials are faced with criticism about the lack of rights for women in Pakistan, they always rationalize it as the “cultural, religious and legal norm” of the society. But in reality, not only have the US and its allies justified what is going in Pakistan, they also actively pushed it in that direction.
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