VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN IN PAKISTAN
Author: Kirsten O’Connell
Department: Pakistan Team
A Thomas Reuters Foundation poll (a corporate foundation that raises global awareness of the most critical issues faced by humanity) ranked Pakistan as the sixth most dangerous country for women (Sukhera, 2021). Pakistan is also ranked 153rd out of 156 countries on the Global Gender Gap 2021 index by the World Economic Forum (Waheed, 2021). The Human Rights Commission Pakistan (HRCP) noted a rise in domestic and online violence complaints in just the last two years, 2020 and 2021. The HRCP recorded 430 cases of honour killings in 2020, which involved 263 female victims. The police in Punjab province registered 53 cases of gang rape in the first four months of 2021 (Sukhera, 2021). Around 28 percent of women between the ages of 15 and 29 have experienced physical violence, according to the Pakistan Ministry of Human Rights which cited the country’s Demographic and Health Survey from 2017 – 2018 (Saifi, 2021). According to the Aurat Foundation, a women’s rights organisation based in Islamabad, Pakistan, 2,297 cases of violence against women were registered in four provinces in 2021. These violent incidents involved murder, abduction, kidnapping, rape and gang rape, honour killings and domestic abuse. There are researchers who have reported these figures to be inaccurate and undercount the actual number of violent crimes committed against women in Pakistan (Sukhera, 2021).
As the amount of cases of gender-based violence is grossly underreported, there is no way to make a correct estimate (Hafeez, 2021). If the victims are from lower class backgrounds, they can spend years fighting against the judicial system. It has taken decades for the country to close a legal loophole that allowed perpetrators of honour killings to seek forgiveness from the victim’s family to escape punishment. It was an easy condition to fulfil since many perpetrators of honour killings are related to the victim (Hafeez, 2021). However, despite the change in law after the murder of social media star Qandeel Baloch by her brother, he walked free in February 2022 after his mother forgave him. There has still been no report as to how he was able to escape punishment when the act of forgiveness had already been outlawed. All of this points towards the State for failing to protect its women. The high rate of gender-based violence has been blamed on lack of education, lack of awareness and rampant misogyny in the country. However, the finger always points at the complicity of the State and its representatives for their inability and lack of commitment to protect women (Sukhera, 2021).
For instance, Prime Minister Imran Khan made some heinous remarks about women and the atrocities committed against them. When asked by the BBC about the rise in sexual assault cases, he responded that sexual violence is a result of the increasing obscenity of women, and they should cover themselves up to prevent temptations (Sukhera, 2021). “If a woman is wearing very few clothes, it will have an impact on the men, unless they are robots. It’s just common sense” (Kirmani, 2021). A similar situation arose when Maulana Tariq Jameel, a powerful cleric, stated on live television, with Khan present, that the pandemic was caused by the “lack of modesty of women”. (Sukhera, 2021). One woman said, “Unfortunately the prime minister’s statements belie the true nature of the crime and send the message to victims that they are somehow responsible for what happens to them. That can turn hesitation about coming forward into refusal to come forward, which in turn distances perpetrators even more from accountability” (Hafeez, 2021). Jasmyn Rana, a psychologist, said, “Victim blaming, and shaming can not only cause trauma to be retriggered or made more acute, but they also prevent other victims from speaking up.” She further explained that the prime minister has enormous reach and “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 enough to get away with further violations and perhaps even justify their actions” (Sukhera, 2021).
Another woman, Alia Amir Ali said, “Solutions require an acknowledgement of the problem and an openness to discover uncomfortable truths about ourselves and others. I do not know how many people are willing to do this. Our collective dehumanisation is something that all of us in Pakistan society must accept as a reality if we are to step towards transforming it” (Hafeez, 2021). It seems like the system is stacked against women and a good demonstration of this involves the Domestic Violence (Prevention and Protection) Bill 2021. The advisor to the Prime Minister on parliamentary affairs, Babar Awan, wrote a letter to the National Assembly asking for a review of the passed bill against domestic violence and said it should be sent to the Council Islamic Ideological for recommendations (CII). The bill states domestic violence as “[..]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 far of physical or psychological harm to the aggrieved person” (Sukhera, 2021). Hiba Akhbar said, “The struggle right now is having domestic violence recognised as a proper offence in the country.” She also noted that the CII is not involved in the formation of other laws but somehow always seems to have a say when the matter at hand concerns women’s rights.” Furthermore, the fact that the CII’s recommendations are not legally binding and are only given importance in matters concerning women’s rights is something worth objecting to (Sukhera, 2021).
There are laws that favour the powerful in Pakistan. These include ordinances that essentially permit the accused to be pardoned by the victim’s family and when the perpetrators are rich and the victim’s family is poor, this places the poor family in a lot of pressure to capitulate and grant the pardon. There are also unofficial ways people interfere with cases, for instance, police and judges of lower courts are poorly paid and often amenable to bribes. Since there is no jury in Pakistan, the trial is decided by a judge alone and powerful families can bribe any witnesses (Zakaria, 2021). Given the history of violence against women in Pakistan in the last two years, the way these cases are handled and the callous statements by government officials, it may be time to admit the system in Pakistan is stacked against women. Even when victims make it in front of a judge, the conviction rate is less than three percent, which further discourages women from reporting such crimes (Sukhera, 2021). One woman stated, “This is a hard place for women and is only getting harder until we call out misogyny, and hold the State and ourselves accountable” (Sukhera, 2021). Kanwal Ahmed stated, “Women are not just angry they are terrified because we know far too many rapists and murders get away with it.” (Waheed, 2021).
To highlight the prevalence of violence against women in Pakistan even further, it is worth mentioning some cases. Khadija Siddiqui was stabbed 23 times in 2016 by Shah Hussain when she was still a law student. He was sentenced to only five years in prison for his brutal attack and was released in early 2021. Rimmel Mohydin, a South Asia, Campaigner for Amnesty International, stated, “Each day when a victim doesn’t get justice or when a perpetrator walks free after adding to the toll of women being killed or violated in this country should be a watershed moment” (Hafeez, 2021). Siddiqui later revealed she was not informed by any official authorities of the early release and finds it unnerving that there are no measures taken to ensure her safety when releasing a perpetrator from prison or fighting for justice.
Mariam works as a house helper, and she is the only one providing an income to her family because her husband refuses to work. He physically and verbally abuses her, “As soon as I reach home, tired from a hard day’s work at different households, before I have even stepped foot inside the house, he starts with his tyranny and starts beating me”. Mariam was married to her husband through the custom of watta satta, a tradition of marriage exchanges, common practice in rural areas of Pakistan. The daughter of her husband was wedded off to Mariam’s brother in exchange for Mariam. If Mariam tries to leave him, she will risk being socially shunned and her brother’s marriage would end too. Mariam is not only physically abused by her husband. She is also abused by her seven year old stepson, who beats her “to the extent that my clothes were soaked with blood”. Mariam’s stories are not isolated incidents. She is one of the thousands of women in Pakistan who face gender-based violence but are missing from the statistics because they never officially report their abusers for various reasons. (Hafeez, 2021). For instance, the majority of women do not report cases of domestic violence to the police because they think husbands have the right to beat their wives and brush the matter under the carpet. (Qayyum, 2017)
Saima Ali spent ten days in hospital after her father, Raza Ali, a former police constable, opened fire on his family which resulted in Saima’s mother, Bushra Raza, dying of her wounds. The incident happened on July 2, 2021, with Raza having a history of drug addiction and domestic violence (Hafeez, 2021). Saima stated, “He shot us and left us for dead and the police have nothing for our protection. It is very hard for women from poor backgrounds to get justice without any influence of support. We face so many barriers to get justice because of gender discrimination” (Waheed, 2021). Another case was that of Quratulain Baloch, a mother of four who was tortured and murdered by her husband in Hyderabad Sindh province (Hafeez, 2021). This can be seen as an endemic of violence against women because these women had been victims of frequent domestic violence for years. Keghad Baloch was allegedly tortured and murdered by security forces in Kech in Balochistan in 2021 (Hafeez, 2021). “Entering her Keghad Baloch’s house, torturing her and murdering her is testimony to the increased state brutality against Baloch women”, stated Mahrang Baloch (Hafeez, 2021). In 2020, Milknaz Baloch was gunned down at her home by three armed men during an armed robbery (Hafeez, 2021). The same year, a woman was gang-raped in front of her children on a highway in Pakistan. The woman was waiting for help as her car ran out of fuel when two men emerged and raped her at gunpoint (BBC, 2021). Women in Pakistan also experience trauma from the very systems meant to protect them. For instance, the Senior Superintendent of Police (SSP) said after working on the woman’s case that the victim should not have taken the route she had – once again victim-blaming (Sukhera, 2021).
Ayesha Ikram, a TikTok creator, was harassed and groped by more than 400 men on the grounds of a major national monument of the country’s independence, the Minar-e-Pakistan (Bain, 2021). There are many people calling the issue within Pakistan regarding gender-based violence as a femicide to draw attention to the scale of the issue and how systemic it is (Kirmani, 2021). Qandeel Baloch was murdered by her youngest brother in 2016 because of her “intolerable behaviour”. Baloch was a social media star who was bold and open about her sexuality. The murder of Qandeel set off a debate around the question of women’s sexuality and victim-blaming (Kirmani, 2021).
The brutal murder of Noor Mukadam on July 20, 2021 was the tipping point for many. The horrifying details that emerged in the days after her death sparked protests and vigils in Pakistan, with people taking to the streets with demands for #JusticeforNoor (Dawn, 2022). Noor was murdered by Zahir Jaffer, an acquittance of hers and son of one of Pakistan’s richest families (Saifi, 2021). Noor’s murder took place among an especially horrific spat of crimes against women in Pakistan. Noor’s case became a rallying point against the hypocrisy of the society where women are present in all sectors of the economy and public life but where few places exist for them to turn to when they face abuse at the hands of men (Zakaria, 2021). The murder took place just over a year ago on July 20, 2021. At around dusk, Zahir Jaffer who held Noor captive for two days raped her, tortured her with a knuckleduster and beheaded her with a knife. In the days following the crime, Zahir’s parents, whose phone records show were in contact with their son and household staff before and after the murder, were also arrested and placed in police custody as were the household guards, cook and the gardener, all of whom were present at the time of the murder at the Jaffer’s sprawling home in the most exclusive enclave in Islamabad (Zakaria, 2021).
According to the police investigation and CCTV footage, Noor attempted to escape but Zahir’s armed security guard did not let her leave. Later that evening, she jumped down from a balcony. This time, it was the gardener who locked the gate and refused to let her run. Zahir Jaffer emerged from the house and dragged her back inside by her hair. She was murdered moments later. Zahir Jaffer’s multimillionaire parents then tried to orchestrate a cover up according to Islamabad police, calling a therapy centre where Zahir had once been in treatment and asking them to send a team to their house, allegedly to dispose of Noor’s body. If a neighbour did not call the police, they may have been successful in doing so. Later that day, Shaukat Mukadam, Noor’s father, was asked to come to their home, where he identified the body and the severed head of Noor’s (Zakaria, 2021). One reason Noor’s case has been able to evade the usual traps is because of the intense pressure from social media, where the hashtag #JusticeForNoor trends every time, there are new developments (Zakaria, 2021). It would appear to be an open and shut case, but things are not that simple in Pakistan (Zakaria, 2021).
“Noor Mukadam’s murder, along with a multitude of other recent instances of gender based violence, is an indicator of the deepening unrest, insecurity and inequality in Pakistani society”, stated Alia Amirali, a Pakistani feminist academician (Hafeez, 2021). The brutal murder of Noor and the recent cases of violence against women paints a bigger picture. The Pakistani State has failed to protect its women (Hafeez, 2021). The status of the two families and brutality of the crime have brought the case worldwide attention. But for victims from lower class backgrounds without money or publicity to help them, justice is lost even before it has begun (Waheed, 2021).
In conclusion violence against women is systemic within the society of Pakistan. This is seen within the issues surrounding the Domestic Violence (Prevention and Protection) Bill 2021. It is seen within the heinous statements from Pakistan’s leadership, and police officials, victim blaming women for what happens to them. The system is in fact stacked against women because with all this and more they feel they can’t report what happens to them. When they do, depending on their social and economic background they could spend years fighting the judicial system. Women in Pakistan would not be wrong to point the finger at the State and its representatives for their clear inability and lack of willingness to protect women in Pakistan. It’s clearly shown in the cases of Khadija Siddiqui, Mariam, Saima Ali, Quratulian Baloch, Keghad Baloch, Ayesha Ikram, Qandeel Baloch and Noor Mukadam that violence against women in Pakistan is rising. It’s also clearly shown within the statistics of the Human Rights Commission Pakistan and Pakistan’s country Demographic and Health Survey among other bodies monitoring the violence against women in Pakistan.
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