CW: Mentions of sexual assault and related issues throughout. On September 9th, horrific reports of a rape in Lahore, Punjab rocked Pakistan to its core. Conversations have been raised about topics long considered taboo and brushed under the rug. The long existing rape culture in this country that has normalised mistreatment of women has called authorities into question.
A young mother had been driving across Ring Road with her children when her car ran out of fuel. Upon calling the police, the woman was told no one was assigned to that area and so help could not reach her immediately. She was approached by robbers who attacked both the mother and children and sexually assaulted the young woman. As further information has come to light, some have questioned how the robbers knew the exact location of the car, and why she was unaccompanied.
As the case broke on the news, and across social media, reaction to the horrifying incident has spread like wildfire. People initially started gathering on social media, calling into account the role of the police and their inability to protect their citizens. Indeed their troubling excuse of not having anyone available has raised significant questions about the police institutions. Alleged reports that the victim had asked for the details of the case to be kept private were apparently ignored as the media presented everything openly.
Over the course of the last 8 months, 2100 cases of rape and sexual assault have been reported in Pakistan. It’s important to note this number doesn’t take into account the multitude of cases that go unreported. The incident that occurred on the motorway has come shortly after outcry around the rape and murder of a young 5 year old girl Marwah who was kidnapped from her house. A similar reaction within enraged citizens was seen two years ago when 7 year old Zainab was abducted on her way to Quran class and met a similar fate. Her murderer was apprehended and found to be a serial killer responsible for the murders of at least 7 young girls.
Why then was this serial killer allowed to roam free despite his history? Although his conviction after Zainab’s case led to his execution, the lack of action by the state prior to such media uproar raises serious concerns. What role is played by the state in propagating such acts, only facing accountability when under pressure?
But even all this pressure has clearly not been enough for those in power to reflect and start holding themselves accountable. Instead of making it clear that such a heinous act must be punished, the Lahore Capital City Police Officer (CCPO) in charge himself to shifted blame onto the victim . In a video that has since gone viral, CCPO Umer Sheikh, said that the victim should have taken GT Road (a more populated route) instead. He further added “yahan par hum apni maa betiyon ko aise 12:30 baje akele thori nikalne detay hain” [in our culture we don’t let our mothers and daughters go out so late at 12:30 in the night]. His comments are shocking and upsetting, but unfortunately, not new to Pakistani society. Victim blaming when it comes to rape cases is rampant here. The first thing that comes into question is often what the victim was wearing, what they were doing and whether they were accompanied.
But while it’s known that such a mindset is common in the masses, for someone in such a position of power to advocate for such beliefs – and that too, coming from the very institution that failed to provide the victim with help in the first place – normalises a very dangerous set of values. Values that will never look at violence as the result of a systemic wrong but rather as an act that victims deserve. Absolving the CCPO, allowing him to retain his post and not berating him for his public views while seeking to punish the rapists tells us something about the way society perceives this crime. We may see the act of rape as a heinous crime in itself – and rightfully so – but we are still far from understanding the buildup of toxic rape culture that has led to such acts in the first place.
Following the motorway incident, there has been an unprecedented rise in calls for public hangings, and even Prime Minister Imran Khan expressed his views on why chemical castration should be used against rapists as a deterrent. This is the same Prime Minister that has done nothing to punish the CCPO in question, and has also said that such acts are due to a breaking of the family system. Social media users who have shown an increasingly aggressive and pro public hanging stance are often the same ones that are equally vocal about the dangers of feminist movements such as the Aurat March.
Violence breeds violence. Whilst justice must be served, it shouldn’t be a public spectacle. If hanging the criminals in such cases was all that was needed, then we wouldn’t be here today after the execution of Zainab’s murderer in 2018. But what these advocates of public hangings and creating spectacles out of these monsters don’t realise is that in many ways, such acts become a smokescreen. In asserting that justice is solely served through such public actions, we distract ourselves from our complicity in a much more toxic and deeply ingrained rape culture within our own society.
A 2017 study by Madadgaar National Helpline revealed that 93% of women in Pakistan have experienced some form of sexual violence in public places throughout their lifetimes. The rise in sexual assault and violence cases recently has led to an increased demand in teaching girls how to fight, sharing tips like keeping pepper sprays and others. But while these are undoubtedly important measures for protection, focusing the discussion solely around what victims should do absolves rapists of the responsibility of not committing rape. In some ways, putting the onus on women to protect themselves is like saying that they should rape the other woman. Simply because when it is up to women to protect themselves, it further endangers those women who don’t have access to such protective measures and makes them more of a target.
Amidst all our anger and need to see instant justice, we need to understand that there is no short term solution. This is a much longer, much greater fight. One that needs to start at the root. Because when we hate rapists but condone abuses that degrade women we are promoting rape culture. When we say “boys will be boys” to cat calling we are promoting rape culture. When your sons roam free with no understanding of respect but your daughters must lock themselves in their homes we are promoting rape culture. They say consent begins at home for a reason. Instead of making media spectacle out of such incidents the state should start focusing on reforming their education system through sex education and consent classes. Laws that already exist must be enforced.
There needs to be a system that doesn’t bend to the whims of money, power and politics. Until then, we will see more Zainabs and Marwahs and every other innocent life who has gone through such an ordeal.