Rape cases expose Pakistan’s brutal feudal injustice

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Pakistan’s deep social divisions are on display yet again in the case of two women, Mukhtar Mai and Dr Shazia Khalid, who have been raped but are finding it difficult to secure justice. The feudal system demands that they commit suicide so that the crimes can be hushed up and the criminals let off the hook. In unprecedented acts of courage, both women have refused to oblige. The case of Mukhtar Mai (who was born Mukhtaran Bibi) has been going on for nearly three years; Dr Shazia Khalid’s is more recent: she was raped on January 3. Yet the two cases illustrate some of the many things that are deeply awry in Pakistani societies. Both women, like many hundred others, are victims of a feudal system underpinned by a military oligarchy that recognizes no human dignity, especially of those that are weak or poor.

Mukhtar Mai, now 33, from Meerwala village near Multan, was gang-raped by four men on June 22, 2002, after the village council declared that she must be punished because her 11-year-old brother Abdul Shakoor allegedly had an illicit affair with a girl from the Mastoi clan. The council was initially convened to consider her brother’s case; their verdict was that he must be sodomised as punishment. Mukhtar Mai went to plead for mercy for her brother, but when she appeared before the council it decided that she must be raped instead, presumably for daring to challenge the village council’s verdict. Four men immediately volunteered to carry out the sentence; she was dragged out and raped while the rest of the village watched.

A special anti-terrorism court (ATC) sentenced six men–”four rapists and two accomplices–”to death on August 31, 2002; eight others were set free. The government gave Mukhtar Mai Rs 500,000 (US$8,000) in compensation and offered to settle her in Islamabad for her safety; she refused this offer, saying that she would rather stay in the village and help poor girls to acquire education. She used the compensation money to open a school. On March 3, 2005, the Multan Bench of the Lahore High Court (a secular institution dating back to the days of the British raj) overturned the verdict, citing contradictions in Mukhtar Mai’s statements and inconsistencies in police reports.

The High Court did not question the jurisdiction of the anti-terrorism court to hear such cases. Legal experts have opined that the ATC has no jurisdiction in such matters; they must be dealt with by civilian courts. The High Court verdict in Mukhtar Mai’s case, written in tortuous English, rubbished her allegations, saying that she had made up the story of rape, and dismissed the charges against five of the six convicted men. Four of the five men, released on March 15 from Dera Ghazi Khan jail, were rearrested on March 18 on the orders of the provincial government under the Maintenance of Public Order Act after protests from a wide cross-section of society; the fifth remained in custody because he is wanted in connection with other crimes. The sixth’s death sentence has been commuted to life imprisonment.

Mukhtar Mai, however, has not given up. Displaying unusual courage and perseverance, she refused to commit suicide after being subjected to such degrading treatment, as usually happens in such circumstances; then, taking a huge risk, she lodged a complaint with the police. Under current law, drafted by the feudal-dominated parliament that protects its own, a woman must produce four credible witnesses to support her allegation; otherwise she will be charged with committing adultery and be punished for that. Although Mukhtar Mai was paraded naked in front of 300 witnesses, few villagers would dare testify on her behalf and risk the wrath of the powerful and well-connected feudals. Her case also highlights the level of corruption that pervades all levels of Pakistani society, especially the government, police and courts. Local police station heads act as personal servants of the feudal lords, and judges can be bought easily.

Mukhtar Mai’s story needs recounting in some detail to grasp the true enormity of the atrocities committed against her. Her gang-rape and then being paraded naked before 300 villagers, even as her distraught father tried desperately hard to shield her from the jeers and sneers of onlookers, was meant to shame her into ending her life, thereby burying the crime so that it could be ignored and forgotten. Her brother, Abdul Shakoor, was also sodomised in punishment for his alleged crime, a charge he vehemently denied. Mukhtar Mai was nursed to health by her family, while friends encouraged her to be strong and not kill herself. The Mastoi are a powerful clan in Meerwala and this horror, like many others, would have been completely hidden but for the local imam, who spoke out against it in his jum’a khutba, demanding justice for her (for once the much-maligned Pakistani maulvi did something honourable and decent).

Risking his own safety by taking on the feudal lords, the imam persuaded her family to file a complaint with the police. Then, with the help of a reporter, the story was flashed in newspapers across Pakistan, forcing the Punjab governor to intervene with the police to take the matter seriously. The Mastoi clan, however, was able to influence the High Court Bench in Multan to overturn the ATC’s verdict. The "honourable" judges castigated the ATC judge for causing "grief" to the criminals, who had "languished" on death row for nearly three years, and recommended that the relevant authorities take appropriate action against the offending judge.

Stunned but not defeated, Mukhtar Mai said that she would lodge an appeal with the Supreme Court. Intervening on March 13, the apex court demanded all relevant documents from the High Court as well as from the Federal Shariat Court (FSC); the latter had involved itself with the case on March 11 by declaring that the High Court’s acquittal of the defendants was outside its jurisdiction and that the FSC itself would hear the case. The Supreme Court overruled the FSC and stayed the High Court’s verdict, thereby facilitating the release of four of the six convicted men on bail.

The courts have failed to clarify which court has jurisdiction in the case, although the FSC has claimed it. The High Court set aside the ATC’s verdict, but not on the basis that the latter had no legal authority; it accepted the diabolical interpretation advanced by the defence that Mukhtar Mai had made up the rape allegation, and dismissed the charges altogether. If the High Court judges knew anything about the law, they should have ordered a new trial under a competent judicial authority, not set the culprits free. The incompetence and corruption of the "honourable" judges is telling. Because of the influence of the feudal lords in society, the Mastoi clan poses a serious threat to Mukhtar Mai and her family. Although the police have increased their protection for her and her relations, the question is how long that protection can last.

Mukhtar Mai’s case has attracted international media attention, resulting in funds being donated for her village school, which she had kept going after she ran out of money by selling the family cow. After several articles by Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times, a sum of US$133,000 was collected for the school project: an enormous sum in that part of the world. This will help to defray her legal costs but, given the levels of corruption, especially in the police force and the judiciary, she may well be the eventual loser after all, paying the price of her courage with her life. "Although I am facing threats from my attackers, I will not leave my village and country," Mukhtar Mai said after the High Court’s verdict. She told a packed Islamabad press conference on March 5: "My case is in the court of God. I am disappointed over the High Court’s verdict." Hearing this, the High Court considered charging her with contempt of court, but backed off when the Supreme Court intervened.

For a poor village woman with no formal education to get this far is little short of a miracle. By her single-minded dedication and courage she has given voice to thousands of helpless women who are subjected to such indignities daily by the feudal lords in the villages and hamlets of Pakistan. More than 150 women were raped in 2004 as a result of village council verdicts. That such crimes are perpetrated regularly speaks volumes about the plight of poor women in rural Pakistan, where 70 percent of the population resides, and about a culture and tradition that permits these barbaric practices. It also exposes the levels of inhumanity and bestiality to which humans can sink when they lose touch with the sources of light and guidance that are available to them.

The story of Dr Shazia Khalid, raped by an army captain in her room at the Sui gas plant in Baluchistan on the night of January 3, is almost equally harrowing. Her employers at Sui Gas tried to pressure her into remaining silent, and two company doctors even conspired to keep her drugged for two days so that incriminating evidence could be removed from her room. When she persisted in lodging a complaint, she was flown to a psychiatric hospital in Karachi so that a case could be built that she is mentally unstable. After nine days she was able to send a message to her husband, who was working in Libya; he rushed back to Pakistan. Supported by her husband, she lodged a complaint with the police: a courageous act indeed, especially because her husband’s grandfather was insisting that she commit suicide because she had "sullied" the family name. In their interrogation of her, the police insinuated that she had brought this upon herself because of her loose moral character. Her case led to an uprising by the Bugti tribe in the volatile Baluchistan province, disrupting the supply of gas to much of the country for several weeks. Even general Pervez Musharraf waded into the controversy, saying that the defendant, one captain Hammad, was "not guilty". The deeply traumatized Dr Shazia Khalid’s real crime is that she dared to point an accusing finger at a member of Pakistan’s ruling clan, namely the Pakistani army. On March 18 she left Pakistan on a flight to London, apparently under a deal struck with the government whereby she would withdraw her allegations.

Whether the criminals in the Mukhtar Mai and Dr Shazia Khalid cases will ever be punished in this world is debatable. The victims have taken on the rich and powerful in a land where ‘justice’ is delivered or withheld at the pleasure or whim of the mighty and the well-connected. But these two women have helped to expose the ugly realities of Pakistani society, where feudal lords and soldiers get away with rape and murder, yet pretend to the outside world that they are working to usher in "enlightened moderation".

Some enlightenment, and some moderation.

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