THE display of anger and outrage at the brutal rape of a small girl in Lahore will acquire meaning only if the public discourse is extended beyond demands for punishing the culprit(s) and practical steps can be taken to eliminate the causes of the Pakistani woman’s increased vulnerability to assault and abuse.
That the indescribably horrible assault on the five-year-old girl in Lahore must not go unpunished is a perfectly valid call, though subject to respect for the moratorium on the death penalty. But nobody whose conscience has only now been aroused should stop short of looking at sexual assaults on girls in a proper context.
To begin with, the rape of little girls in Pakistan is not so infrequent as some people might think. A day after the Lahore girl was ravaged, incidents of rape and gang rape on minor girls were reported from Faisalabad, Tandliawala, Kasur, Toba Tek Singh, Hafizabad and Dera Ismail Khan.
The Lahore police chief disclosed that his city force alone had registered 113 cases of rape and 32 incidents of gang rape during the first eight months of the current year. A senior police officer was quoted as saying that most of the rape victims were teenaged girls and that the number of victims could be higher as many cases were not reported to the police. Both the state and civil society should realise that the sexual abuse of girls is a large-scale and widespread phenomenon and it needs to be tackled as such.
The second fact to be borne in mind is that such devastation of girls is not a simple matter of crime and punishment and that the evil has flourished in spite of tightening of the relevant laws over the past 34 years or so. For instance, Gen Zia added Section 354-A to the Penal Code which prescribes death penalty for “assault or use of criminal force to women and stripping her of her clothes”.
The Offence of Zina (enforcement of Hudood) Ordinance of 1979 laid down the death penalty for several forms of rape. In 1990, Section 164-A of the Penal Code was amended to raise the age of children from 10 to 14 whose abduction “in order that a person may be murdered or subjected to grievous hurt, or slavery, or to the lust of any person….” was punishable by death.
Has making the laws more stringent caused a decline in sexual crimes against women, particularly girls? If common experience is any guide the answer is in the negative. In fact, the dangerous consequences of making and amending laws in haste, often to satisfy the demands from a brutalised society, have become apparent.
For example, the prescription of death penalty for gang rape, the same punishment that is awarded for murder, operates as an inducement to the culprits to kill their victim after violating her, thus eliminating the key witness of their crime.
It is common knowledge that the rape of women in Pakistan is not merely one of the offences committed by individual criminals, it is also a weapon to be used to subjugate weaker people and to humiliate adversaries in tribal/feudal conflicts.
Sociologists and psychologists could tell us about the factors that are keeping alive in our society the feudal attitudes towards women, the tendency to treat them as chattel.
From a layman’s point of view some of the worst feudal practices involving the degradation of women that were confined to the tribal areas have lately spread to settled, supposedly civilised, parts of the country. Reports of killing of women for men’s honour from cities like Lahore and Karachi are enough to confirm this.
Worse, some of the feudal practices, such as denial of girls’ right to education, are now being promoted as religious injunctions, eg the destruction of girls’ schools in areas infested with militants. Quite clearly, the more retrogressive that society becomes the greater will be the exploitation of women in various forms, including sexual abuse.
Law and order authorities and defenders of public morality in religious parties are quick to attribute attacks on girls to the declining moral standards of a society under the influence of Western culture, the internet and social media. But there seems to be greater force in the argument that women’s vulnerability has increased as a result of campaigns to restrict their mobility, greater emphasis on gender segregation and a variety of attempts to reduce women’s role in public life.
Is there any connection between attacks on minor girls and the religious authorities’ insistence on considering a girl fit for marriage as soon as she reaches the age of puberty and their reluctance to denounce marriage of men (of any age) to teenage girls?
Again, to answer this, we need to be guided not only by the research of subject specialists but also by the ulema. To the mind of sex-starved and depraved young men, especially in a suburban environment, if a girl in her teens is fit to be given away in marriage she is fair game for forced sex. A study should be undertaken to find out whether increasing emphasis on gender segregation in educational institutions, offices and public places is making women safer or their lives more hazardous.
Finally, the nexus between growing religiosity and the rise in attacks on women must be thoroughly explored. The starting point should be a study of Gen Ziaul Haq’s measures aimed at curtailing women’s freedoms.
To sum up, devising workable plans to deal with the increase in women’s vulnerability due to conservation of feudal cultural practices, reinforcement of patriarchy and the abuse of belief to deny women their rights is as important, if not more, as punishing criminals.