Sexual assault in Pakistan is as prevalent as it is normalised. When a woman tells someone about it, the first response she usually encounters is one that tells her to stay silent because "what's the point anyway". Even the survivors' families that are supposed to protect the well-being of all members of its unit often respond by adding more restrictions on the woman's mobility instead of addressing the issue head-on. Their usual argument is that as the harm has been done, approaching the police will only exacerbate the shame.
But the fact is that when sexual assault occurs, the harm is directed upon the body and the mind of the woman assaulted. To assume that somehow the shame is shared by the family is a serious threat to justice and is just another way of cornering the survivor. To make matters worse, all this tiptoeing combined only goes to embolden sex offenders.
For these and many other reasons, reporting of sexual harassment and assault has always been low in Pakistan, particularly when compared to frank anecdotes from the women all around us. One of these reasons is the petrifying fear of showing up to a police station to report the crime.
It is worth repeating that when there is a sexual assault, it is important to report the crime to the police, which then must do its constitutional duty of protecting the survivor. Although, in order to encourage more people to report when it comes to cases of sexual harassment and assault, it is important that our institutions and our society collectively get together to end the culture of shame as well as that of fear. This is the only way that survivors will feel some level of comfort and confidence when it comes to reporting these crimes.
Last week, I had first-hand experience with reporting a sexual assault on behalf of a young teenager, who, clear as day, wanted retributive justice. Perhaps her being young had something to do with it, as admittedly, I had less faith in law enforcement. Because although there have been gender sensitivity trainings in our government departments and new laws have been brought into the system to introduce safeguards, I believe that while Pakistan has informed its institutions that gender equality is important, the people are still far from actually accepting the idea.
Nonetheless, on the insistence of the teenager, I helped report the crime. Here are some parts of the experience that restored some of my trust in our institutions.
First things first, the female survivor and I went to the police station that falls in our zone to report the crime. The station felt no different from any other government office, with the same absurdities and addiction to processes. I thought I would be asked to bring in a man to help push the awkward parts of registering the FIR, or maybe myself feel compelled to ask a male ally to have the police take us seriously, but we didn't need to do any of that. Also, it appears that at the police station we went to, there is always a female duty officer present to record statements and process FIRs in case one isn't comfortable dealing with male officers. In our case, apart from a CNIC number and a cellphone number, hardly any other private details were requested at first.
The process of justice
Once one reaches the correct police station, the process kicks in, the staff is obligated to serve, and one is likely to walk away from the police station with an FIR. But for this, the first step for the police is to determine if there is a case. To begin all of this, one has to enter the complainant's name in the register and explain the situation to the duty officer who helps determine if there is a clear culprit and if a crime has been committed. In our case, after we told the duty officer what had happened, we wrote up an application for an FIR. The process took about 10 minutes to complete, followed by some wait-time, lasting about an hour, which allowed for further assessments.
Lodging the FIR came next. We were asked to explain the event that took place. As the complainant gave details, the police helped identify laws under which the violations took place. In the case of this teenager, she had not one but three laws that her attacker had violated.
We wouldn't have known this had the police not advised us professionally. The review of the event was then followed by a primary investigation. In most cases, it is done through using either digital technology, such as cellphone tracking, or background checks, and later on, after some corroborative evidence is gathered, the potential suspect is monitored to identify a pattern in their behaviour. In our case, the FIR was logged into an online system; the same system that records all the other crimes. And although there seemed to be a few challenges when it comes to language, by and large, the FIR details were recorded accurately in this case.
Once we gave the details, the FIR was processed, and a record number (also known as tracking number) was delivered to us in the next six hours. The accused was in police custody within 90 minutes of the FIR being filed, and was brought to court the following morning for the judge to determine the facts of the case and whether the process was followed. A hearing date was given. After this, in most instances, the state prosecutor takes up the case to represent the survivor.
The case closure time is very critical to sexual assault survivors. Research says that although the assault trauma is severe, chances for the survivor to recover increase significantly if retributive justice is done swiftly. Additionally, the complainant should feel heard not blamed when registering their complaint. In our case, the police neither used honour-based language, nor showed overt sympathy, nor did they ask offensive questions like "what were you wearing?" On the contrary, from the SHO to the moharrar (person writing the FIR), no one said a word more than what was necessary to the investigation. There were no assumptions made about the accused being the culprit, but there were also no assumptions that he wasn't one.
The issue of privacy
In our case, the sexual assault was against a minor, and the police were very protective of her identity. They asked her to record her statement in front of witnesses and also allowed her the psychological comfort she needed to stay outside in the parking lot with her family members as she trembled, recalling the details. In another case, of an adult survivor, perhaps there would have been more rigidity. However, in this case, the police kept giving the teenager the time, comfort and the psychological sense of safety she needed to follow procedure. The case did not end up in the media either, although typically most FIRs tend to end up in a press release.
Since this happened recently, we had worries whether police stations were abiding by Covid-19-related SOPs. But in addition to everyone at the station wearing masks and availability of sanitisers, the general six feet distancing was also being maintained. Additionally, no more than four people could enter a room at a time.
Laws dealing with sexual harassment and assault
Initially, in this case, we defined the assault under Section 509 of the Pakistan Penal Code, which outlines punitive treatment for "insulting a woman's modesty". We also thought that Section 354 of the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC) could apply as it covers the criminal act with "intent to outrage modesty of a woman". However, it needs to be said that the language and insinuations of these sections governing sexual harm are problematic. The verbiage makes "modesty" a woman-only domain and inadvertently puts the onus on the woman to not consider public spaces as areas where she has as much right to be as a man.
Later on, we were called back to the police station to redraft the application under a set of new and updated amendments to the laws. If a minor has been a target, I will encourage you to explore Section 377(b) of the PPC, as it broadly covers the sexual assault on a person who has not fully become aware of their sexuality. It also accounts for offenses that may not necessarily involve physical harm. Furthermore, it is encouraging that this law obligates the police to account for the psychological damage that may have been done to the minor's sexual identity due to the crime.
Recording it under 377(b) also makes it a non-bailable offense and can get the accused behind bars immediately. And if convicted, the criminal can be imprisoned for up to seven years.
In our case, the police also advised to add Section 441 of the PPC to the list of offences in the FIR. This is because the accused had assaulted the complainant on her property and the police recommended that this came under the trespassing category as well. The idea here is that the police in this instance provided its professional service to the survivor by informing us of the combination of violations that had occurred in order for her to get justice.
A quality check follow-up and some thoughts
A day after the FIR was registered, I received a call asking for my feedback based on how my experience had been at the police station in Islamabad. The call came in response to the online form I had submitted to the central repository, and the phone call was a standard service quality check. My feedback was the same as it is here: that I was pleasantly surprised at the swiftness of the reporting process, followed by the investigation, and how it dovetailed into the criminal justice system. At the end, they left me with a number to report to if my case faced any blocks or undue pressure from anyone.
I'd like to say that my experience is my own and I am aware that not all is hunky dory and that biases exist. The media is rampant with stories of police brutality and we have heard endless stories about FIRs not being logged because those in the system were trying to protect someone powerful. And frankly, I don't know how it would have been for us had our context been different; if we were from a discriminated religious sect, or if the accused in our case was the son of a power businessman? The only thing I know first-hand is that I walked into the police station dressed like an average Pakistani woman. I was unidentifiable because of my mask, and I waited in the line for my turn. We did not pull rank and were escorted to the SHO's office only when it was time for him to see us.
We filed the report soon after the incident, although many women do not get to do so, mostly because of the extent of their trauma as well as the fear that surrounds how the system operates. Thankfully, in our case, we were heard without having to pull strings as appears to be standard practice. Far from it, we found the right advisory from the police station.
That said, the process doesn't go half as smoothly in many other places and the survivor in our case was fortunate enough to be living in a precinct where the matter was dealt with professionally and with the requisite sensitivity. It is hoped that all of us will allow the system to work efficiently and make use of the safeguards that the laws provide against sexual harassment and assault.