THE horrifying assault and gang rape of a woman driving on the Lahore-Sialkot motorway has shaken the citizens of this country to the core. The woman and her two children were on the M-11 Wednesday night when her car ran out of fuel and stalled. As she made frantic phone calls to get help, two men approached the family and forcibly took them to a nearby field at gunpoint.

The men raped the woman in the presence of her children, then proceeded to steal her cash and jewellery before making a getaway. As news of the heinous crime went viral, Lahore CCPO Umar Sheikh appeared before the media to offer nothing in the way of sympathy for the victim. Instead, he shared a list of ways on how she and other women could avoid being assaulted in the future. Shockingly, Mr Sheikh repeated his asinine remarks, which included telling women that they should be more responsible as assault is the ultimate fate of a woman travelling alone in our society.

It is appalling that Mr Sheikh’s callous and prejudiced remarks should find support among senior members of the government. Accountability tsar Shahzad Akbar dismissed the criticism against Mr Sheikh as “unnecessary”, while Planning Minister Asad Umar said his remarks though unsavoury did not amount to criminal conduct.

The episode has left women infuriated, and feeling let down and even more unsafe. It has also demonstrated that, despite a swelling women’s rights movement in Pakistan, there are miles to go before women are treated as equals and human beings. Over the last couple of days, scores of women on social media have highlighted exactly how dangerous this victim-blaming mentality is. Many have shared their own stories of rape, assault and harassment and admitted that it is the fear of judgement and shame that keeps them from speaking out or approaching the authorities.

The list of reasons why women in the country do not feel safe is distressingly long. Yet, senior officials and public office holders such as Mr Sheikh continue to perpetuate this vile notion that the victim is somehow responsible for the assault or that a woman should not venture out of her home without the protection of a man.

This attitude is unacceptable. It is not enough for individual members of the government to condemn the act and ignore the heartless and unprofessional conduct of the top official overseeing security in Lahore.

Furthermore, authorities should take note of the fact that the Pakistan National Highway and Motorway Police is unaware of who is responsible for policing the route where the assault took place, a fact which meant that the woman’s call for assistance on the official helpline was denied. The government must remove Mr Sheikh if it wants to demonstrate to the women of this country that there is hope for their security.

Published in Dawn, September 12th, 2020

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