Motorway rape case: Why calls for public hangings are part of the problem

If we are sincere about making all Pakistanis feel safe, widespread reform is the answer.
Published September 13, 2020

On September 10, 2020, a woman was gang-raped in front of her children in Lahore. The lack of assistance meted out to her by the authorities as she was stranded on the motorway and the unforgivable remarks from CCPO Lahore after the fact are a testament to Pakistani society’s disdain for women today.

To the average man here, ‘izzat' is a finite resource only to be found in a woman’s body. Strangely though, the woman is not to have any of that izzat for herself while carrying the burden of a so-called 'honour' of men, many of whom have resorted to violence at the slightest declaration of autonomy by a woman, or worse yet, simply when a woman failed to add the 'right' amount of salt in an evening's dinner. With such a violent mindset prevailing in our society, where even toddlers are routinely raped and killed, where perpetrators mutilate their victims’ bodies to cover their tracks, where when a woman chooses to speak of her autonomy online, the responses received are most often from men threatening to rape her, is it not surprising that all of this is going on despite the fact that convicted rapists have been hanged to death in Pakistan on several occasions?

On September 12, several organisations comprising people who have dedicated their lives to working for women’s rights and who work on grassroots level with marginalised communities and survivors, held protests across the country to demand justice in the motorway case as well as call for widespread reforms. Armed with research to back their claims, and a manifesto based on stakeholder consultation, they put forth a charter of eight evidence-based demands, which, if implemented sincerely, could begin to rectify the sorry state that we find ourselves in today. Towards the end, the charter read: “We oppose the calls for public hangings and capital punishment, as they have no correlation with the prevention or deterrence of rape, rather only serve to satiate short-term public pressure.”

This is a fact. The death penalty does not deter people from commission of offences. Iran and Saudi Arabia are two countries where public executions are common. In both jurisdictions, despite frequent public executions for murder, rape and drug-related offences, the rate of commission of those offences has continued to rise. And when it comes to capital punishment in the case of sex crimes, the situation gets even more complex, with people far less likely to report offences committed by known perpetrators if the penalty is death. Also, in many cases where capital punishment is implemented, the survivor ends up going through additional trauma.

To assess the efficacy of capital punishment, we can just look at a case from recent memory. In 2018, six-year-old Zainab’s rapist and murderer Imran was hanged. And given the 'logic' that capital punishment serves as a deterrent to crime, the hanging should have led to a considerable decline in cases of child sex abuse. However, according to child right's organisation Sahil, there was an 11% increase in reported cases of child sex abuse that year, with a total of 3,832 cases registered.

In Pakistan, Iran and Saudi Arabia, similar trends exist across the board for rape, murder and drug-related offences. When it comes to sex related crimes, things will not improve until we make the necessary changes to our education, governance and criminal justice systems to counter sexual harassment, assault and femicide that is being perpetrated against women, children and sexual minorities. Until that happens, the crimes will not stop regardless of whether individual perpetrators are hanged behind closed doors or in the streets.

When it comes to all these calls for public hangings, they appear to be nothing but a reinforcement of the status quo by other means. If calling for public hangings is one's primary reaction to these crimes, they are fundamentally declaring that they don’t want to hear about rape, that they care little about how widespread the problem is, that they do not want to learn what solutions have actually worked in other places.

I've also seen people praising Zia ul Haque's policy of public hangings. These same people conveniently fail to add that at the same time, Zia also brought in some of the most regressive laws governing prosecution in rape cases. They boast that fewer sex offences were reported in that era but do not add that the laws were such that perpetrators could rape with impunity and not be convicted. Even after ‘Pappu’ was publicly executed for the rape and murder of a minor in 1981, there were at least four reported cases of child sex abuse in the same city. Zia’s policies only ensured that sex offences were nearly impossible to prove. Who else was he going to hang if the system couldn’t convict 99 per cent of rapists? And this is the reality of the story as to how a public hanging served to deter sex crimes in Pakistan. It didn't.

At the same time, it is faulty, if not fraudulent, to perpetuate the idea that a public hanging will make women feel safe. That won't be the case. We will not be waking up the next morning, feeling suddenly able to venture out in public spaces of the cities and towns we live in and know quite well.

Although experts have been advocating for solutions for years, here is what would make us feel a little less unsafe: Knowing that children are being taught about ‘bad touch’ in primary school; that consent is a permanent part of the curriculum; that booksellers are no longer gluing together pages of sex education chapters in science books; that courses on sexual offences are no longer being taught to men and women separately in university-level law classes.

We will feel safer if we were given the confidence that in case we reported an assault to a public servant, their judgment would be the last thing we would need to concern ourselves with. That they will find, prosecute and punish all rapists, and not only when there is an outcry. That victims of sexual violence will be provided with psychological, legal and financial support so they are able to pursue their cases without further damaging their mental and physical health.

There are studies, academic papers, road maps, both international and indigenous, that tell us how to make Pakistan a safer place for all of us, and the empirical evidence indicates that public hanging is not among those solutions. Hanging rapists is in fact known to have done more harm than good and drives victims and societies into tolerating more rape. If we are sincere about making all Pakistanis feel safe, widespread reform at the levels of education, governance and the criminal justice system is the answer, as opposed to imagined quick-fixes such as public hanging which will only serve to further brutalise an already violent society and will drive even more victims into silence.