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 13 Sep, 2020 01:59pm

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.


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The writer is a lawyer leading the litigation team at Justice Project Pakistan. She tweets at @sfarrukhsh

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (30) Closed

M. Emad
Sep 13, 2020 02:19pm
Pakistan should abolish capital punishment.
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M. Saeed
Sep 13, 2020 02:28pm
Punishment for such crimes should be such that, the culprits live the whole life in shame and cursing their crime. It should be something that would make them die every day of their lives. There are many ways for such punishments.
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Texas Ranger
Sep 13, 2020 02:35pm
okay so you want a solution to the problem without implementing the right solution to the problem ? Best of Luck
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Sep 13, 2020 03:32pm
Ask the lady how many times she wants those who raped her in front of her children to be hanged in public.
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Sep 13, 2020 03:49pm
@M. Saeed, Tue. Barrister Aitzaz Ahsan was of the same opinion yesterday.
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Sep 13, 2020 04:16pm
Public hanging is a part of medival era justice
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Sep 13, 2020 04:30pm
@M. Emad, Please present your arguments if you want to convince us, instead of making one-line political statements.
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Jehengir khan
Sep 13, 2020 05:02pm
Open hanging is a medieval act that must be condemned and should be rejected in a civilised society...
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iftikhar Ali
Sep 13, 2020 05:46pm
No crime can be completely eradicated from a society. What strict punishments such as capital punishment will do is Deter and reduce the rate. However, capital punishments are a one way street, all proofs must be thoroughly checked and verified.
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Sep 13, 2020 06:04pm
@M. Emad, Is it abolished in Bangladesh??
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Dr. Salaria, Aamir Ahmad
Sep 13, 2020 06:49pm
There are always two sides of the picture and sometimes, its very hard to see the right side.
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Sep 13, 2020 07:25pm
Pls share some factual data of those countries as well where educational reforms you want are implemented.
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Saif Zulfiqar
Sep 13, 2020 09:34pm
@Osman, M.Emad always comment with one line. I think he does not understand the whole news.
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Mumtaz Ahmed Shah
Sep 13, 2020 10:20pm
Criminal Justice Systems is required to be revisited and strict punishment be given to rapists.(Texas)
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Sadaf Abdullah
Sep 13, 2020 10:45pm
You have written a nice column.But i need some references from Islam.Can any body please guide what islam says about this?
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Sep 13, 2020 11:24pm
@iftikhar Ali, I fully agree with your comment.
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World Citizen
Sep 14, 2020 12:18am
Imran Khan should launch a nation-wide awareness campaign and bring education reform to inculcate respect for opposite gender.
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Kamaljit Singh
Sep 14, 2020 01:42am
A good piece of writing.
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Shahzad Kazi
Sep 14, 2020 03:28am
Good article.
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Syed N Ahsan
Sep 14, 2020 03:58am
@Jehengir khan, which civilized society where woman, girls and boys are raped and murdered everyday without any remorse.
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Furrukh Rao
Sep 14, 2020 05:38am
The problem if you hang the culprit others will fear.
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Sep 14, 2020 06:35am
Education and stringent laws are need of the hour, display billboards about women rights, increase vigilance, install cctv cameras and distribute pepper spray cans to women for thier protection. Dont let your children go alone to your neighbours or relatives house alone, if they go out for play keep an eye on them, educate them about good touch & bad touch.
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Sep 14, 2020 07:34am
public hanging takes us back to stone age.
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Sep 14, 2020 07:43am
Over population, lack of education, poor family traditions, misplaced sense of honor are the issues leading to crimes. No easy solutions and none in the foreseeable future. So protect your own self and family
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Sep 14, 2020 09:04am
Make society humane more aware, more conscience, civil, educated, tolerant, that would be better than the what the minister suggested. What we are in actual fact and what we pretend to be and present ourselves to the outside world are two opposites. The way forward is to recognize who we really are as a nation, our values how we react in adversity, and how to resolve issues in a more humane manner. T
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Zeeshan Ahmed
Sep 14, 2020 09:14am
People like you are part of the reason why state of things have gotten to where they are.
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Sep 14, 2020 09:26am
@M. Emad, Mr. Emad, " Pakistan should abolish capital punishment. " Tell this to Ms. Haseena Wajid and the government of Bangladesh if you have sense and moral. Capital punishment exists in Bangladesh since its birth.
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Ali da Malanga
Sep 14, 2020 09:42am
Why should those who have committed heinous crimes be fed and clothed on tax payers money for the rest of their lives.
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Sep 14, 2020 09:44am
i totally satisfied after getting your opinions capital punishment is not long term solution of this sick crimes we have to fix our societies our fragile system our education system should create such a curriculum that foster good knowledge and awareness and good knowledge leads good actions and a good society come into being by good actions of masses
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Sep 14, 2020 11:36am
Castrate them to prevent future rapes.
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