The dysfunctions of the system are well mapped by now.
The rape survivor battles family, community, stigma and shame to make it to a police station, such that even filing a complaint becomes an act of resistance. The police can take three months to file an FIR, depending on who she is, who the accused is and which ‘higher-ups’ intervene.
Getting the required medico-legal examination is another crisis. No qualified personnel, or no skills, or no means of preserving evidence. Or money changes hands, reports are distorted, ‘two-finger tests’ conducted to determine state of virginity with concluding assessments that she is “habitual”.
No crime scene investigations. No follow-up to find witnesses. No clue who should pay for DNA tests. No legal aid available, no psychological counselling available, no compensation schemes available. Clueless, untrained public prosecutors; biased, sceptical judiciary; aggressive and crude cross-investigations meant to discredit her and shred her reputation. Despite ‘shield laws’ which now prohibit delving into a victim’s past behaviour and relationships as being irrelevant.
Survivors and their families struggle through a legal system whose language they do not understand, legal clauses they have no clue about; threatened, intimidated, alienated, yet chasing the mirage of justice. Meanwhile, media contempt, social ostracism and financial debts pile up.
The separation of societal problems and systemic problems doesn’t really work as one spills into the other. That’s why women instinctively recognised the CCPO [Capital City Police Officer] Lahore. He embodies the fear and anxieties women are conditioned to design their lives around. He is the ‘loag’ [‘people’] in ‘Loag kya kahein gey!’ [‘What will people say!’]. The need for the approval of neighbourhood communities has outlasted its economic moorings. Now it lingers as a fetish.
This is not about demonising one official — he is large, he contains multitudes. Implicit in the CCPO’s judgmental assessment is society’s image of ‘the perfect victim’. Modestly dressed, away from home because of family-driven necessity, a virgin or an aging mother, spotless past, raped by men she didn’t know, fought and resisted, badly bruised and physiologically damaged, tearful, hysterical and begging for justice or contemplating suicide because death is preferable to dishonour. On these terms, we are willing to extend her sympathy and support. This is why rape cases with child victims generally get more media attention and institutional support. No one questions whether they are lying or their consent was involved, or if they encouraged or tempted the aggressor, the usual forms of judgment where women are concerned.
Correspondingly, there is a perfect perpetrator. Loner, stranger, unmarried, illiterate, sexually deprived, deviant young man with a criminal track record for robberies and such. Older or educated and urbane or married men with children or pious men or family elders of victims are exempt.
Victim-blaming is a regular way of resolving our cognitive dissonance. Ideologically, we think men in our society are respectful to women, albeit because they are the mothers, sisters, daughters of other men. In evidentiary terms, we see it is not true. We reconcile this by figuring that our society is respectful to women but then women do things provoking some people to misbehave and disturb the equilibrium, which must now be restored to go back to a society respectful to women. That the equilibrium itself is problematic is never raised.
There is a foundational belief that all public space is a male space. Women can access it if with a mahram [male protector] or dressed appropriately or out for the right reasons at the right time. Otherwise, they must pay a price for their transgressions, whether through sexual harassment and assault, or by making themselves available.
But the majority of women are sexually assaulted not by strangers but by people known to them. The neighbour, the teacher, the cousin, but also the father, the father-in-law, brothers, the chacha, the mamoo. Ask the lawyers and activists who work these cases. They will tell you about the judges who dismiss cases because they refuse to believe fathers can do this, even as young women are standing in court holding the sisters they’ve given birth to. About the sadistic rage-rapes committed by husbands using objects like sticks for penetration because of their erectile dysfunction. About covering a two-minute walking distance in 20 because the victim is in no condition to walk to the magistrate’s office to record her statement. About how, for some, inflicting fear, terror and pain causes the excitement, not a woman’s dress or body or behaviour. Which of these will chemical castration fix?
Public anger is the activists’ version of the philosopher’s stone, transmuting the substance of niche outrage into systemic change. Elusive, hard to predict, difficult to hold on to, yet critical for progress. What caused it in the Lahore Motorway rape case? Alternatively, what inhibited or prevented it in Sonia’s or the hundreds of other cases? Sonia was the teenager gang-raped by two policemen in Muzaffargarh, where the police station refused to lodge her FIR against them. She set herself on fire and died the next day from the severity of the burns. She was one of three women who self-immolated in 2015 after the police dismissed their complaints of sexual violence and refused to take their cases forward.
The intensity of public anger in the Lahore Motorway case is compelling official action, but it’s being squandered in pointless theatrics such as debating public hangings. The primary issue is ending impunity and securing convictions, possible only through reform of the criminal justice system. Hanging three percent of the accused while 97 percent walk free is no deterrence. And soon the momentum of those demanding change will dissipate into cynicism about the futility of trying.
Yet change is not only possible, but has already happened. The previous phenomenon of custodial rape (inside police thaanas) has almost died out. The 2016 amendments to the Criminal Procedure Code for rape and related offences are progressive. Jeopardising rape investigations by any public office holder is now a punishable offence. Those working on the ground, in Sindh at least, point out the positive change in police attitudes in the past few years. The identity of the rape survivor in this latest incident has been concealed, unlike in past cases. The demand and pressure for change must be sustained.
Women don’t even have the luxury of giving up. At the Aurat March, I asked a widowed aging factory worker what motivated her to come all the way from Aligarh Colony in sprawling Karachi’s northwest to Frere Hall in its south. “I’ve battled against men’s behaviour in factories all my life,” she said. “My daughter died last year. I heard they come there too, to prey on graves. I can’t defend her anymore, but maybe these women protestors can stop men. I’ve come to be with them.”
The writer is a researcher and consultant in the social sector. She tweets @Nazish_Brohi
Published in Dawn, EOS, September 20th, 2020