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A hunger for justice

Published Apr 30, 2011 12:28am

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OVER the years, I have often wondered how some judges arrived at the decisions they have around the world, and not just in Pakistan. Some have been so bizarre that I suspected that factors other than the purely legal must have been at work. Now, The Economist has supplied me with a possible answer. In the ‘Science and Technology’ section of its April 16 edition, the magazine cites an article from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that suggests that hunger might play a strong role in determining how judicial decisions are reached.

The paper describes how Shai Danziger of Ben-Gurion University and his colleagues analysed 1,000 cases of parole applications heard by eight judges over 10 months. The team found that at the start of the day, nearly two-thirds of the applications were approved, but this number fell to nearly zero with the passage of time. However, after the lunch break, the number of approvals returned to their earlier high level.

The Economist explains this anomaly thus: “The researchers offer two hypotheses for this rise in grumpiness. One is that blood sugar is the crucial variable…” The second theory is that “decision making is mentally taxing and that, if forced to keep deciding things, people get tired and start looking for easy answers. In this case, the easy answer is to maintain the status quo by denying the prisoner’s request.”

According to this research, justice is not only blind, but very often, hungry. I am not suggesting for a moment that Pakistani judges are as prone to hunger pangs as their Israeli counterparts. Had this been the case, I would be very reluctant indeed to be summoned before a judge during Ramazan.

In the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold the Lahore High Court’s judgment in the Mukhtar Mai case, the Internet has been humming with anger, anguish and despair. Hundreds of decent Pakistanis have voiced their bewilderment over this perceived wrong done to a brave woman who has already suffered so much.

Sadly, these are the same people who came out so strongly in the movement to restore the chief justice in 2007, and to establish the independence of the judiciary. Over the past three years, many have become disillusioned by what they see as a failure of the legal system to live up to their high expectations.

The facts of the case are too well known to repeat here. Suffice it to say that for Mukhtar Mai, the nightmare that began with her gang rape in June, 2002, is still continuing. After a lower court found 10 of the accused guilty, and sentenced six to death two months later, the Lahore High Court reversed the sentence and acquitted five of them in 2005. Only one of them was found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment.

After the uproar over the high court judgment, the Supreme Court took suo motu notice and decided to hear the appeal. Now, six years later, a three-member bench has upheld the Lahore court’s verdict and released all the accused but one. Naturally, the rape victim has expressed her fear of what these powerful men will do on their triumphant return to her village.

In the nine years since the crime, Mukhtar Mai has devoted herself to making life a little better for the marginalised women of her area. She has opened schools and a vocational centre, and her work has been internationally recognised, and she has been honoured for her courage across the world.

The fact that many of our reactionary TV anchors have commented so negatively on Mukhtar Mai’s trials and tribulations has enraged Pakistan’s liberals. In a searing open letter to Mubashir Lucman, a well-known TV anchor, Sana Saleem blogs on this newspaper’s website:

“Mai dared to stand up for herself and her family despite hailing from a rural background where influential tribesmen literally own the life and wealth of those they consider inferior to them. She spoke up in a society where reporting a rape case is an ordeal in itself and blaming the victim reinforces the culture of silence and shame.

“… This was no ordinary woman, Mr Lucman. She was gang-raped on the orders of a jirga, paraded naked around the entire village and then made to wait for nine long years — only to be turned down…

“Moreover you had the audacity to ask Mai if she felt any compassion for the men who were charged with rape… Do you expect her to sympathise with the men she accused of raping her? The entire discussion on the show was a vicious attack not only on Mai, a rape survivor, but women rights activists as well. Accusing activists of pocketing money … and cashing in on rape reflects your views on rape victims.

“It is people like you and attitudes such as yours that feed the vicious cycle of prejudice against rape victims … It is appalling that you would allow your guests to hurl allegations on Mai, call her rape fictitious without any substantial evidence…” Sana Saleem has attached a link to the TV programme in question, and I must say I found it stomach-churning. Indeed, Lucman and his talk-show guests reflect the views of the majority of our misogynist nation. While president some years ago, Musharraf was asked about the Mukhtar Mai case while on one of his many overseas trips. To the best of my recollection, he advised the victim not to air the country’s dirty linen in public as it tarnished Pakistan’s image abroad. He also suggested that in his experience, some women got raped in order to gain asylum in the West.

The reality is that in our backward society, Musharraf and Lucman represent the mainstream in whose view, if women stay at home, they would be safe. All too often, they blame rape victims and draw attention to their dress, or the fact that they work outside their homes. But Mukhtar Mai dresses as conservatively as any villager, and was dragged out of her house.

Our police, our courts and our media all share the inherent prejudices against women that are rampant in our society. Until the guilty are given deterrent punishments, rape victims will continue to suffer long after their ordeal. Perhaps the review petition lodged by Aitzaz Ahsan before the Supreme Court could be heard soon after breakfast or lunch.… irfan.husain@gmail.com

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