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Crossing Continents Thursday, 15 July, 1999, 14:24 GMT 15:24 UK
Pakistan's holy men under fire
Presenter Meriel Beattie speaks to village headman Wassim Rana: a baby was buried alive here
By Arlene Gregorius

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Wassim Rana, a village headman from the Punjab plain in eastern Pakistan, is proud of his community. But not of what happened there a few months ago.

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We'd come to his village after hearing that a baby girl had been buried there - alive - by her own family. Wassim had the gruesome task of exhuming the dead baby.

The girl, called Ikra, had been buried on the advice of a pir, one of many religious leaders-cum-faith healers who are believed to be intermediaries between Allah and the community.

There are thousands of pirs across Pakistan, with millions of followers, especially in poorer, rural areas. Part of the Sufi tradition of Islam, genuine pirs are the descendants of Sufi Islamic scholars or holy men, and are believed to have inherited their spiritual powers. People consult the pirs on anything from religious matters, to problems with their mothers-in-law or even medical problems like infertility.

Growing concerns

But now for the first time it's becoming clear that some pirs, especially fake ones, have been routinely abusing their power for corruption, extortion, even rape.

Sobia Rani lives in a poorer district of Lahore, Pakistan's second biggest city. She says she's only thirteen, though she looks a bit older, maybe sixteen. She's about eight months pregnant, or nine; she's not sure, and can't afford the medical treatment to find out. Sobia says she was abducted and raped by a pir and only escaped when she was about four months pregnant.

Her family had first contacted the pir about her brother, who "had supernatural things in his body and did strange things". A psychiatrist might have diagnosed epilepsy or a psychotic illness. But Sobia's family had heard that the local pir was an expert on these problems.

Sobia Rani and her family still suffer the shame of the pir's abuse
The pir agreed to treat Sobia's brother, saying that he'd have to come to their home and pray there for three days for the brother to recover. The family agreed. And one day when the parents were out, the pir said to Sobia that she'd have to come and pray at the local shrine with him. Along with two other men, the pir then abducted and raped her.

Sobia's violators are said to have left Lahore. Sobia says the police have been no help and that she doesn't expect to get justice.

No chance of justice

Sabir Piya is accused of rape and abuse, but denies all charges
We went to meet another pir accused of rape. Pir Sabir Piya sat on the floor in his carpeted room behind a raffia curtain hung with tinsel. He denied the allegations, saying they were baseless, fabricated by his former wife and her friends. But he did agree that in those cases where rape did take place, it would be almost impossible for the woman to get much help (let alone justice) from the police.

With little trust in the justice system, a majority of victims don't even bother going to the police. Asma Jahangir is a Supreme Court lawyer, a staunch supporter for women's rights, and a United Nations rapporteur for Human Rights. She, too, agrees, that it's almost impossible to successfully prosecute a pir.

"It would take a lifetime", she says. And why? Because many police are corrupt, and many pirs are well connected, even politically. Some are feudal landowners, and some are even Members of Parliament.

A pir's power to help

Aftab Shah Jilani (here with a picture of his father) has spent a lifetime promoting good practice
Pir Aftab Jilani is both a landowner and an MP. A direct descendant of an Iraqi Sufi scholar, and even, he claims, of the Prophet Mohammed, he's an example of what a good pir should be. Using his political clout, he's managed to get electricity to 300 villages in his area, as well as gas, drinking water and schools. If someone comes to him for medical or psychiatric problems, he refers them to a doctor.

That's the kind of pir psychiatrist Dr Saad Malik would like to see more of. Dr Malik works with less educated pirs who'd diagnose mental problems like epilepsy or depression as possession by evil spirits. They'd tie, even chain, patients to walls and trees, and leave them there until they got "cured".

Dr Malik set up free clinics to treat the patients medically, but made sure to work with the pirs and get their blessing on the treatment. Doctors know that the belief in the pirs is so deep-rooted, that it would be counterproductive to work against them.

But what can be done about the malicious pirs, the charlatans and sex abusers? Though the law is too weak to deal with them, there's is one other tactic: to expose them. And that's exactly what a number of playwrights and writers have started to do.

Novelist Tehmina Durrani is one of the best-known. Her most recent book, called Blasphemy, is based on what she says is the true story of a particularly sadistic pir, as narrated by his battered and humiliated wife.

To her surprise, there was no strong reaction from pirs when the book first came out. But that was the English-language edition. The translation in Pakistan's national language, Urdu, is due out soon, and Tehmina is not taking any chances. She's hired three armed guards to stand watch outside her house.

Also in this edition of Crossing Continents: what it's like to be a female professional in Pakistan, and the unexpected sound of bagpipes from the Pakistan Army's music school in Abbottabad.

Asma Jahangir, HRCP, June 1999
"there are a lot of unscrupulous people around...."
Aftab Jilani, MP and pir, June 1999
comments on the balance of power between pirs and the public
Pipers, Abbottabad Army Music Academy, June 1999
on the pride of the Pakistani Army's bagpipers....
See also:

08 Dec 98 | From Our Own Correspondent
14 Sep 98 | From Our Own Correspondent
26 Mar 99 | Politics
30 Apr 99 | South Asia
29 Jun 98 | South Asia
Links to more Crossing Continents stories are at the foot of the page.

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