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Last Updated: Thursday, 8 September 2005, 10:14 GMT 11:14 UK
Pakistan's real problem with rape
Aamer Khan
By Aamer Ahmed Khan
BBC News, Karachi

rape victim
Rape victims often find it difficult to get their cases heard
Women's rights in Pakistan are once again in the international spotlight as delegates attend a high-profile two-day conference on the issue in Islamabad.

One of the key objectives of the talks, according to Pakistan's women's development ministry, is to improve the country's image in the context of women's rights.

But activists argue that crimes against women are not an "image problem".

They say such crimes - especially rape - result from a combination of tribalism, retrogressive cultural values and a criminal justice system in a state of deep rot.

We have a strong policy and programme here which the government is putting across very successfully to combat violence against women
Nilofer Bakhtiar, women's affairs minister, Pakistan

The government of President Pervez Musharraf defends its record and says violence against women is a global problem.

It has repeatedly insisted that it has done more for women's empowerment in Pakistan than any previous administration in the country.

Although planned several weeks ago, the conference comes hot on the heels of new cases of rape involving policemen and tribal councils or jirgas.

Police accused

These cases either involve allegations of rape against policemen or accusations that the tribal bodies have perverted the course of justice.

Earlier this week, a young woman alleged that she had been gang raped by four policemen in Rawalpindi. One officer was arrested and three others are missing.

The woman said the policemen barged into her house, locked her husband and uncle in a room and raped her.

Mukhtar Mai
Mukhtar Mai's courage has inspired many rape victims to go public
She was supposedly punished for failing to pay a bribe of 100,000 rupees ($1,674) demanded by the police for the release of her husband.

Last week, a 23-year-old woman from Faisalabad went public with her accusations against police in the city.

She said her husband had been arrested on charges of preparing forged documents for stolen cars.

She was raped allegedly on the orders of the Faisalabad police chief for seeking to publicise her husband's arrest.

The officer has been suspended but not arrested.

A week before that, a married woman with two children in Karachi said she had been gang raped by four local men but a jirga prevented her from reporting the matter to the police.

Instead, the jirga members imposed a fine of 150,000 rupees ($2,500) on the accused. Even that money never reached her, she said.

Hurdles to justice

Apart from the alleged crime, what is common to these women are the problems they have had to confront in their quest for justice.

In the case of one woman from Karachi, the police refused to register a case of rape for over a month - during which time she says she was repeatedly threatened by her rapists.

President Pervez Musharraf
President Musharraf's government says violence against women is a global problem
By the time she managed to have the case registered, it was too late to conduct a medical examination on her.

In most rape cases in Pakistan, the crime is established almost entirely on the basis of medical examination of the complainant.

Eventually, a case was registered but all the accused were awarded bail despite the fact that the woman identified her rapists before the judge. She eventually had to play what is known in Karachi as the "ethnic card".

She is a Mohajir - a name given to Urdu-speaking migrants from India at the time of partition - while her rapists were native Sindhis.

She went to the headquarters of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) - an influential Mohajir-dominated party - with her case.

It was only after intervention from the MQM's home minister in Sindh that the police launched a fresh hunt for the accused, three of whom had disappeared by then.

Two of them are still at large.

Going public

The case of the woman from Faisalabad is even more striking.

She barged into Pakistan's parliament wearing a veil similar to the ones worn by women representatives of religious parties.

She says she was hoping to find an MP who could help her.

Instead, she was returned to Faisalabad as a criminal who had caused a major security breach.

It was not until her story was given airtime by a private TV channel that the accused officer was suspended.

Mukhtar Mai after her Supreme Court ruling
Mukhtar Mai's case which made international headlines is still pending
Even then, while three separate inquiry committees were set up, a formal case has yet to be registered.

Her lawyer and rights activist Asma Jehangir has described the multiple inquiry committees as "an attempt to subvert justice".

'Strong policy'

For its part the government says its commitment to improving the lives of women is illustrated by their move to pass a law requiring one-third of elected members in all representative bodies - from the National Assembly to local governments - to be women.

In the Faisalabad case, too, it points to the immediate suspension of the accused police officer and simultaneous inquiries at the parliamentary, judicial and administrative levels.

Besides, the government argues, violence against women is worse in many other countries than in Pakistan.

Pakistan's minister for women's affairs, Nilofer Bakhtiar, says the fight for women's rights is making progress.

"We have a strong policy and programme here which the government is putting across very successfully to combat violence against women," she told the BBC.


But in reality little has been done about removing procedural difficulties - which means that rape victims must either rely on the media or non-governmental organisations to secure justice.

There is no institutional infrastructure in Pakistan to help rape victims, no trauma centres or legal aid bodies.

Rape in Pakistan became a high-profile crime after one of the victims, Mukhtar Mai, decided to speak out.

Ms Mai was gang raped allegedly on the orders of a tribal council as punishment for a sexual crime attributed to her brother.

Her case is still pending in the courts but her courage has inspired many rape victims to go public with their stories.

So far the government's response, observers say, has been limited to isolated action in certain cases.

Rights activists hope the conference in Islamabad results in a comprehensive strategy to help such women.

Focusing on the "image" aspect alone is clearly unlikely to help.

Do you think that Pakistan has an image problem when it comes to its treatment of women? If so, do you think this is justified? Are you a woman facing challenges in this area?

I have five sisters in Pakistan, and each has at least a bachelor's degree, with one being a leading surgeon in her city. My parents were neither rich nor highly educated, but fostered a culture of learning in our home. Thus to portray Pakistani women as culturally suppressed is inaccurate since those who want to make something of their lives certainly can. My own family is ample proof of this.
Naved, Texas, USA

If any Pakistani government paid attention and took appropriate action against the violence that occurs against women in Pakistan, the issue would never need to be highlighted in the Western media to this extent. Where are the women and their families supposed to go when their own government and the law enforcement agencies refuse to help them and instead, further threaten their safety? Let us lift the veil of culture, society and religion and see the issue for what it really is: blatant sexism and a refusal to recognise women as equal human beings deserving of equality, human rights and justice.
Rahal Saeed, Washington, DC, USA

I was born in Pakistan and moved to London 11 years ago. I am so happy that my daughters have not been brought up there. I have seen first hand how women are treated. Musharraf survives on the publicity he portrays to western media. It is not uncommon for women to be offered by village elders as bribes to police officers. I am not surprised that all the government is interested in is 'improving the country's image' to outsiders. These crimes are not an image problem but crimes against our humanity.
Ruksana Khan , UK

See President Musharraf talking about violence against women

Rape-case police chief suspended
31 Aug 05 |  South Asia
Tribal council rape ruling probed
29 Aug 05 |  South Asia
New Pakistan rape suspects held
06 Jul 05 |  South Asia
Mukhtar Mai - history of a rape case
28 Jun 05 |  South Asia
Ramifications of a gang rape
26 Jun 05 |  South Asia

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