Pakistan outcry over police victim-blaming of gang-raped mother


Pakistan is in shock after robbers gang-raped a woman in front of her children near a motorway. But in a country where sexual violence towards women is common, why has this incident caused people to come out onto the streets and demand change, asks the BBC’s Saira Asher.

Women in Pakistan are often advised by family members or relatives not to be out late at night, or to make sure they have a male companion with them for their safety.

But when a top police official, charged with finding the attackers, implied the victim had been partly to blame for being out after dark alone, it ignited fury.

Comments that previously may not have been publicly questioned are now being called out as victim-blaming.

“Blaming the victim, judging a woman’s character to determine whether she was a victim; these are rooted in our society for decades,” says Moneeza Ahmed, who is part of a feminist collective.

“So the backlash is a sign that our society is listening, changing and a lot more women are speaking up.”

What happened in the ‘motorway rape’?

At around 3am on 9 September, the woman ran out of fuel on a motorway leading out of the eastern city of Lahore. Her two children were with her.

She called her relatives in Gujranwala who advised her to call the motorway emergency numbers and also set off to help her.

According to the complaint registered with the police by one of the woman’s relatives, the car was broken into by two men in their early- to mid-30s who stole money and jewellery she had on her. They raped her in front of her two children in a nearby field, and then escaped.

Police say she is still traumatised, though she did provide them with some basic descriptions of her attackers.

The next day the most senior police official in Lahore, Umer Sheikh, appeared in front of the media and implied that she had been partly to blame. He questioned why she had not taken a busier road, given that she had been alone with her children, or checked her fuel before departing.

In several TV appearances he reiterated these points, also adding that the woman, who is a resident of France, seemed to be operating under the impression Pakistan was as safe as France.

The reaction was like nothing seen in the country before and came from all quarters.

On social media people called him out for his victim-blaming.

Federal Minister of Human Rights Shireen Mazari said on Twitter: “For an officer to effectively blame a woman for being gang-raped by saying she should have taken the GT Road or question as to why she went out in the night with her children is unacceptable & have taken up this issue. Nothing can ever rationalise the crime of rape. That’s it.”

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan also condemned the remarks, as did a host of others.

Ms Ahmed says she and others are fighting against “a patriarchal mind-set; women being blamed for rape, or not being able to go out at night with her kids, or being called promiscuous if she does”.

‘Brave women’ demanding change

An apology this week for his comments has done little to stem the anger directed at the police chief.

“Representatives from all political parties making this point on television, activists, academics; it was a beautiful coming together of brave women,” says Reema Omer, legal adviser for the South Asia programme at the International Committee of Jurists.

Protest marches are being held in major cities across the country. There are demands for reforms to the police, and to the medical-legal, court and prison systems.

For the victim, this could all amount to nothing. Few rape cases are ever prosecuted in Pakistan, and even fewer successfully.

Federal Minister Fawad Chaudry said in the National Assembly this week that there are an average of 5,000 rape cases registered every year and that 5% lead to convictions. Rights group say the true figure is even lower, pointing out that many rape cases are never brought to the attention of the police.

Women fear humiliation from police officers and social judgement if they go public.

Speaking to BBC Urdu, lawyer and social activist Hina Jillani said training was required to sensitise the police and judiciary to crimes like rape. And to improve forensic evidence collection and the methodology of investigation to improve conviction rates.

In 2002, Mukhtar Mai’s case made international headlines when she decided to take legal action against the men who had gang raped her on the orders of a village council.

After a lengthy legal battle – already an extraordinary act in a country where many women raped take their lives instead of reporting their cases – in 2011 five of the six men charged with raping her were acquitted because of a lack of evidence.

But the reaction to the motorway rape, as its come to be known, or to the victim-blaming, would have been inconceivable when Mukhtar Mai’s case hit world headlines.

In recent years, Pakistan has seen the rise of a more vocal and social-media savvy group of feminists who are challenging the social norms that keep women’s freedoms severely restricted.

“Now we have women who are expressing themselves on social media and going on mainstream media and it has shaped our discourse,” says Ms Omer.

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