Sometimes, the absurdity of the news coming out of Pakistan is too ridiculous to have even been made up. On March 20, reports emerged regarding the suspension of some police officers accused of negligence after an investigation looking into the conduct of 21 personnel involved with the incident in question. Ultimately, it was decided that the blame was to be borne entirely by the three who had been present at the time of the outrage. These three officers have been served with show-cause notices, and will undoubtedly be brought before a court to explain their lack of action. It is expected that when this happens, justice will have finally been done and a grateful country will understand the unfortunate chain of events that culminated in one of Nawaz Sharif’s pet peacocks being killed and eaten by a stray cat.
At one level, this incident highlights a fact that is often overlooked by those who bemoan the inefficiency of the Pakistani state. Clearly, when the interests of the rich and powerful are involved, no matter how trivial or inconsequential they may be, the state possesses the capacity to act quickly and decisively; officials are suspended, inquiries are made, investigations are undertaken, and results are produced. While it is obviously too late to do anything about the regrettable death of the Prime Minister’s peacock, it is reasonable to assume that the remainder of the flock will be provided with the type of foolproof security coverage that will prevent such catastrophes from taking place in the future.
This would all be funny if it was not so tragic. In January this year, a young woman from Muzaffargarh went to the police to lodge a case against four men who she claimed had raped her. Following three months of complete and total indifference, at the end of which the police set the accused free on bail following a poorly conducted ‘investigation,’ the young woman immolated herself in front of the Bet Mir Hazar police station. Cue much frenzied activity as the Chief Minister, predictably enough, ordered an inquiry into the matter and suspended some of the police officials involved.
Some might argue that some action, belated as it might be, is better than none. Except for the fact that the victim had tried unsuccessfully to have her voice heard for three months. Given how the government has suddenly discovered that the police, in this case, was grossly negligent and willfully incompetent, why did it take the death of a young woman to draw attention to the fact?
The story, unfortunately enough, gets worse. No less a personage than Rana Sanaullah, Punjab’s Law Minister, defended the conduct of the police in Muzaffargarh by telling the Punjab Assembly that the accusations of rape were grounded in a business dispute and that, at any rate, there had only been an attempt at raping the young woman. Furthermore, the Law Minister criticized women’s rights activists for concocting stories about rape out of thin air and using every opportunity at their disposal to tarnish the reputation of the government and Pakistan.
Apparently, for the Law Minister, an attempted rape is not something worth getting worked up about. Furthermore, any attempts to highlight rape as an issue in Pakistan are part of an anti-Pakistan conspiracy. What is truly regrettable however, is that this mindset is one that is deeply entrenched in Pakistan. In the case of Mukhtaran Mai, the fact that she had been raped as a result of a decision taken by a parochial and deeply patriarchal jirga was overshadowed by a systematic campaign aimed at discrediting her for damaging Pakistan’s reputation. When high-profile cases of rape in Pakistan receive any attention, particularly in the foreign media, the self-appointed guardians of Pakistan’s honour and integrity rise up en masse to counter the negative publicity, frothily denouncing the victims of the crime as well as their supporters. Amidst the sound of righteous fury and indignation, the perpetrators of the crime itself are forgotten, and the system moves along as it always has.
Indeed, if there is one thing that unites Pakistan and transcends the country’s ethnic, class, and geographical divisions, it is the institutionalization of patriarchy. On every possible social indicator, ranging from access to healthcare and literacy to economic opportunity and political participation, women in Pakistan lag far behind men, a result produced by decades of systematic neglect on the part of the state and the country’s political parties. According to Human Rights Watch, between 70-90% of women in the country have experienced some form of domestic abuse. In all four of the country’s provinces, honour killings continue to be perpetrated and local, informal justice systems continue to mete out punishments that disproportionately target women with sexual violence. In the name of tradition, Pakistan’s public spaces are becoming increasingly exclusionary, with women being confined to their homes when not being punished with harassment for daring to venture out into the streets. The police is institutionally misogynistic, incapable of treating violence against women as a crime, and ill-equipped to effectively investigate such incidents. At a legislative level, it boggles the mind that Pakistan has yet to introduce comprehensive laws aimed at preventing domestic violence, marital rape, and sexual harassment.
Instead, as the Council of Islamic Ideology’s rulings have recently shown, the state remains fixated on exploring new ways in which to strip women of the few rights they have in the Land of the Pure. Last year, the CII ruled that DNA evidence was inadmissible in rape cases. Now, thanks to the unceasing efforts of the members of the CII, men across the country seeking to acquire child brides for their second (or third, or fourth) marriages will be able to do so. Truly, this will bring Pakistan’s laws into conformity with the spirit of Islam. In the meantime, the CII apparently feels that the wrongful imprisonment of thousands of women under the Hudood laws, the legal loopholes that allow murderers to not be punished for honour killings, and the absence of any meaningful protections for victims of gender-based violence, are all perfectly acceptable. It is telling that, for the religious right and the social conservatives in Pakistan’s political establishment, the prospect of a bared female ankle is a greater threat to society than rampant sexual violence.
Addressing the plight of women in Pakistan will require serious efforts at reform aimed at transforming the legal system, strengthening the capacity and willingness of the police to respond to crimes against women, and providing women with greater political and economic power. However, the prospects of any of this happening on its own are bleak. Since the Muzaffargarh incident, several other cases of rape have come to light, all of which follow the same pattern of police incompetence and societal indifference. At the same time, echoing the spirit of Rana Sanaullah’s words, if not the content, the Chief Minister of KP Pervez Khattak recently declared that female legislators should focus on promoting ‘female’ skills like sewing, flower arrangement, and cooking, while leaving the messy business of infrastructural development, defence, and finance to men. Absent efforts to change the status quo through popular mobilization, this state of affairs is likely to continue.
None of which matters, of course, since we can all rest assured that the Prime Minister’s peacocks are safe and secure. Sometimes, the government does manage to get its priorities right.
n The writer is an assistant professor of political science at LUMS.