This piece by Pakistani activist Samreen Shahbaz was exclusively sent to Feminist Times by Women Living Under Muslim Laws. It is also published on their website, as part of their 16 Days coverage.
In January 2005, Dr. Shazia Khalid was raped by member of the Pakistan Army in a remote area of Baluchistan province. Dr. Shazia Khalid is a medical doctor who was working as an employee of Pakistan Petroleum Limited at that time, and the incident happened at her compound which was located inside the hospital’s premises in the Sui area of Baluchistan.
A case was filed and investigations began after her husband made repeated visits to the police. The military government of that time found Dr. Khalid’s protests against sexual assault by a military employee extremely irritating and started making conscious efforts to remove the thorn in their side. First, the authorities destroyed the evidence and later, they started questioning the character of the victim by narrating shady stories of “used condoms” being found at her compound. Her case was also dismissed on the grounds that the victim failed to produce four witnesses of the incident.
Her case increased tensions between the Baluch nationalist tribes and the Pak Army as the tribes took the incident as an attack on their honour. Dr. Khalid was kept under a house arrest in Karachi for several weeks. Eventually, she was flown out of the country and the entire story was swept under the carpet. Dr. Shazia Khalid is still awaiting justice.
Earlier, in June 2002, Mukhtar Mai, a 30-year-old woman from Meerwala village of South Punjab, was allegedly gang raped on the order of the village council. The ill-fate dawned upon her after her young brother was seen with a woman of a powerful clan of the village. To avenge, the elders of the clan decided to shame the family by raping one of their women.
On the insistence of village cleric, Mukhtar Mai and her family decided to report the incident to the police and a case was filed against 14 men of the village. The trial was heard at Lahore High Court and later by the Supreme Court of Pakistan. After nine years of trials and appeals, the Supreme Court killed Mukhtar Mai’s hope for justice and acquitted all except one suspect in her case. The court failed to properly appraise the medico-legal evidence in Mukhtar Mai’s case and let the suspects go scot free.
Such cases are not aberrant in Pakistan’s history. In fact, these two cases mirror the turmoil and pain and anguish that hundreds of victims of sexual abuse undergo every year. We women, it seems, continue to suffer from Cassandra’s curse. Nowhere is the disbelieving of women more apparent than in these two cases.
In Dr. Shazia’s case, the police rolled out a false story and asked: how come the maid found condoms in a good girl’s bedroom? And the public joined the bandwagon, ignoring the protests of Dr. Shazia. Mukhtar Mai was accused of using rape as a route to riches by none other than Pakistan’s president and was labeled a “whore” by many Punjabi middle-classers. Even the court of justice used the principle of “better that ten guilty escape than one innocent suffers” to dismiss Mukhtar Mai’s claims.
In a patriarchal society such as ours, where women are routinely made victims of gender-based violence and where these incidents are least reported, this kind of disbelieving of women is only worsening the situation. Such outrageous dismissal of victims’ statements as ill-intended, exaggerated accounts, or sheer lies not only denies them justice, but also discourages other victims from reporting such crimes.
The cases of Dr. Shazia Khalid and Mukhtar Mai should serve as eye-opener because without demanding to change the way such cases are perceived by masses and by the authorities, we can never break the vicious cycle of these heinous crimes against women.
[*Note from the author: Leopard of Crates and Ribbons has shed light on how women keep suffering from the habitual disbelief of our society in this excellent article, which inspired me to write about the grim situation in Pakistan: http://cratesandribbons.com/2013/10/14/the-disbelieving-of-women/ ]
Samreen Shahbaz is a Lahore-based activist and National Coordinator of Advocacy and Communications with Shirkat Gah, a leading women’s rights organisation in Pakistan. She works on conflict resolution, women’s rights and human rights.
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