Crimes against women: The stories we all forgot

Updated 14 Jul, 2019 11:28pm
Illustrations by Zehra Nawab
Illustrations by Zehra Nawab

There is not a single woman in sight. Rickshaw wallas laze about in front seats, waiting for passengers, occasionally walking to a tea shop for a cup of tea. A few workshops along the road echo with the sound of steel on steel; inside others, carpenters hiss away at wood. Most shops are shuttered down — it is only 10 am; the bazaar will hit its peak activity in another two hours.

Men on motorcycles zoom south in the direction of Multan, some 15 minutes away from here. Some slow down to take a good look at any woman passing by. For an hour, this means only me.

This is the first of my four stops across Pakistan — each stop a place corresponding to an incident of violence against women, one case from each decade since the 1980s. Revisiting these sites many years later, I am required to explore: what happened to the women? What about the perpetrators? Did the law take its course? Is it easier now than before for a woman to get justice?

Moving across the muddy canal passing by the bazaar, other men – younger, flashier – keep glancing my way, some whistling before giggling away. If this is the kind of amusement – and hostility – shown towards a fully clothed woman in Nawabpur’s streets today, how might have men here reacted to naked women 33 years ago.

Wrong side of the law: A *Herald* special interactive
Wrong side of the law: A Herald special interactive

Depending on who you ask, the story takes different shapes. Some say it was a familial dispute turned messy. Others say a carpenter’s son slept with a woman from the Shekhana family which then avenged the insult. A boy in his twenties claims he knows the truth: there was more than one illicit relationship involved. Still, most in the village do not like to revisit the ‘scandal’ of March 1984.

“It paints Nawabpur as a village unsafe and hostile for women,” 80-year-old Farhad Asghar argues, adding, “But that really is not the case.” He was somewhere in his fifties at the time; he did not witness the incident himself but news travelled to his wood shop (a 20-minute walk from the site of the incident) soon enough.

Since there were no cell phones at the time, he initially overheard only a few details. Iqbal Shekhana and his brother – sons of the local union council chairman – broke into the house of one Noor Mohammad, a local carpenter. Mohammad had a son Akbar — his third, and soon-to-be married. The Shekhanas, along with two of their accomplices, beat up Akbar, breaking his limbs, then dragged Mohammad’s two daughters-in-law – Saeeda and Nasim – and his nine-year-old daughter Shehnaz outside the house. Beside Akbar’s limp body, they stripped the women and the girl naked, then proceeded to parade all three through the bazaar.

Asghar exhales a sigh. “It was a time of great shame for us,” he recalls. But there was also a lot of excitement, a lot of anticipation of what might happen next. Media crews swarmed the village. Asghar’s own cousin gave a comment to a newspaper.

The town joined in, sometimes to participate, as when shopkeepers kept their shutters down in protest — other times as a spectator, as on the day the culprits were finally punished. Still, Asghar feels it was a time of great insult to Nawabpur. “In our community, if you attack one woman, you attack all of us,” he believes. “How dare someone treat women in such a dishonourable way?” He has two daughters — both of whom, he notes proudly, he married off by the time they had reached the age of 16.

Asghar insists events like the one in 1984 are not common and they betray a mentality most decent villagers do not espouse. “Just consider, for example, that nothing of the sort has happened since.”

The events of March 31, 1984 took three days to make it to the newspapers. By then, several arrests were made, bails were denied to the perpetrators and Akbar had died. Newspaper reports from the time all have the same basic storyline: yes, the Shekhanas broke into Akbar’s house and beat him to a pulp; yes, they believed Akbar was having an illicit relationship with a woman from the Shekhana clan and they wanted to punish him; yes, together with a group of men, Iqbal and his brother dragged the women and the girl outside, burnt their clothes and paraded them through the streets.

Also read: The missing daughters of Pakistan

The details differ. Did the Shekhanas chop off Akbar’s fingers? Did they beat him unconscious? Did they break his limbs? Were the women dragged out on gunpoint? Were they dragged by their hair? Were they beaten with sticks when they tried to cover themselves? Almost all the versions say the crowd of men grew as the women made their way down the street so that, with each step, more men were either berating them or hitting their private parts with sticks, or dancing around them in a vulgar frenzy. There is vast disagreement on the size of this crowd — some say there were 40 men; others cite hundreds.

One version of the story ends when Ghulam Qasim, a passerby, came across the growing crowd of some 80 men. Shocked by what was happening before him, this conscientious villager pulled out his gun and threatened to shoot the men if they did not disperse. They obliged and, after offering the women chadors to cover themselves, he took them home.

Javed Sultan, Station House Office (SHO) at the Nawabpur Police Station, scrunches his face thinking over my query. The incident occurred such a long time ago — what is the use of bringing it up now? “The officers involved are long dead,” he says. “Are you here to dig up graves?”

A bulky man with a well-trimmed moustache, Sultan exudes the kind of authority that quiets down any room he enters. Compared to the dank feel of the rest of the police station – two sparsely furnished rooms, a wide, empty lobby – his office is a den of activity.

His assistant, seated beside him on the desk, steals glances from the files spread before him to look at a television screen across the room. A cricket match is on. Other officials, seated on a couch, keep score out loud. They are waiting for breakfast to arrive.

The only shelf in the office is stacked with large journals that look like they have been bound with blue electric tape. They are hand-labelled by the year. Sultan pulls out the one marked ‘1984’ and locates the First Information Report (FIR). An official watching him exclaims, “Is this the famous Shekhana case?”

The Shekhanas, it appears, are a household name in Nawapbur. Not because of the case, though: for decades, male members of the family have served as chairs of the Nawabpur Union Council, one official explains.

The infamous Hudood Ordinances of 1979 conflated rape with zina (fornication); the law also required four male witnesses to prove a sexual crime against a woman.

Sultan agrees to help me get in touch with Iqbal. He pulls out his phone and dials a number. After a long pause and what seems like a few rings, he says: “Iqbal isn’t picking up. He is probably asleep.” And then, in way of apology, he adds: “These are influential men. One needs their numbers.”

I ask Sultan what he thinks of Iqbal as a person. He explains matter-of-factly: “The thing with criminals and dacoits is that everyone is forced to respect them. We are obliged to do the same.”

What about the police’s responsibility to the victims? According to newspaper reports, Akbar’s family had a tough time registering the FIR. Not only was the police station at a good distance from the village then, once his brothers reached there – along with the assaulted women – the SHO dismissed them out of hand. He was allegedly a close friend of the Shekhanas. According to some testimonies in newspaper reports, he even laughed at Akbar’s family, telling them to get lost.

Later the same day, a busload of people made their way to the senior superintendent of police (SSP) in Multan, demanding justice. Finally, an FIR was registered by the same SHO.

Sultan and his colleagues feel that something like that will never happen at today’s police stations. Yet, in his study, Access to Justice for Survivors of Sexual Assault, human rights activist Sohail Akbar Warraich notes that the greatest factor obstructing justice in sexual assault cases is the delay in FIR registration. The delay is often due to the police's outright refusal to register a case, he writes.

“Our job is to register the complaint, not decide whether it is accurate or not,” says Saim Rafeeq, a sub-inspector at Nawabpur police station. Like others in the room, he has only heard of the 1984 case from his superiors who always referred to it as a landmark case — partially because it was one of those rare ones in which punishment was served swiftly and partially because the amount of public attention it garnered. For Nawabpur, both were unprecedented.

Human rights activist Sohail Akbar Warraich notes that the greatest factor obstructing justice in sexual assault cases is the delay in FIR registration.

Agreeing with Rafeeq, Sultan adds: “Wasn’t this also the time when Nawaz Sharif came down in a helicopter?”

His aides nod, making it clear that even real life events can assume mythical proportions in the hands of the police. “I heard Nawaz Sharif landed the next morning in a private helicopter,” says one official. “No, he stayed in Nawabpur for a few days, making sure the case reached its end,” adds another. A third asks, “Didn’t he also address the nation, promising to get the women justice?”

The only truth in all this is that Sharif was a young finance minister in Punjab’s military government at the time. He was not even the chief minister of the province — in order to be able to say or do all these things.

“The women are probably dead,” one young official chimes in, bringing the discussion back to the present. “And the young girl must have been married off and moved elsewhere.”

Another official comments: “I would never marry a woman like that.”

He has paid the price of what happened to the women, Iqbal says, referring to the punishment he received.

He lives in a two-storey mansion flanked by farmland — a 40-minute ride on a metalled road from Nawabpur. The 62-year-old says the land is not a lot but is enough to help his family get by. And, anyway, he makes most of his money dealing in real estate in Multan. His joint family consists of his brother, his own sons and their wives, his nephews and their wives, and the grandchildren of the two brothers. Law bars him from running in elections because he is a convict but one of his nephews is currently the chairman of the local union council, following the family’s tradition. Life is mostly comfortable for Iqbal.

He is reluctant to recall the events of 1984.

Women organisations take out a rally in Lahore against Zia’s so-called ‘Islamisation laws' |
Women organisations take out a rally in Lahore against Zia’s so-called ‘Islamisation laws' |

“I did not wish any ill to the women,” he says, adding, “And I certainly never wanted to kill the carpenter’s son.” For one — he was a relative (a girl from the Shekhana family was married to Akbar’s cousin); for another, the Shekhanas only wanted to break his legs, to teach him a lesson for sleeping with a married woman from the respectable Shekhana clan.

Who was this woman? “Some cousin,” Iqbal says, but does not specify. She was not a direct relative of his, but the family’s honour was at stake. At the time, he says, he knew religion did not permit violence – the thought came to his mind – but his action was rooted in his values: “For us villagers, honour is everything.”

He uses the analogy of nationalism: when Indian soldiers cross two feet into Pakistan, we kill 50 of India’s men. Attacking the motherland, he remarks, is no different from attacking a woman. So if someone dishonours a woman from his family, is he not entitled to strike back?

There are nights, Iqbal says, when he cannot sleep. He stays up replaying the incident in his mind, wishing he had never gone to Akbar’s house in his fit of rage. He remembers the sight: Akbar was sleeping on the charpoy; Iqbal ordered his brother and friends to beat Akbar up but to refrain from killing him. He claims he did not join in the beating. Iqbal watched from the sidelines, he says, thinking about the evening before, when he had met Akbar in the bazaar after returning from Multan. Akbar had offered him a cup of tea and he had almost accepted. He hated the thought now — a cup of tea from the man involved in an illicit relationship with a Shekhana woman!

All the while, he insists, he was oblivious to what was taking place outside Akbar’s house: other relatives had shown up and taken matters in their own hands.

He says the SHO informed him later, and remembers the sinking feeling when he heard about the women being paraded naked. He knew it would be linked to his attack on Akbar. The SHO confirmed his fear: “Iqbal sahib, you have really messed up.”

There are nights, Iqbal says, when he cannot sleep. He stays up replaying the incident in his mind, wishing he had never gone to Akbar’s house in his fit of rage.

By the time he showed up at the police station, things had sped up. He found himself arrested on two accounts — assaulting Akbar, which he admitted, and stripping the women naked, which he insists even today was an incorrect allegation. Not once does he remember being asked whether he had even committed the crime. Not all the 23 people listed in the FIR as culprits were involved in the crime against the women, he claims. Nor were all the attackers correctly identified, he adds.

A few days later, a third charge was added: of murdering Akbar who had succumbed to injuries at the hospital. For this, Iqbal would later be sentenced to three years in jail.

The government also confiscated his property worth 3.4 million rupees. Luckily for him, most of the land his family owned was registered under his father’s name so not all could be taken away. Once he was released from jail, he appealed to the high court to obtain his confiscated lands back. He won the case after four years.

Iqbal also paid a hefty fine — how much, he does not reveal. Whether this reached the women in Akbar’s family as intended, he does not know. The last time he saw anyone from that family was in 1987 when he got out of jail. Theirs was one of the first houses he visited, this time with an intention quite opposite to the one he had three years earlier: he sought forgiveness. He met with the husbands of both Saeeda and Nasim, and, after apologising to the men, he offered a gesture of goodwill: if the husbands permitted, he would place a dupatta on each woman’s head as a symbol for the restoration of their honour.

What Iqbal does not mention is the publicity the case attracted. Newspapers were running full-page features, follow-up reports and daily commentaries. Activist groups like the Women’s Action Forum (WAF), which had been formed only three years prior to the incident, and the All Pakistan Women’s Association (APWA) were decrying the crime, demanding that perpetrators be held accountable.

For Farida Shaheed, co-founder of Shirkat Gah, a Lahore-based research and advocacy organisation working on women’s rights, this period marked the first of three stages in the fight for greater women’s rights in Pakistan. It involved the recognition that there was a problem. (The second stage involves some kind of a legal redress, such as a law or a policy to secure women’s rights while in the third and final stage, the law is able to deliver justice.) “But for a woman to enjoy her rights,” Farida explains, “There must be no questions in the society about her right to enjoy them.”

Also read: The Pakistani woman — Where does she stand and where is she going?

The 1980s – the era of General Ziaul Haq’s Islamisation of laws – was certainly not a time when the society would do that. The infamous Hudood Ordinances of 1979 conflated rape with zina (fornication); the law also required four male witnesses to prove a sexual crime against a woman. It was under this situation that WAF focused on violence committed by the state against women, says Farida, in the form of new laws, rather than on their welfare or development.

The long battle had only begun. The Hudood Ordinances would not be revised until 2006 with the passage of the historic Women's Protection Act, but WAF members would achieve a small victory soon after the Nawabpur incident: a new section, 254-A, was inserted in the Pakistan Penal Code through the Criminal Law Amendment Ordinance 1984. It deals with “assault or use of criminal force [against a] woman and stripping her clothes” with a punishment as harsh as the punishment for rape — death penalty or life imprisonment and a fine.

That step would come some months later. Within two weeks of the incident, Zia-style justice was delivered by a summary military court. Nobody saw the verdict coming: 15 lashes in public to be inflicted on the backs of 20 men — the Shekhanas and their accomplices.

The time when the culprits were to be flogged was announced on loudspeakers in Nawabpur bazaar. Thousands, Asghar estimates, came out to watch.

A few days earlier, members of the Shekhana family had visited Mohammad to suggest a compromise: if the old carpenter willed, he could forgive the Shekhana brothers and their friends in exchange for parading the Shekhana sisters naked through the village. Under Zia’s qisas (revenge) and diyat (compensation) laws, a compromise like this could have sorted the matter. Mohammad refused.

Faris Malik*, 24, is from the same part of Nawabpur village where Mohammad’s family once lived. He has heard about the incident from his grandparents — something happened in the 1980s and Mohammad’s family moved out of the village. “Imagine if something so shameful happened to you,” Malik says. “You would not live here.”

He knows where in Multan Mohammad’s family lives now because one of the carpenter’s grandsons, Shafqat, was his classmate. When we reach the street, he takes his leave, requesting I do not mention to the family how I found their address.

The neighbourhood smells of dirt, burnt plastic bags and animal excrement. It stands in contrast to the lush green fields surrounding Iqbal’s house — or any house in Nawabpur, for that matter. The house resembles the ones around it: an enclosed rooftop on a double-storey structure with an iron gate. But it is the only one in the street without paint. Mud-lined bricks greet the visitor, with flyers featuring a local politician stuck on the main door.

A woman, perhaps in her forties, opens the door. She says this is not the house I am looking for; there is no one by either of those names here.

Iqbal also paid a hefty fine — how much, he does not reveal. Whether this reached the women in Akbar’s family as intended, he does not know.

I wait beside the corner until a second woman exits the house. She is more patient and hears me out. She rushes indoors and comes back a while later. “Sister, we don’t want to talk. She says she has given all the interviews she had to in her life.”

By ‘she’, does she mean the daughter-in-law? Or the daughter? The latter must be 42 now.

On the street running across, an old man sitting idle by a steel workshop stops me. He asks me what I want. I explain the situation. He pulls out his phone and dials Shafqat’s cell phone number. He speaks to him and convinces him to show up for an interview in the evening.

Also read: Pakistan — No country for women

When evening comes, Shafqat does not show up. After some time, I ask the old man if he could redial his number. He tries. Shafqat does not pick up.

It is a strange world where the criminals are put on a pedestal and the victims hide in plain sight.

Inside a tea stall off Multan’s Shaheed Younis Road, four men discuss the state of violence against women in Pakistan. “What is this violence against women trash?” the youngest of the lot protests. Recently married, he works as a marketing man. “What about the violations against us, men?”

“Like what?” the older man, apparently a daily visitor to the tea stall, asks gently.

“Like when my wife does not let me stay out with my friends.”

All, including the tea boy listening from his station, laugh heartily.

When I mention the Nawabpur case, only the oldest man shows a hint of recognition. Even for him, the details are fuzzy. The rest are surprised: “This happened in Multan? No? Of course, something like that would never happen here.”

As the conversation shifts to the myriad crimes against women, one of the men, a supporter of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) whom everyone goes to for their news updates, offers an observation. “Let me explain the deal with women in our society — you see, a woman can serve only four roles: a mother, a daughter, a wife and a sister. Aside from these, she holds no value.”

The conviction with which he says these words remind me of Lahore-based lawyer and human rights activist Asad Jamal’s meeting with Qandeel Baloch’s counsel. Mudassar Shah, the prosecution lawyer in the social media celebrity’s murder case, had heard a disturbing update from her brother, the one arrested for killing her. Their second brother – who lives in Saudi Arabia with other blue-collar workers from their town – had called back home before her murder with a warning: “Either you kill her,” the brother abroad told the brother here, “Or I will set myself on fire right here.”

A month after her gang rape, Farhana Veena Hayat would still get up in the middle of the night screaming.

This is how her father, veteran Muslim League leader Sardar Shaukat Hayat, described her state in an interview with the Herald in January 1992. At the time, she was living with him in his house in Islamabad. Shaukat Hayat wanted his daughter to stay away from the madness of Karachi where a political storm had erupted over her case.

The newspapers first referred to the incident as a “politically motivated rape” — brought to the media’s attention due to a protest by War Against Rape (WAR), a non-governmental organisation. This was a time when newspapers were ridden with stories of sex scandals, police brutality and sex trafficking of women. “Politically motivated rapes” – if the newspapers are to be believed – were not uncommon.

But for more than a week after the incident, there were no specifics. Then, suddenly on December 5, 1991, the first bit of the story got out: Benazir Bhutto’s close friend and, (according to some Urdu newspapers) her husband Asif Ali Zardari’s girlfriend, 40-year-old Farhana, was gang-raped on November 27 inside her own house in Karachi.

According to the FIR filed by her on November 28 at Gizri Police Station, she had come home the previous night to find her domestic staff gagged and tied up. Five men had entered her house. They held her at gunpoint. When she told them they could take anything, they stuffed her mouth with napkins, causing her to suffocate. For the next 12 hours, the men assaulted, raped, and tortured her continuously. In between, they stopped to ask her questions about her sons, the Bhuttos and other political figures. One thing she could not get out of her mind was how – in between their assaults – they kept referring to orders by some ‘Khan sahib’.

The ‘Khan sahib’, she alleged in the FIR, was Irfanullah Khan Marwat. He was then working as the Sindh chief minister’s adviser on home affairs and was a member of the provincial assembly, representing the Islami Jamhoori Ittehad, a coalition of right-wing parties such as the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz and the Jamaat-e-Islami among others. He is also the son-in-law of the then President of Pakistan, Ghulam Ishaq Khan. Farhana accused him of organising the rape.

After Marwat’s acquittal, Farhana moved out of Pakistan. Attempts to contact her remain fruitless. Not that she cannot be reached, she does not want to be reached.

Marwat denied the allegations and declared the FIR a political move to discredit him. He accused PPP of “involving ladies to achieve political ends” — implying that the party might have arranged the gang rape itself to malign him.

Over the next couple of weeks, civil society and human rights activists organised many marches, press conferences and even hunger strikes almost on a daily basis. Newspapers invoked dramatic, sentimental headlines like “A moment of national shame” and “Countrymen, if you have tears …” to rally support for Farhana.

Benazir, who had been calling on Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to repeal the Hudood Ordinances, now asked him to give the case his personal attention. Knowing he was put in a tough spot, Sharif tried to play it smartly. He issued two statements from Dakar in Senegal where he was on an official visit: one expressing support and concern for Farhana, and ordering the Inter-Services Intelligence and the Federal Investigation Agency to submit two separate reports within 24 hours; the other statement sympathised with President Ghulam Ishaq Khan and assured him that Marwat would be found innocent.

Political parties had already picked sides. While none of the Punjab ministers were found commenting on the case, members of the PPP and the Muhajir Qaumi Movement (MQM) – now Muttahida Qaumi Movement – sided with Farhana. The People’s Democratic Alliance, of which the PPP was a part, went as far as to ask the president to resign. Women’s groups like WAF and WAR began staging their demonstrations in front of the president’s house, demanding an impartial inquiry.

Shaukat Hayat held a press conference in Islamabad, demanding that Marwat be removed from office and his daughter’s attackers be taken to court. The Sindh government set up a high-level judicial tribunal to investigate the allegations. The president also wrote a letter to Shaukat Hayat, admonishing him for making hasty conclusions and urging him to have patience.

On December 12, 1991, the tribunal began its inquiry in Karachi. A few suspects had already been held by the police. Both Farhana and Shaukat Hayat, suspicious of the government’s sympathy for Marwat, refused to appear in front of the tribunal. They believed a fair trial could not take place as long as Marwat was a part of the provincial government.

Female protesters being arrested during Zia's regime | *Herald* archives
Female protesters being arrested during Zia's regime | Herald archives

Shaukat Hayat, indeed, had no faith in the judicial inquiry from the beginning. He said he would fight his battle with help from his own Khattar tribe. “If the government cannot [decide the case] in four days,” he said, “There is enough blood in the veins of the Khattars to avenge their lost honour.”

On December 20, after his four-day ultimatum passed, Shaukat Hayat called a 17-member jirga of tribal elders that gave the death sentence to all those involved in Farhana’s case.

Nine days later, on December 29, the tribunal announced its much-anticipated verdict: there was no evidence on record to substantiate Farhana’s accusation against Marwat. As for the gang rape, the tribunal concluded that only one of the culprits had committed the rape twice and, therefore, this was not an incident of gang rape.

There was outrage. Newspapers and commentators started asking all kinds of questions. How could a tribunal conduct an inquiry without the complainants? What about Farhana’s cook and driver — who were key witnesses but had gone missing?

As time passed, so did the initial momentum. Each day, there was one less story, one less comment, one less expression of outrage. Only days after the turn of the year, there was radio silence.

Where was Farhana in all of this? She hardly met journalists, not wanting to recount her trauma again and again, or to become an object of scrutiny. At Shaukat Hayat’s first press conference, she was listening in from an adjoining room where she had allowed some reporters to see her.

She broke her media silence only a few times. Once, for an in-depth interview with the BBC, a second time when Marwat denied the allegations. She vowed to “avenge” the “powerful rulers” who had played with her honour. Otherwise, there is not much of her in newspapers — no comments, no photos. Only second-hand updates — and speculation.

After Marwat’s acquittal, Farhana moved out of Pakistan. Attempts to contact her remain fruitless. Not that she cannot be reached, she does not want to be reached.

The only photograph of Farhana in newspaper clippings shows a square face, stern smile, eyes heavily lined with kajal. Her hair is silky, pulled loosely back into a ponytail. This photograph could have been taken well before 1991. Even in this, there is something unsettling about her visage. Her eyes stare fixedly, as if without expression, towards the lens: her discomfort suggests she would rather be elsewhere.

The room for women lawyers at the Lahore High Court offers a stark contrast to the room where men congregate — it is small, quiet and well-kempt. There is no designated room for men but one rarely sees a woman in the noisy, smoke-filled common area, claims 28-year-old Aylah*, a young lawyer talking to her colleagues before heading home for the day.

It is Friday. Court proceedings have just ended. While men are going for prayers or lingering around, smoking, women gather in their room to unwind. Next to Aylah, who has only started practising recently as an assistant to a senior lawyer, are Zeb-un-Nisa* and Madiha*, both in their early thirties.

They are discussing a report that has just come in regarding one of the cases they are pleading. It concerns a post-rape medical examination and has noted inconclusive evidence of rape. Madiha says this conclusion is common because forensic labs lack the equipment, also rigour, to conduct proper examinations. Often, examinations take place days after the crime has been committed.

Members of the PPP and the Muhajir Qaumi Movement (MQM) – now Muttahida Qaumi Movement – sided with Farhana.

I ask if they know of the ‘two-finger test’ — a crude measure of whether a woman has been raped. It involves examining how many fingers can enter the vagina; if more than one slip through easily, the woman must have consented to intercourse.

Madiha has never heard of it but Zeb-un-Nisa remembers it being brought up once. It is not something they usually discuss with other lawyers, especially when men are around. But as women who have both studied law and are practising it, the three are no strangers to the kinds of violence women face. Rape, murder, incest — nothing surprises them anymore.

What about violence within the legal system? “That starts after you register a case,” says Madiha. From the moment a woman enters a police station, she says, she is violated. “When there is no female officer to register her complaint, when a male official refuses to listen to her, when he asks her why she was out of her house when she was assaulted or what she was wearing then — she is violated. When she goes to the medical examiner and is told to be ashamed of herself, she is violated. When she meets with lawyers and has to recount her story again and again, she is violated. When she appears before the judge, in a courtroom where language is sexist and remarks are made on her character, she is violated … ”

Also read: The Indian media needs to rethink how it reports rape

Madiha’s words bring to mind a conversation with a different group of young lawyers, this time men. They say even though they are friends with women who are lawyers, they will never advise a woman to practise in civil court or even high courts because of the level of harassment. “Until and unless she is with a senior,” one of them says, “She will be at risk of some kind of violence.”

Azra Fazal Pechuho grows nostalgic when she reflects on Benazir Bhutto’s time in government in the 1990s. “That was a time when women’s issues came to the forefront,” she says. Among other initiatives, the first women judges were appointed at the high courts under her.

Azra, 63, is Asif Ali Zardari’s sister and a PPP legislator in the National Assembly. She argues it is difficult for parliamentarians to pass laws when democratic processes are constantly interrupted — especially by martial law. Then there are other institutional problems. Most women enter the legislative bodies on reserved seats that undermine their authority and diminish their stature as compared to the men who mostly become parliamentarians by winning direct elections, she says. “Parties are not willing to support women candidates on general seats.”

But even then, women have come a long way to secure legal protection, she says, pointing out that the Sindh government has passed an anti-child marriage law and the Women’s Protection Act was also passed in 2006. “But we still have a long way to go to change our patriarchal mindset.” The mindset? I ask. “No legislation can subvert that,” she responds.

“When you call everything violence, the impact on the woman herself – in terms of her physical and psychological integrity – gets diluted,” Farida explains. “The actual horror of violence gets diluted.”

Shazia Marri, also a PPP legislator, agrees with Azra. She has seen this mindset among parliamentarians as well. In 2004-05, she was a member of Sindh Assembly when she tried to push for a comprehensive bill tackling violence against women. She instantly got the comment: “But isn’t there violence against men as well?”

“This is a very clichéd sentence,” Shazia says. “But I have come across it often.”

Unfortunately, Azra feels, many women in the parliament are more conservative than men, especially those from religious parties. “Where is the kind of sisterhood that we expect from them in parliament? Where is that solidarity?”

Old WAF newsletters do not use the phrase “violence against women”. Instead, they use the now obsolete term “crimes against women”. Gender-Based Violence (GBV) and Violence Against Women (VAW) became interchangeable terms in the mid-1980s, after a push from the United Nations. In Pakistan, feminists adopted these terms much later.

The shift in language, Farida explains, happened in the mid-1980s. At the time, Pakistani feminists had little contact with their counterparts outside the country. WAF’s entire focus was local because each day would raise a new issue under Zia’s military regime, which usurped rights at the speed of one a day. But even then, WAF members never narrowed down crimes against women to just physical violence.

Farida emphasises that violence exists in multiple forms — psychological, emotional and physical. She, therefore, thinks it is dangerous when the word ‘violence’ is thrown around too much — when everything becomes violence against women, people stop taking it seriously. “When you call everything violence, the impact on the woman herself – in terms of her physical and psychological integrity – gets diluted,” Farida explains. “The actual horror of violence gets diluted.”

Pushing the shelter’s gate open, the guide takes a step back. “No men allowed inside,” he says in way of apology.

The door opens into what once used to be Mukhtaran Mai’s house until she built a new place for her family. The single-storey structure is unkempt and dusty; a rectangle block of rooms lines a courtyard half-covered by a concrete roof. Clothes lines run across the yard’s open area, also featuring a few dry plants. Four women and a handful of toddlers sit on charpoys, mostly quiet. Older children scuttle about and talk loudly to each other in Seraiki language.

In the covered half of the courtyard, on a fading red couch sits a young woman, and a child wearing a second-hand tuxedo hoisted in her lap. Mahenaz, Mukhtaran Mai’s assistant and closest confidant, introduces the woman as Maria Tahir, the shelter’s newest resident.

She arrived a few days ago from Azad Kashmir, says Mahenaz. Maria, 24, is the biological mother of a boy and stepmother to two others from her husband’s first marriage.

Maria has a round, alert face. She talks frantically as if she is running out of time, pausing only to adjust her flower-patterned dupatta. Without prompting, she launches into her story: she says she survived two gang rapes by the same men, friends of her nephew’s, in 2015. Her case is made complicated by the fact that her attackers videotaped her and have been threatening to release the tapes. She claims she has paid them almost 2.5 million rupees to leave her alone, but they keep demanding more money.

Initially, Maria says, she did not tell her husband about the gang rape. “That would have shattered my household,” she says. “You know how it is in our society.” But he eventually found out that she had been taking money from her aunt and soon learned the whole story. Surprisingly for her, he stood by her side.

The matter was first taken to local elders in Mirpur town. A plan was chalked out for the return of the money Maria had paid her tormentors and she was asked to never speak of the incident again. Her attackers agreed they would delete the videos. But on the day they were supposed to return the money, they kidnapped her and her nine-year-old son, and gang raped her a second time.

Unfortunately, Azra feels, many women in the parliament are more conservative than men, especially those from religious parties.

Maria and her husband immediately went to a police station where they lodged an FIR against the rapists with much difficulty. The sub-inspector refused to believe Maria. She remembers how he kept fidgeting with her torn dupatta. She demanded to be investigated by a female officer but there were none.

“From that day to today,” she says, “One year [has passed].” The case has not gone anywhere, she adds.

Even though her rapists have confessed their crimes before a police officer, she says, the law has not been able to convict them. The proceedings keep getting delayed. (Maria alleges that this is because one of the rapists is a friend of the judge hearing the case.)

She is concerned about the costs of fighting the case but is willing to work to pay it. She also has to do a lot of running around – after police, after her own lawyers – and she has to take her children with her everywhere she goes, since there is no one at home to take care of them.

She has tried killing herself several times, she says. “Rat poison,” she dryly mentions the substance she took, as her four-year-old son jumps in her lap.

Maria has come here because she believes Mukhtaran Mai is the only one who can help her get justice. At least, that is what her friends have told her.

On most days, Mukhtaran Mai wakes up after a sleepless night. These days, there is the added discomfort of bronchitis, but the 44-year-old manages to reach her office by 9 am at the most. It is a cosy, carpeted place, furnished with a wooden desk and two cupboards, a filing cabinet on one side and a couch set on the other. A portrait of Benazir peers out from the biggest frame in the room.

Each day there are new cases; women have to be referred to the police or accompanied to the hospital. Then there are 40 people – residents and staff – to manage at the shelter and the school opposite it. Occasionally, something less taxing comes along, like the fashion walk in Karachi she recently took part in.

Students at Mukhtaran Mai Girls Model School in Muzaffargarh district | Sadia Khatri
Students at Mukhtaran Mai Girls Model School in Muzaffargarh district | Sadia Khatri

“My daughter asked me, ‘Is this what you do for women?’” she says laughing. Both her children live with her sister, in a house some two kilometres away. She has moved them away because of the threats she still gets, she says.

Mukhtaran Mai does not want her family to share her life of constant intrusion and attention. No matter where she goes, people recognise her, want to speak to her, with mostly something nasty to say. Her personal life, she feels, is no longer hers.

Wrong side of the law: A *Herald* special interactive
Wrong side of the law: A Herald special interactive

Mukhtaran Mai’s case, after all, has become one of the most talked-about cases of violence against women – and also the most controversial – in Pakistan’s history.

She was 30 in June 2002. Her 12-year-old brother, Shakoor, was gang-raped by a group of men from the Mastoi tribe. When the matter was brought to her Meerawala village’s council of elders (call it a panchayat or a jirga) in Muzaffargarh district, the Mastois alleged that Shakoor was having an illicit relationship with a girl from their tribe. To punish him, the council decided that Mukhtaran Mai would be gang-raped by four Mastoi men — to hurt the honour of Shakoor’s family in exchange for the damaged honour of the Mastois.

Mukhtaran Mai does not want to recount her ordeal, but she remembers being left with nothing but a kameez on her body until her father came and covered her with a chador.

Pakistani and international media picked up her story due to the hue and cry first raised by a local prayer leader. In August 2002, two months after her rape, an Anti-Terrorism Court in Dera Ghazi Khan found six of the 14 suspects guilty and sentenced them to death. She recalls how the evidence – DNA reports, medical examinations, witness testimonies – went in her favour. The fight, it seemed at the time, was won.

A woman can choose to fight her case but then the court closes the doors of justice on her through investigators, prosecutors, judges — mostly men.

That is, until a couple of years later when the case started unravelling. In March 2005, the Lahore High Court’s Multan bench reversed the Anti-Terrorism Court’s decision. The bench decided there was insufficient evidence against most of the Mastoi men — it acquitted five of the six who were all in jail. A week later, amid renewed international outrage, the Federal Shariat Court intervened. Since the case was tried under the Hudood Ordinances, the high court did not have the jurisdiction to take it up, the Shariat court argued.

That did not put an end to the controversy, she says laughing. The Supreme Court vetoed the Federal Shariat Court’s intervention and decided to look into the high court’s decision itself. It ended up endorsing the high court’s verdict, releasing all six accused. They were re-arrested a few days later on Mukhtaran Mai’s appeal.

The case stretched on for six years. On April 21, 2011, the Supreme Court again acquitted all the accused. She hates the fact that her rapists are roaming free while she is constantly under threat despite the fact that they were proven guilty in 2002.

Mukhtaran has filed yet another appeal that has been pending in court since. What bothers her most is the hypocrisy. The men who raped Shakoor were also taken to court and, as in her case initially, were found guilty. But unlike in her case, there were no reversals, no judicial interventions and no acquittals. Shakoor’s rapists are still serving their time in jail.

Lawyer Jamal has seen many cases slip through the hands of the law – just like Mukhtaran Mai’s – even though he feels a greater number of women have started asserting their legal rights. “It is a slow process but more of them are now ready to knock at the door of the justice system.”

Legislation is also trying to catch up with increasing demands for justice. The Protection against Harassment of Women at the Workplace Act (2010), The Prevention of Anti-Women Practices Act (2011), The Acid Control and Acid Crime Prevention Act (2011), Punjab Protection of Women Against Violence Act (2016) have all been passed in the past decade. Even though Jamal feels most of these are flawed, badly drafted or practically not implementable, at least they are there.

Also read: A new set of (f)laws — Honour killing and and rape bills

Still, that has not resulted in a safer society for women. Nor are many of these laws, such as the one governing sexual harassment at the workplace, implemented. An increase in the number of laws does not necessarily mean swifter justice, he observes. “Nothing will change until the root issue of inequality is addressed.”

Jamal wonders if violence against women may be on the rise. In its 2014 report, research and advocacy organisation Aurat Foundation noted an almost 30 per cent increase in incidents of violence against women between 2008 and 2014.

Farida, however, urges caution. There is not sufficient data to say whether incidents are increasing or whether their reporting is increasing, she argues. “If more cases are being reported and registered that is actually a positive sign.”

That does not mean justice is necessarily being served. Warraich’s study, for example, looks at rape cases registered in Islamabad between 2006 and 2015. Over these years, 22 police stations in the capital territory have registered a total of 153 cases; there have been convictions in only four of them; in 48 cases, the accused have been acquitted and only 64 cases still remain in courts, notes the study. “This is because men and society at large are reactionary,” Jamal observes.

A woman can choose to fight her case but then the court closes the doors of justice on her through investigators, prosecutors, judges — mostly men. “These men, bent on preserving the status quo, are not responding [to her needs],” he says.

Mukhtaran Mai has seen how the processes of law are skewed against women. “Think of the law as a book,” she says. It is there – yes – but it is useful only when it is read. Similarly, it does not matter if the government keeps introducing new laws. Nothing will change until people responsible for upholding the law are trained and sensitised, she argues.

Jamal blames the judicial system. A girl gets raped; she reports it and follows the required judicial steps, but then the system does not move forward. He recalls rape cases where getting the DNA report took him six months. “During this time, a criminal can easily file a bail application.”

The police, in his opinion, are not geared towards providing remedy or relief to a victim. Instead, Jamal says, they are geared towards providing support to the stronger party. “Which, more often than not, is men.”

And even before the judicial system kicks in, the moment a girl decides she wants to take her case to the police and to court, her own family opposes her. Farida points out that it is not specific to cases involving violence. “Women who are trying to assert any kind of right are facing huge pressures from their families to withdraw their demands.” Cases of divorce, separation, family disputes — all raise the same challenge.

Mukhtaran Mai’s story corroborates this. She did not have an easy time convincing her parents. They asked her to keep the matter secret. One of her brothers threatened to kill himself if she went public. Under all this pressure, she also attempted suicide. But she could not stay quiet. “If my life was over,” she says now, “Why would I care for my brother’s life?”

Even after her father agreed to take her to the police station, threats from uncles and relatives did not stop coming. “It felt like the culprits had not done anything,” says Imran, her cousin. “It felt like we were the guilty party.” He remembers how whispering in the village intensified over the weeks and months following the incident. At weddings, it was not unlikely to see people pointing fingers in their direction. And on the street, it was not unlikely to run into someone who aggressively insisted they drop the case.

“Now we are used to it,” says Imran. Mukhtaran Mai chuckles next to him.

[“L]et me tell you what really happened with Mukhtaran Mai,” one man at my host’s dinner gathering is hell-bent on explaining. “She not only made up the rape story, she had been planning this whole scam for years. She is a con woman.”

The man runs a business in Lahore. He has travelled to Jatoi – the tehsil where Mukhtaran Mai’s village is located – to attend a funeral. He claims he knew she was a fraud even before the rest of the world found out about her case.

This is a common narrative that follows Mukhtaran Mai — that her claims are just that, claims, when in reality she and her staff are only interested in pocketing money that donors are giving her.

These allegations are among the few things that make her angry but she and her team have learned to disregard them. “Everyone you ask will have a different opinion of me,” she says. “But I don’t care for their opinions. These things don’t matter to me, because I believe God is helping me do this work.”

Maria texts me the next morning, saying she has something urgent to share. She cannot call because she is on a bus on her way back to Mirpur. Instead, she sends a plethora of messages.

“I lied to you,” she writes dramatically. When I ask her to elaborate, she writes back saying this is what really happened: she arrived at the shelter only a day before my visit. When she arrived, Mukhtaran Mai told her point-blank there was no way she could help her but that she was welcome to stay the night at the shelter if she liked.

When the shelter was opened for her, Maria claims to have found it empty. There were no women living there, no clean bed sheets, she says. No one offered her food, and her husband – who had nowhere else to go in the night – was not allowed to stay with her, she writes. He went to Jatoi town to get some food for their children and spend the night there, she adds.

Maria made a plan to return home first thing in the morning but, she claims, Mukhtaran Mai asked her to stay because a reporter was coming for an interview. Close to my arrival, Maria says, the shelter staff brought in some women from the village and sat them on the charpoys with their children. “There is no work going on here,” Maria writes. “Everything you saw was fake and prepared.”

Shehnaz Akhtar came to Haripur for the first time in June 2011, at the age of 46. It is a quiet town in the Hazara region of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa some 35 kilometres south of Abbottabad. Shehnaz, who lived in the village of Neelor Bala, had hardly stepped out of her house before that.

Yet here she was, in a town many kilometres away from her village, outside a police station, to lodge an FIR.

Her story is not different from that of Mukhtaran Mai. Her son, Kazim, was accused of having an illicit relationship with a girl from the Abbasi clan. A local jirga gathered to resolve the case. It decided that Suleiman, the husband of the woman Kazim was alleged to have a relationship with, would divorce his wife. He and three other Abbasi men were also to barge into Kazim’s house and assault his mother.

According to Shehnaz’s statement to the police, one of the men was carrying a gun. They first destroyed her belongings, set some things on fire and then dragged her out to the fields, disregarding her screams. A crowd of men, among them jirga members, had already gathered before Suleiman and his three accomplices stripped her naked.

Once her ordeal was over, a battered Shehnaz started walking in no specific direction. She did not know what to do. She found herself near hills that separate Punjab from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa when she regained her presence of mind. She called her husband through a cell phone, asking him to bring her clothes with him and take her back. On her way home, she collected her torn clothes, eventually to carry them to the police station.

Courts in Haripur have two entrances — one for women and one for men. Once inside, a woman might find herself wishing the same division applied to the rest of the premises which are neatly divided into sections for lawyers. Desks, signboards, papers and assistants swarm these makeshift cubicles, as male lawyers make their way in and out of the courtrooms. A handful of female lawyers can be spotted occasionally. One of them, Gul Naz Rasheed, remembers how Shehnaz felt extremely uncomfortable when she first came to the courts.

Gul Naz had only recently started practising when she was assigned Shehnaz’s case. She had not seen many women able to withstand the rigours of the legal procedures.

“Shehnaz [Akhtar] kept her resolve at every stage of the trial,” Gul Naz recalls. Filing reports, giving testimonies, surviving the frustrating cross-examination in which moral policing was rampant and in which Shehnaz’s honour was put on trial — she went through it all. She repeated her story again and again, as many times as she was asked to. “Who wants to get up in front of an army of men and make a scandal out of her life in this way?” asks Gul Naz.

Shehnaz showed up at court without fail, in her familiar peach-coloured, head-to-toe chador. Afterwards, the two women would retreat to Gul Naz’s office, Shehnaz sitting on the leather couch by the window. “She would just sit here and look at me,” Gul Naz remembers, “Saying she wanted nothing but justice.”

Khursheed Azhar has been a leading criminal lawyer for 23 years in Haripur. In a warm blue sweater and brown slacks, he fumbles around his office, troubled by a recent case: a ninth-grade student was shot dead on her way to school. It is proving to be difficult, he says, for reasons not different from the ones in Shehnaz’s case: “Lack of evidence.”

Azhar was first asked to take up Shehnaz’s case pro bono by a local non-governmental organisation. At the time, it seemed a fairly straightforward case, since most of the accused men had already been arrested.

But complications soon set in. The accused were granted bail once the investigation report was submitted to the court a few days later. The biggest argument working in their favour was that she had filed the FIR one week after the incident.

“Lack of evidence,” Azhar explains, often implies inefficiency by the police.

There was also no incriminating evidence against them. “Lack of evidence,” Azhar explains, often implies inefficiency by the police.

His team tried its best to gather evidence. Given that there were at least 80 witnesses, it should not have been difficult. But since the accused were influential men, they connived with local police to put pressure on Shehnaz to make her drop the case. Suleiman and his accomplices also started a campaign to silence any witnesses who would want to testify, says Azhar.

Pressure on Shehnaz and threats to witnesses increased once the trial started. Not a single police official showed up in court, in spite of the fact that the court kept deferring the hearings for almost a year. There were no witnesses either. Shehnaz and her husband, in the meanwhile, ran out of money, no longer able to keep travelling to Haripur.

Using all of this to their advantage, the accused put forth a different version of the story: Shehnaz had exaggerated the attack on her; she wanted to avenge the divorce Suleiman had given to his wife; she was aware of her son’s affair and had concocted a story to divert attention from his shenanigans. In October 2013, almost two years after the incident, the judge acquitted the accused. Azhar remembers Shehnaz’s face when the acquittal was announced — for the first time in the case proceedings, she had tears in her eyes.

Shehnaz and her husband did not challenge the acquittal. They said they had “patched things up” with the accused. They then packed up and left Neelor Bala to live in the anonymity of Haripur. Here, they are said to have settled in a place called Swat Chowk. Azhar has not heard from them since.

Jamal recounts a recent incident. He was sitting in the court of a Lahore High Court judge, who was hearing an appeal against the conviction of a man sentenced for raping a girl.

The defence lawyer brought forth a sulahnama, a document claiming that the parties to the case have reached a compromise. The girl and her father were present in the courtroom. Even though rape is not a compoundable offense, the judge studied the document and asked: “Where is the girl?”

Lawyers Khursheed Azhar (centre) and Gul Naz Rasheed in Haripur | Sadia Khatri
Lawyers Khursheed Azhar (centre) and Gul Naz Rasheed in Haripur | Sadia Khatri

A 17-year-old girl stepped before him. The judged asked her again, “Child, was this document written with your consent?” Jamal remembers thinking how ridiculous it was to even ask the question. “You just have to throw that piece of crap away,” he says.

This, he says, is only one example of the countless compromises reached in cases involving crimes – as heinous as gang rape and multiple murders – mostly under the Islamic provisions of qisas and diyat.

Swat Chowk is a pleasant, bustling neighbourhood, with some houses built inside vast courtyards and others stacked upon each other. People here claim they have not seen Shehnaz or her husband in years. No one seems to have a phone number, an address, for them.

At a medical store on the other side of Haripur, a chemist who doubles as a journalist helps me track down one of her relatives — it takes five hours of calling old reporters, lawyers and their aides.

Eventually, a phone number works and a cousin of hers responds. He says with some hesitation that she and her family have moved out of the city. “Please don’t bother any of us. What has happened has happened.”

Javed Tanoli sits on a raised platform outside the lawyers’ offices, under the shade of an awning. He commands authority among younger lawyers, many of whom pause to shake his hand and greet him. He has been around in Haripur’s courts for 33 years and is especially known for his expertise in criminal cases. He represented the men whom Shehnaz had accused of assaulting her.

Tanoli remembers Shehnaz’s version of the story. To him, it was an excellent example of a woman’s ability to skew reality. “This jirga stuff is all nonsense,” he says promptly. “It was simply a familial land dispute.” And Shehnaz, according to him, had nothing to do with it. “She only conflated two separate disputes in her made-up testimony.” As much as Tanoli can confirm, no one assaulted her.

Investigation officers have no proper training and most of them have no idea of what they are supposed to do. Whether the case involves a man or a woman, it is the same.

Azhar orders chai as the two start discussing the case. They agree the investigation report was deeply flawed and hardly thorough. This tends to be the case with 80 per cent of investigations, says Tanoli. Investigation officers have no proper training and most of them have no idea of what they are supposed to do. Whether the case involves a man or a woman, it is the same, he adds. “It is not the law that is flawed but the upholders of the law who are at fault.”

By way of explanation, Tanoli narrates the story of a poet, Purnam Allahabadi, who he claims to have penned such qawwalis as Bhar do Jholi and Tajdar-e-Haram. According to the legend, police picked him up one day; they were suspicious of his free-spirited ways.

The following morning, the poet was presented before a judge who immediately recognised him. “Allahabadi!” the judge exclaimed. He offered an unusual bargain to the poet: if he recited something that won the judge’s heart, he would be set free.

Allahabadi expressed his desire to recite a couplet he had penned while waiting for the judge in the courtroom. The request was granted. Allahabadi began:

Har aankh mein aansoo hain, har lubb pe zubaan hai,

Qanoon hi qanoon hai, insaaf kahan hai?

(Every eye is full of tears, every tongue is stuck out in protest,

There is law everywhere, where is justice?)

**Names have been changed to protect privacy*

The writer is a freelance journalist and co-founder of Girls at Dhabas.

This article was originally published in the Herald's February 2017 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.