People & Society

Zainab Ansari: Revealing our collective callousness

Updated 22 Feb, 2019 03:07pm
Illustration by Amara Sikander
Illustration by Amara Sikander

The year ends; winter begins, shadows cast themselves early, birds stop singing as dusk falls around us, ushering in a long night of respite from all that one has strived for, failure ringing the promising rim of possibility. I stare into the pale light of a fading day, wondering if the fact of winter and its barren evenings has anything to do with the crimes that scar this land, the jagged blade of violence puncturing the thin veil of propriety that covers us, draping us in the subterfuge of silence.

So what are these voices that break through this empty space where light fades and corners merge with walls, ceiling descending to the floor, crushing all that breathes between the Earth and the sky? Why do I hear one particular voice, a young girl's voice, persistent, urgent, desperate to be heard? Why does my mind's eye keep going back to the lanes and alleyways of Kasur where this voice was last heard, perhaps gasping for breath as she, too, was crushed under the weight of the psychosis that possessed the young man who had abducted, assaulted and then murdered her.

Zainab Amin Ansari was not yet seven at the time she was taken away, raped, brutalised, then strangled to death, her lifeless body laid out in a garbage dump not more than 400 metres from her home. The frenzy over her disappearance whipped up by the media was matched by the fury of the people of her hometown who gathered in the hundreds and ransacked government installations, expressing their anger and venting their frustration. Zainab was the ninth girl to go missing in the space of two years, from within a two-and-a-half kilometre radius. Nothing seemed to have been done about the other missing girls, all of them except one found dead after having been raped and brutalised.

Then, suddenly, the volcano of resentment blew up and the people of Kasur made sure that the outrage in their hearts became known to their fellow citizens across the country. Posters of young Zainab, a beautiful little girl with limpid, grey eyes, were immediately printed and put up across the city walls. Two bloody hand prints, one on each side of Zainab's photograph, signified the terrible crime that had taken her away from those who loved her, knew her, watched her come and go, living the life of a six-year-old with her future stretching before her like a rice field, lush and bountiful.

It is almost a year since that fateful evening when Zainab disappeared. I have thought often of those cold, blustery evenings last January when I sat with her family or spent time with District Police Officer Zahid Nawaz Marwat and his staff, unravelling hundreds of hours of footage where Zainab could be seen traversing the narrow lanes of her hometown, never to return to her home except as a mutilated, desecrated, lifeless, limp corpse.

Through the piecing together of her story, through the diligent efforts made by her family and law enforcement agencies, as well as through the technical skills of the scientists at the Punjab Forensic Science Agency who studied the chilling evidence of sexual assault and murder provided by a young medical officer at Kasur's public sector hospital, Zainab's abductor and killer was identified and arrested within three weeks of her disappearance. He was convicted on four counts of assault and murder on February 12, 2018, and hanged to death eight months later, after the President of Pakistan rejected his clemency plea. Zainab's father, Amin Ansari, requested that the perpetrator be hanged publicly, citing Section 22 of the Anti-Terrorism Act of 1997 which empowers the government to hang a convict in public. This request was turned down by the Lahore High Court.

Amin Ansari, arriving at Kot Lakhpat jail early on the morning of October 17 last year, watched the execution of his daughter's killer and reported that he was satisfied that justice had been done, that this execution will deter others from committing such crimes. That is what has always been underscored when capital punishment is meted out to convicted criminals: that the state's decision to execute convicts leads to deterrence and a reduction in crime.

Perhaps Amin Ansari, still grieving from his young daughter's brutal death, did not know that the incidence of such crimes had actually risen since that dark January evening when Zainab had gone missing. According to the statistics provided by Sahil, a non-governmental organisation, more than 2,322 cases of child sexual abuse have been reported in the first six months of 2018, indicating a 32 per cent increase compared to the data for the same period of time in 2017. These cases increased from nine per day in 2017 to 12 per day between the start of January and the end of June in 2018. The data shows that, out of the total reported cases, 1,298 (56 per cent) of the victims were girls and 1,024 (44 per cent) were boys. The data also reveals that children in the age brackets of 6-10 and 11-15 have been most vulnerable to abuse. Zainab was just six; she was amongst the most vulnerable of all children who are often abused by those familiar to them or their families.

A page from Zainab’s school notebook | Feryal Ali Gauhar
A page from Zainab’s school notebook | Feryal Ali Gauhar

What has her assault and death meant for children and their families throughout Pakistan, in fact throughout South Asia, where such crimes occur with regularity but are not spoken about openly? Is it possible that the rise in the incidence of such crimes actually reflects the fact that the families of missing and abused children are now reporting such crimes instead of fearing the shame associated with the stigma of rape and sexual assault? Or is it possible that criminals have become emboldened after the fact that those who assaulted and killed other children after Zainab were never arrested or convicted? That such crimes are not necessarily recorded or investigated? That the promises made to improve policing, to increase the training of law enforcement agencies, to provide mechanisms to address such crimes immediately without criminal lapses and neglect, and to secure a safe future for our children have just fallen by the wayside, much as the footprints of Zainab and her murderer faded from the dust of Kasur's desolate alleys and narrow lanes?

I shall never forget that moment at the beginning of last year when I sat across the room with Zainab's father and interpreted his responses for a Washington Post correspondent. She had asked Amin Ansari if he found it ironic that his daughter had been abducted and murdered while he was performing Umrah in Makkah. I faltered to find the words to express this, fearing that I was treading on sacrosanct ground, asking for too much, too soon. But the correspondent repeated the question and I translated for her, hoping against hope that I was not invading Amin Ansari's privacy more than we already had, that I was not brutally tearing away the skin which contained his suppurating grief.

To my great surprise, his answer was lucid and concise. He spoke softly, without any hesitation, his grey eyes calm and piercing at the same time. He said that Zainab died so that justice could be sought for the eight other girls who had been taken from their families. This was made possible because he and his wife were in the midst of performing a pilgrimage; it was ordained that this would be so, that their little daughter would be taken away so that justice would be meted out to the perpetrator of these crimes.

I remember my breath sticking in my throat as I listened to Amin Ansari's response, amazed at his clarity, the conviction of his faith. I dare not judge the validity of his words, for I have not suffered this terrible ordeal of losing a child in the brutal manner of Zainab's death. I cannot judge his words, nor his thoughts, for all I have been left with is the voice inside my head, urging me not to forget, not to let this happen to another child, not to let Zainab's death be in vain.

It is late now. Dusk has turned to nightfall. Outside, the fog begins to descend, a veil enveloping the many dreams little Zainab may have dreamt. It was up to us to ensure that her life and that of other young children did not turn into a nightmare. It is up to us now to ensure that in her death we will honour her life, snuffed out too soon, like the tiny flame of a candle on a cold, blustery, winter's night.

The author is a famed writer, actor, film-maker and human rights activist.

This article was published in the Herald's January 2019 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.