July  2002 

Gang-rape in Pakistan                                                                    >>>to index page

Why the Meerwala Jatoi panchayat thought they would get away with it

Beena Sarwar

Why did the members of the Meerwala Jatoi Panchayat (Council) pass their abominable decree that a young woman be raped in revenge for a crime allegedly committed by her younger brother — and what made them think they would get away with it? For this is what would have happened, had the news not made it to a local newspaper, from where it was picked up nationwide, and then worldwide, causing widespread outrage.

Firstly, the council of tribal elders which passed this ‘decree’ obviously felt secure in the knowledge that the government would take no action against it. Jirgas or panchayats (assembly of tribal elders) are allowed to operate not only in the tribal areas where they have some sort of legal sanction (and where the ‘sentences’ passed have included execution, flogging, burning down of houses, and fines), but also in settled areas where they obviously function outside the law. Even these jirgas have begun to pass sentences like public flogging, besides settling property disputes and other matters. Last July, a jirga in village Johke Sharif, district Thatta, pronounced that the sister of a minor boy who had accidentally shot dead his friend, should be given to the dead boy’s father. The fact that the girl was also a minor drew no attention from the government.

It is no coincidence that the rise of religious extremism over the last couple of decades (encouraged by successive governments for the sake of political expediency) has received the greatest support from the tribal areas. In many cases, the punishments awarded by tribal jirgas are assumed to also have religious sanction, even if they have nothing to do with Islam and are rooted in tribal traditions and customs.

Secondly, the Panchayat’s decree that the ‘punishment’ be carried out by four men resonates of the aberrations in the Pakistani law that were introduced by General Ziaul Haq in his attempts to ‘Islamise’ the country. The Zina laws (Hudood Ordinance) introduced in 1979 require the presence of four witnesses to the act of rape or adultery before the crime can be established. The confusion in people’s minds about what is allowed in Islam and what is not; has only been exacerbated by politicizing religion and the severity of these so–called Islamic laws.

The Zina laws obliterate the distinction between adultery and rape and criminalize a private offence, adultery (sexual relations between two consenting adults not married to each other), while making rape a matter for private complaint, in which the onus of proof lies on the victim.

Even the Federal Shariat Court has questioned the religious nature of the so–called Islamic punishments imposed on the penal system during Zia’s time. In 1981, the punishment of stoning to death was challenged as being un–Islamic, and was in fact removed. The decision was later reversed under political pressure. The demand to review these laws continues to be made, not just by civil society and rights groups.

The government-constituted, high powered Commission of Inquiry for Women in its report of 1997 "is convinced that all the Hudood laws were conceived and drafted in haste. They are not in conformity with Islam." These laws have "only resulted in gross miscarriages of justice and operate against the underprivileged sections of society. Their detrimental effect outweighs any advantage they may have. They contribute towards the exploitation of women not only by imprisoning them but also by exposing them to the brutality of the police and unscrupulous elements of society."

Prominent writer Zahida Hina reinforces this argument in a recent column noting that these amendments have given dacoits, landlords, tribal chiefs and their protégés, and unscrupulous elements in the police force, the freedom to dishonour women without fear of punishment. (‘Jan ki Aman’, Jang, Karachi, July 10, 2002).

Girls as young as thirteen complaining of rape are instead found guilty of adultery (zina), as the medical reports find evidence of sexual intercourse, and declare them as being ‘used to such activity’ – as in the case of the young Kohli girl who was raped in Hyderabad recently by an elected councillor.

As illegal as jirga sentences are the fatwas (diktats) that incite violence. Yet, how many clerics have been booked under the law for such incitements? None – except Hafiz Abdul Latif, Pesh Imam of the Jaranwala mosque who on July 5, 2002, issued a ‘fatwa’ against Faraz Javed, who had objected to the Pesh Imam making a political sermon while leading the Friday prayers. Javed was saved from being lynched by his American citizenship. The police moved swiftly to arrest those who had besieged his house, proving that where the state wills it, it can be effective.

Less lucky was Zahid Shah, a mentally challenged young man in Chak Jhumra village, who was accused of blasphemy by a cleric and stoned to death by an enraged mob.

Clerics issuing such fatwas have been emboldened by the amendments to the ‘blasphemy laws’ of the Pakistan Penal Code, particularly since the life imprisonment option in Section 295–C of the PPC lapsed in 1991, leaving a mandatory punishment of death for those convicted under it. Before 1980, when the PPC began being amended by General Zia to include sterner punishments for religious offences, only four or five cases were registered for such offences. Since then, the severity of the new laws has "provided a handle to the unscrupulous to settle their own scores," notes the HRCP.

Thirdly, women in this society are largely considered as lesser beings, at the same time family property and repositories of the family honour; rape for revenge is a common phenomenon, particularly in the southern Punjab and upper Sindh region.

Over the years, violence against women has increased in number of incidents —-in the form of ‘honour killings’ and other forms of brutalities and also worsened in its form. In the first week of July 02 alone, several cases were reported: the burning with acid of a young woman, resulting in the loss of one of her eyes as well as injuries to her suckling infant, at a remote village near Layyah in the Punjab; the rape of the young peasant girl in Hyderabad mentioned above; the stripping naked and parading of two women in a Khairpur village…

Last year, more cases of mutilation, acid burning and other heinous crimes, including incidents of ‘stove burnings’, domestic violence and rape, were reported than before, while every second woman in the country suffered some form of violence, in the form of verbal, physical or sexual abuse, according to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (State of Human Rights in Pakistan, 2001). HRCP estimates that in the year 2001, one woman was raped every sixth hour in the Punjab, and a woman gang–raped every fourth day.

Where is the outrage for all this violence against women, which so many in this society condone in one way or another? Certainly the self-appointed custodians of our morality are noticeably silent on the matter, which only encourages this mindset illustrated so clearly by the Meerwala case.

Lastly, the complacency of the Meerwala Jatoi panchayat stemmed also from the social system: the family of the raped woman is poor and ‘low caste’ (Tattlas). The rape of Mukhtaran Bibi appears to be part of an attempt to cover up yet another heinous crime, the sexual assault on Abdul Shakoor, her young brother who is between eleven and fourteen years old, by three members of the Mastoi clan on June 22. After the culprits realised that he was not going to hide the incident, they took him to their kinsman, Abdul Khaliq, to seek his help. Khaliq was already trying to pressurize his neighbour, Ghulam Farid (Shakoor and Mukhtaran’s father) to give up his two acres of land. "He confined the boy to a room of his house and also pushed his 25 year old sister, Naseem, inside…After locking the door, he ran to inform the tribesmen than he had found the boy engaged in a sexual act with the woman". (Sadiq Jafri, ‘The land of shame’, The News on Sunday, Encore, July 7, 2002).

When he went to the police to get his son freed, Ghulam Farid’s poverty and low social status again came into play. Instead of filing a case against the kidnappers/sodomisers, the police took young Shakoor into custody and demanded money for his release.

What followed next also started out routinely. A panchayat was gathered by Khaliq. It would have been normal, if illegal, for such a council to decree that a woman from Ghulam Farid’s family approach them to seek mercy for the accused boy. Or even that Farid give a daughter in marriage to the Mastoi family. Instead, the jirga pronounced the sentence of ‘rape for honour’ on the eldest daughter of Ghulam Farid – who was falsely assured by some members of the panchayat that the ‘sentence’ would not be carried out.

These issues must be addressed in order to go beyond the outrage and breast-beating that has followed this horrific incident. Stoning, flogging or hanging the culprits to death in public in order to ‘set an example’ as many, including the victims, have suggested, will only amount to amputating a diseased limb while allowing the illness to continue festering within the body. Such punishments were administered during Ziaul Haq’s time, when the screams of the convict were amplified for the watching crowd. The result was only to further brutalise society and contribute to a culture of violence. The culprits must be punished, but in accordance with law – and the affected family must be tended to with sensitivity and care, not made to sit on the ground outside the court waiting for hours for their case to be heard, as is currently happening.

As for Mukhtaran Bibi, the compensatory cheque of five lakh rupees may go a long way towards easing her family’s financial hardships, but compared to what they have undergone, it is an insult. The barrage of high profile visitors who have ensured media coverage for their visits has not been able to prevent the family facing the brunt of the pressure even now. They feel so threatened that they have left their own house and gone to live elsewhere.

The government must take action against illegal rulings, whether these are made by tribal chiefs or religious leaders. It must ensure that no one takes the law into their own hands, pass or execute ‘sentences’. And, finally, it needs to ensure that its functionaries will no longer participate in such activities.

(The writer is Contributing Editor, The News, Pakistan)


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