Pakistan is a chronic case of gender-based violence

Several recent incidents of violent crimes against women have once again highlighted the need for reform in the police, courts and society as a whole.

Citizens in Pakistan have been left horrified and enraged by a video that surfaced recently showing a crowd of more than 400 men groping and assaulting a young woman. The incident, which took place on 14 August outside the Minar-e-Pakistan, a national monument in Lahore, has called attention to the alarming rise in gender-based violence in the South Asian nation.

Violent acts targeting women and girls such as rape, so-called honour killings, acid attacks, domestic violence and forced marriage have long been a problem in Pakistan, but the recent spike in such crimes has once again emphasised their pervasiveness. The Minar-e-Pakistan incident happened just a few weeks after the grisly murder of a 27-year-old woman sparked a massive public outcry.

On 20 July, Noor Mukadam, the daughter of a former Pakistani diplomat, was discovered decapitated in an affluent neighbourhood of the capital Islamabad. The killing resulted in a nationwide campaign seeking justice for the victim, with the hashtag #JusticeforNoor trending on Twitter. The murder was the latest case in a string of attacks against women in Pakistan, where gender-based violence, especially femicides, continue to be rooted in patriarchal norms. 

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Pakistan is ranked 153 out of 156 countries in the World Economic Forum’s 2021 Global Gender Gap Report, just below war-ravaged Iraq, Yemen and Afghanistan. The nation features among the bottom 10 countries in two of the four sub-indexes: economic participation and opportunity (152nd) and health and survival (153rd).

Mukadam’s social standing as a member of the country’s elite may be one of the reasons the tragedy has drawn attention. The majority of women who are victims of gender-based violence, activists contend, are from the country’s low and middle classes and their deaths are often not recorded, or disregarded. 

Women’s lives in rural areas differ considerably from those in metropolitan places such as Islamabad, where they enjoy relative safety. Landlords retain social, economic and political clout in rural parts of the country, where feudal structures persist and the administration and police often function subserviently to these chieftains.

Bloodthirsty femicide

When Mukadam’s murder became public, social media platforms in Pakistan were already buzzing with hashtags like #JusticeForQuratulain and #JusticeForSaima. This came after the murders of Qurat-ul-Ain Baloch, a mother of four who was allegedly killed by her husband in Sindh province on 15 July, and Bushra Raza, who died on 3 July, also at the hands of her husband. Both are said to have been victims of domestic abuse for years.

“Noor’s death came in the wake of a lurid melee of cases of Pakistani men slaughtering Pakistani women. Just days before her death, Pakistan, or rather those Pakistanis who mourn such crimes and killings, had witnessed another act of bloodthirsty femicide,” author Rafia Zakaria wrote in the newspaper Dawn. “It is as if the sheer horror of Noor’s case has suddenly made us all feel the burden of the bodies of dead women killed by our inability to punish men.” 

In the same newspaper, Amnesty International South Asia campaigner Rimmel Mohydin contended that the country’s political and criminal justice systems have failed to redress the structural inequities, prejudices and discrimination that have fostered the permissive culture in which such atrocities occur. 

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“The violence with which [Mukadam] was taken is extraordinary, but what is required now is what has always been required: an understanding at the highest level of deep-seated patriarchy that fuels gender-based violence and perpetuates impunity, selective outrage and victim blaming,” Mohydin wrote.

Women’s rights activists have frequently accused the Pakistani state of abdicating its obligation to implement laws that protect women from abuse, and have chastised the government for its failure to respond to violence against women.

In April, Prime Minister Imran Khan was berated for saying that an increase in sexual assault cases may be attributed to women’s attire and labelled a “rape apologist”. Khan responded saying his remark was taken out of context and that any person who commits rape is “solely responsible” for the crime and “never the victim”. Many, however, feel that such remarks are a reflection of the larger culture of sexism and misogyny prevalent in Pakistan. 

An epidemic of violence  

According to the country’s Human Rights Commission and the Pakistan Journal of Medical Sciences, almost 90% of women have experienced some form of domestic violence at the hands of their husbands or families, while 47% of married women have experienced sexual abuse, particularly rape. Only 0.4% of women take their cases to court, while 50% of women who experience domestic violence do not respond in any way and suffer silently.

Other government data highlight that about 28% of women aged between 15 and 49 have experienced physical violence since the age of 15, and 6% have experienced sexual violence. Almost 7% of women who have been pregnant experienced violence during their pregnancy. The most common type of spousal abuse is emotional violence (26%), followed by physical violence (23%). Conviction rates remain low at just 2.5% of all cases that make it to court.

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Likewise, data by the Human Rights Commission suggests that there were 15 222 so-called honour killings recorded in Pakistan between 2004 and 2016. As many as 430 such cases were reported in 2020, involving 148 male and 363 female victims. Although laws prohibit these killings, legal experts say enforcement is often lackadaisical and trials get drawn out while defendants are released on bail and prosecutors lose cases.

In June, Parliament adopted new legislation, the Domestic Violence (Prevention and Protection) Bill, aimed at protecting women against domestic abuse with penalties of between six months and three years’ imprisonment. Only the president’s signature was required to enact the law, but it has been held up after Khan’s adviser on parliamentary affairs asked for its review by the Council of Islamic Ideology.

Pakistan does have fairly progressive laws in place, but their implementation remains an issue. Sindh enacted its domestic violence act in 2013. Balochistan passed a similar law in 2014 and Punjab did so in 2016. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa enacted a law on domestic violence only in January this year that prescribes a maximum of five years’ imprisonment and a fine for culprits.  

Women are let down by an entire system

The fault lies in Pakistan’s criminal justice system, which remains steeped in patriarchy, gender bias and traditions that prejudice women. Officials at law enforcement agencies have been observed harassing, intimidating and silencing women. Often, women’s voices are not heard and their complaints brushed under the carpet by the police saying it is a “family matter”, hence violence is normalised. The women who bravely tell their stories of violence are stigmatised and treated with scepticism. 

The major deficiency stems from poor investigations by the police. Activists report that many officers do not even inform victims that they have to undergo medical examinations within 96 hours and consent to having them done. This eventually weakens the prosecution’s case.

The judiciary has an extremely protectionist approach to cases of gender-based violence, especially sexual harassment. Modesty and character become the subject of trials instead of acknowledging sexual harassment as a crime. Focusing on the victim’s inhibitions, honour and embarrassment is another form of harassment. 

The criminal justice system requires change. The police need more female representation. Global evidence has shown that women in leadership roles in policing can serve as role models and respond to complaints more effectively. The police’s public image must be improved and officers sensitised to gender issues so that they handle women’s complaints with empathy and the investigative process is humanised.

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Pakistan requires the feminisation of the law and judiciary. There is also a need to develop and cultivate a feminine perspective on how the legal system judges gender-based violence. Laws have to be rewritten from the feminine perspective, as was the case when Justice Ayesha Malik banned the two-finger or “virginity” test in January, saying they were “humiliating” and “had no forensic value”. The landmark judgment has declared the test a human rights violation and will shift the focus from the victim to the perpetrator. 

Women in Pakistan have theoretical but not practical protection under the law. Across the board, almost all human rights activists and lawyers agree that the surge in domestic violence is owing to a lack of implementation and enforcement. Pakistan needs to strengthen the internal checks and balances in the police and other organs of the state to ease the burden on the judiciary.

The way forward lies in the transformation of the social order, too. Women empowerment needs to start at home. An active campaign is also needed that should highlight the unacceptability of violence and women’s legal right to end toxic and abusive marriages. 

Aisha Ayub is a lawyer, activist and researcher based in Lahore.

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