Pakistan is slowly rolling out laws to protect women’s rights, yet these laws fall short of providing any real safeguards for women, especially victims of sexual violence. One woman’s eight-year struggle has garnered international attention but not justice at home.
KARACHI, Pakistan — “Outlawed in Pakistan” has won an Emmy, been screened at the Sundance Film Festival, and aired on Frontline, PBS’ investigative journalism series. Yet this attention and focus eludes the documentary’s subject in her native Pakistan, where her eight-year quest for justice seems like one that will never end.
Made over a four-year period, the 45-minute film traces the ongoing struggle of a Pakistani woman who was gang-raped when she was in the eighth grade in the city of Mehar, Sindh province. Through the lens of Kainat Soomro and her family, the film highlights the tradition of honor killings and also sheds light on the struggles of victims forced to navigate the Pakistani criminal justice system.
Kainat Soomro, now 21, told MintPress News what happened to her on Jan. 10, 2007: “On my way back from school, I went to a shop to buy a toy for my niece. Someone threw something at me and after that I don’t know what happened. I was then taken to an unfamiliar place where I was drugged and gang-raped.”
Two days later, in a semiconscious state, she managed to escape and return home.
The 13-year-old girl was declared a kari (literally, “black female”) by a male-dominated tribal council for having brought shame upon her family.
But her father, Ghulam Nabi Soomro, refused to acquiesce to the punishment — death.
“I was also offered huge amounts of money, even girls from the family of the accused, as vani [a custom in which young girls are forced into marriage as part of the punishment for a crime committed by a male member of the family], but I refused then and continue to refuse to do so now,” he said.
Dual legal systems
The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan compiles an annual report on the state of human rights in the country. Based on media reports alone, the commission says 869 women were victims of honor killings in 2013.
“These women were killed because the state did not confront this feudal practice supported by religiosity and bigotry,” the commission stated in a press release after a young pregnant woman was stoned to death by her family.
As reported by The Guardian, she was killed in front of a Pakistani high court for marrying without her family’s consent.
“The perpetrator gets away with his crime, as it’s easier and convenient to blame the victim for ‘inciting’ or ‘provoking’ a certain reaction,” said Samar Minallah, a human rights activist and documentary filmmaker, who has worked extensively to raise awareness about the barbaric, archaic traditions prevalent in Pakistani society.
Minallah told MintPress that honor killings are especially prevalent in rural areas.
Yet Pakistan enacted a law in 2004 that made honor killings punishable by a prison term of seven years, or by the death penalty in the most extreme cases. This law, however, stopped short of outlawing the practice of allowing killers to buy their freedom by paying compensation to the victim’s relatives (usually a close relative, like parents).
Incidents like this can often be attributed to the Hudood Ordinances, a set of laws based on Islamic decrees that have been running parallel to Pakistan’s secular legal system since 1979. Under one Hudood Ordinance, for example, a woman making rape accusations must furnish four male eyewitnesses. Yet to prove rape, she would have to admit that sexual intercourse had occurred, representing an admission of her own guilt to the judiciary. If the accused is acquitted for lack of sufficient evidence, however, it would leave the victim open to accusations of adultery (if she is married) or fornication (if she is unmarried). Thus, women tend to be reluctant to come forth with such allegations or pursue justice.
Movements to revise the Hudood Ordinances gained traction in 2005, and from 2004 to 2011 Pakistan’s parliament passed seven laws seen as “pro-women.” These include the passage of the Protection of Women Act, which amends two Hudood Ordinances; the Domestic Violence Bill; and two laws criminalizing sexual harassment of women. Then in 2011, three important bills — the Prevention of Anti-Women Practices Bill, the Acid Control and Acid Crimes Prevention Bill and The Women in Distress and Detention Fund Act — were passed in the senate.
Still, the government has consistently failed to provide a safer environment for Pakistani women, largely because these laws fail to be properly implemented. Maliha Lari, a legal expert with the Aurat Foundation, a women’s rights advocacy group, pointed to the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act of 2004 as an example. Also known as the Honor Killing Act, this law was enacted to criminalize all murders committed in the name of honor.
Lari explained that the Honor Killing Act was an amendment to the Pakistan Penal Code and the Criminal Procedure Code that defined karo-kari (the term for honor killings, which literally translates as, “black man-black woman”) as murder and open to penal punishment.
However, because elements of religious law are still in effect, the families of women killed in karo-kari are generally unwilling to convict the perpetrator — which is often another family member, usually a father, brother or uncle — for fear of losing another family member.
“One way of meting out the punishment would be for the state to take it upon itself to take the case up, but that never happens,” Lari said, noting that Punjab province has recently established a committee to review the existing law and address gaps and loopholes. (Per the 18th constitutional amendment of 2010, provinces are responsible for legislation on many issues formerly handled by the central government, including women’s rights.)
Meanwhile, in regards to the Domestic Violence Bill, she said that in the past year, Sindh province has not had a formal, government-issued notice of the law, “and therefore the implementation structure has not been put in place.”
Wasim Wagha, also of the Aurat Foundation, said implementation can only take place if there is legal literacy.
“With minimal levels of literacy, our police — and I must add, even our lawyers — have no idea these laws exist,” Wagha said, adding that it’s crucial for these laws to be put into plain, easily understood language.
Police refuse to cooperate
“It took us nine days to get our complaint registered at the local police station, only after the chief justice of Pakistan took suo motu notice,” Kainat recalled.
The accused were arrested a month later. After three years in jail, they were released when a local judge deemed Kainat’s testimony insufficient.
Zainab Qureshi, a lawyer working as a consultant for the International Commission of Jurists, told MintPress that courts in Pakistan are unwilling to accept the “sole testimony of the rape survivor as sufficient evidence” to convict the accused, regardless of whether or not the testimony is credible and compelling.
Kainat’s lawyer, Faisal Siddiqi, says the entire criminal justice system is geared toward safeguarding the accused. “The victim’s rights are not upheld, there is no obligation to provide justice for the victim,” he said.
This is why the conviction rate for rape in Pakistan hovers near zero, he says. The international community and even Pakistani society are enraged when a gang rape occurs and they recognize the struggles of women, he says, explaining that it’s the legal system that hasn’t quite caught up.
The HRCP’s 2013 report listed reported cases of rape in Pakistan’s four provinces: 2,576 incidents of rape were reported in Punjab province; 127 incidents of rape and three incidents of gang rape in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province; 27 incidents of gang rape in Sindh; and 32 incidents of rape in Balochistan.
“Rape cases are complicated with many contradictions. Facts change often from the time the complaint is lodged to the time when the victim appears before the judge as the victim. In my opinion, the judges should not look at the contradictions but get to the essence of the case — that rape has occurred,” Siddiqi pointed out.
Meanwhile, Qureshi noted that the character of a woman making rape allegations comes into question.
“The common belief harbored amongst police and the judiciary is that a woman willing to acknowledge her ‘shame’ by associating herself with a complaint of rape must be a woman of bad character and her testimony must be regarded with caution,” Qureshi said.
Siddiqi, who has handled several rape cases, said the country’s courtrooms — predominantly a male domain — are already prejudiced. “The presumption is that the woman is a liar, that she is not very intelligent and her testimony is not worth its salt,” he said. “
“If she belongs to a poor section of society, then it is double jeopardy.”
Qureshi says that due to this pre-existing bias, the court seeks corroborating evidence to support the testimony of the victim often in the form of medical or forensic evidence.
However, due to a lack of resources, DNA testing is not undertaken in rape cases and these investigations rely on outdated methods, such as the “two-finger” rape test.
In this two-finger test, Qureshi says, the medical legal officer inserts two fingers into the victim’s vagina. If they slip in easily, it is inferred that the victim is “habituated to sexual intercourse” and that she consented to sexual intercourse.
“This method of forensic evidence has been abandoned in the rest of the world, as the laxity of the woman’s vagina does not depend on her sexual history and a woman’s sexual history does not determine her consent in the alleged incident,” said Qureshi.
Further, Qureshi says that under Section 375 of the Pakistan Penal Code all acts of sexual intercourse against anyone under 16 years of age constitute rape, regardless of her consent. Yet police and judges rarely take this into account.
Too high a price?
Eight years on, justice continues to elude the Soomro family and the family continues to pay a high price for seeking justice for their daughter. Ghulam Nabi and Zakia’s eldest son was murdered, and Ghulam Nabi and another son have been the targets of several attacks.
The family has also been socially ostracized. Their extended family has severed all ties with them, and Kainat’s two sisters have seen their engagements end. One of these sisters is now the family’s sole breadwinner, working as a nurse in a government hospital.
Having had to flee their hometown of Mehar, the entire 18 members of Ghulam Nabi’s family, once quite a well off one, now live in abject poverty and in fear, holed up in their two-room apartment in the southern port city of Karachi. They have had to move twice after attacks and once after Kainat was attacked on the court premises.
“It was extremely courageous and brave of her to speak up, but the support and protection she deserves will not be delivered because of a mindset that has seeped in at every level,” said Minallah, the human rights activist and documentary filmmaker.
Meanwhile, the men who stand accused in Kainat’s rape are entangling the Soomro family in criminal cases.
Yet Saddiqi has been by the Soomro family’s side for nearly seven years, and though the case hasn’t made much headway, he says it’s difficult to walk away.
“They are an inspiring lot,” he said. “I will get tired when they do.”
Kainat’s mother, Zakia, told MintPress, “We will fight until the end, until we get justice.”