On Saturday, September 12, a few hours before she stepped out of her home in Pakistan’s capital city, Islamabad, Tooba Syed could not help but feel apprehensive. Four days earlier, a woman was gang raped at a desolate highway in Lahore—almost 300 kms away (over 180 miles) from Syed’s hometown.
The woman, who was driving home with her kids at night, was apprehended by unidentified “robbers”. They smashed her car window, dragged her to the nearby field, and raped her “at gunpoint.” They then ran away with cash and jewellery. Some media reported that her children were made to watch.
Lahore’s Capital City Police Officer (CCPO) Umar Shaikh, the chief investigator, shifted the blame on the survivor, triggering nationwide protests.
Syed, a 29-year-old dentist and organiser of a political and feminist collective called Women Democratic Front, told VICE News that even as women are enraged about the tragedy, many fear joining the protests.
“It’s not just the survivor who suffers, but also the women who stand up for her,” said Syed, who mobilised the protest in Islamabad. “Imagine that. Women are more scared of getting harassed at a protest about rape.”
Protesting women in Pakistan have been attacked in the past, most recently on March 8 this year during the Aurat March procession—an annual women’s rights demonstration in Pakistan—where men used bricks, stones and sticks on them.
Nighat Dad, Pakistani lawyer and digital activist, told VICE News that protesting against rape in Pakistan is still considered unusual. “The culture of shaming and blaming survivors discourages women to talk about rape and sexual assault,” she said.
Shaikh’s public statements angered many women in the country, who are now demanding his resignation. “Our women should not be allowed to travel like this at 12 at night,” he said in one TV news channel interview. Shaikh also said that the survivor should have been accompanied by a man.
Patriarchy and misogyny are endemic in South Asian countries. Often, these factors prevent women from accessing justice either completely, or with their dignity and sanity, intact. Women’s rights activists say that allegations of sexual assault are often not taken seriously in the region. The United Nations Women found that the pandemic has increased the instances of violence against women across the world.
In Pakistan, several women’s rights bodies and collectives came together to mobilise women after this case. Some of the trending hashtags include #MeraJismMeriMarzi (My body, my rights) and #motorwayincident. In cities such as Lahore, Islamabad and Karachi, hundreds of people, mostly women, gathered, gave speeches and raised slogans.
Occupying public space is a significant and intentional part of women-led marches in South Asian countries like Pakistan and India. Movements like Aurat March grew from everyday restrictions and onus of crimes being levied on women.
“We’re constantly reminded that we do not belong in public space. That we’re not supposed to venture out,” said Syed. “Being typecast like what the CCPO said is the reason why many women don’t report crimes against them.”
News reports said that the motorway rape survivor was reluctant to report the crime because of the stigma that follows. “Her family reported it,” added Syed. “The witnesses were not keen to follow up, though.”
Activists said that the last time outrage of this scale for rape was seen was in 2018, when a six-year-old girl named Zainab, was raped and murdered. A huge public outcry over police not filing a report led to swift action and eventual hanging of the convict. The victim-shaming in the motorway case is also reminiscent of the gang rape of Mukhtaran Mai in 2002, which was followed by then Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf saying that rape accusations are “an easy way to make money”.
“The anger is not over this one person (Shaikh). It’s coming from the structural violence against women (VAW) embedded in the society,” said Dad.
In Lahore, Pakistan’s second-largest city, the police detained at least 12 people for questioning, and are set to do a “mass DNA test” on the population of the village near the site of the attack. The penalty for conviction of gang rape in Pakistan is death or life imprisonment. Human rights reports note that rapes are frequent in the country, while prosecutions are rare. Until 2006, women could be charged for adultery if they were raped.
In 2020, a report by the Sustainable Social Development Organization revealed an alarming increase in cases of VAW during the COVID-19 pandemic
Government officials also reported a 25 percent increase in domestic violence during the COVID-19 lockdown in eastern Punjab province, registering 3,217 cases between March and May.
“In just the last three days, I’ve read about five rape cases,” said Syed. “A major reason why this protest is gaining momentum is that women are stuck with abuse at home during the pandemic.”
Activists familiar with the case said that after the attack, the woman tried helpline numbers while waiting for a relative to rescue her in the dead of the night. “The woman was educated enough to know the helpline numbers and still she didn’t get any help. This shows how effective our state machinery is,” said Dad.
As protests rage on, activists also note that this is perhaps the first time in recent history that the identity of the survivor has not been disclosed. “I didn’t see photos of the rape survivor floating around on television channels for the first time, or even the FIR with all her details,” said Dad, adding that she did, however, find the FIR floating around on WhatsApp groups.
Syed added, “This country does not deserve to name its survivors, simply because they don’t know how to protect them.”
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