Religion, 'honor' and Pakistan's 'revenge rape'

Mohammad Ashfaq, a resident of the Muzaffarabad area near the city of Multan, raped a 16-year-old girl last week. He was "avenging" the honor of his 12-year-old sister, who was raped by his fellow-villager, Omar Wadda. A council of elders, which the villagers view as their representative legal body, ordered Ashfaq to exact "revenge rape" to even the score.

After an outcry in the media, the Pakistani Supreme Court took a notice of the incident Wednesday and police arrested the head of the village council and 24 other men who attended the July 18 meeting that sanctioned the rape.

The elders' council "revenge rape" order was most condemnable, but rights activists point to a lack of proper legal and policing system in the country's underprivileged rural areas. The "jirgas" or "panchayats" decide legal matters in these areas. Activists say the Pakistani state has failed to extend its writ to these areas, which have been neglected since the country's independence from British rule in 1947, and that is why these councils emerged as a parallel "legal system" to dole out speedy "justice" to a large number of Pakistanis.

Civil society groups also say that the government or the Supreme Court's arbitrary actions in cases like the Multan "revenge rape" cannot stop such incidents from happening in the future.

Hundreds of such cases are never reported in the South Asian country, and in most incidents the culprits are released by courts due to a lack of evidence or rampant corruption in Pakistan's mainstream legal and policing system.

In the latest case of "honor" crime, both alleged rapists are still at large, police official Ahsan Younus told The Associated Press news agency.

Traditions and legal implementation

The incident highlights the plight of Pakistani women - especially those living in the country's rural areas - who are caught between a "masculine honor" entrenched in conservative religious norms and an ineffective legal system that has failed to either protect them or empower them.

The Multan incident is not the first publicized "honor" crime in the country. In a case that attracted global attention in 2002, a village council ordered the so-called "honor" gang rape of Mukhtar Mai, a young woman who later took her rapists to court and is now a prominent rights activist.

In July 2016, model and actress Qandeel Baloch was strangled to death by her brother in the name of "honor."

"Honor killings," which claim the lives of hundreds of women every year, and other forms of violence against women, particularly domestic violence, are rampant in Pakistan. Last year, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif vowed to push through a set of laws designed to protect women. While the bill was praised by rights groups and liberal sections, religious parties and organizations denounced it by saying it conflicted with the Koran and the teachings of Muhammad, Islam's prophet.

Experts say that a mixture of religious conservatism, deep-rooted patriarchal norms and the lack of a proper legal framework to protect women all encourage men to mistreat women.

"It is both tradition and lack of legal implementation. It has been a tradition to mete out this treatment to women for centuries, and local elders deem it befitting to victimize women rather than punish the rapist," Dr. Nazir Mahmood, an Islamabad-based development expert and columnist, told DW.

"Laws are there, but their implementation is an issue, in most cases, including this case where the male relatives themselves decided that the girl be raped. It is only after the rape that the event came to light, just like it happened in case of Mukhtar Mai," Mahmood added.

But political activist and analyst Marvi Sirmed says the Pakistan state in its recent legislation on Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) has "almost outsourced the provision of justice to village councils."

"Although the law places a 'judicial officer' in charge, the parliament has legitimised this private justice system," Sirmed told DW.

"What needs to be done is completely separate a state regulated ADR system from these illegitimate panchayats; ensure that the ADR forums come out of the influence of the local elite alongside involving women, minorities and other marginalized communities," she added.

'Religious hypocrisy'

Prominent women's right activist, Rakhshinda Parveen, blames Pakistani society's "hypocrisy" for widespread violence against women.

"Most Pakistanis never protest against such incidents. Also, Pakistani civil society as a whole is not doing much against rape crimes," Parveen told DW, adding that in Multan, two women became victims of masculinity.

"Two minor girls were raped in the guise of a socially-endorsed shameful cultural tradition," she added.

Last year, the murder of model Qandeel Baloch prompted Farid Paracha, a leader of the religious Jamaat-i-Islami party in Lahore, to blame the victim for her death.

"But she was not the only one to be blamed. Pakistani society, government, our educational system and the media are also responsible for her death," Paracha said, adding that only god could punish Baloch for her "mistakes."

Last year, the Council of Islamic Ideology, a powerful religious body that advises politicians on the compatibility of proposed laws with Islam, opposed PM Sharif's efforts to criminalize violence against women.

"The law is wrong," Muhammad Khan Sherani, the head of the council, told reporters in Islamabad. "The summary of the law is, as we understand, that the Muslim families are encouraged to violate the sanctity of matrimonial relations. The law also facilitates women to leave their homes and become part of the workforce," Sherani said.

That infuriates Pakistani fashion journalist Mohsin Sayeed, who says that "Pakistanis are particularly hypocritical when it comes to sexuality and religion."

"Isn't it proof of our double-standards that women like Mukhtaran Mai are paraded naked publicly on the orders of the panchayat (village courts) and raped by groups of men, and nobody in Pakistan says it is against Islam? The mullahs do not make any hue and cry about such acts," Sayeed told DW.

Columnist Mahmood says that "the more religious the society becomes, the more anti-women it gets because of the inherent male superiority in almost all religions."

Read: Women defy local traditions in Pakistan's Swat Valley

Rights activist Sirmed is hopeful that a pro-women media coverage of such cases has grown much better in the past decade, however there still is reluctance from society to accept a "violated" woman as a victim.

"But I would also like to invite attention to the male rape victims. If it is difficult for women to register rape case, it is absolutely impossible for a male victim to do so. In this case, patriarchy and masculinity work against men. Boys do not report rape because that would end all kind of self esteem and respect in society for them," Sirmed told DW.