The Debate | Opinion

Is Pakistan Safe for Women?

The horrific gang rape of a mother along the highway was not an isolated incident, but comes against a backdrop of regular threats and harassment of women.

By Tehreem Azeem for
Is Pakistan Safe for Women?

In this Thursday, Jan. 18, 2018 photo, posters reading “protest,” pasted at walls of a neighborhood of seven-year old murder victim Zainab Ansari in Kasur, Pakistan.

Credit: AP Photo/B.K. Bangash

I am a 30-year-old woman from Pakistan. People know me as a journalist with feminist ideology and, of course, that makes me the target of a lot of hate and abuse. Whenever I write on women related issues, the common response I receive is doubt: “Who you are talking about?” critics ask, or “where does this happen?” Or they will accuse me of being a “Western agent” who just wants to bring a bad name to the Islamic Republic.

The severity of comments increases on my write-ups about sexual abuse, harassment, and torture targeting women. I received rape and death threats for writing in support of the annual Aurat March, arranged by feminist organizations and women rights activists on international women’s day in Pakistan. The organizers of the march also received similar threats for organizing the march and supposedly damaging the culture of the country.

Ironically, some of my colleagues are now receiving rape threats for their comments on the recent gang-rape case, for which the entire nation is demanding justice. A senior journalist, Sabin Agha, was invited on a TV show to talk about the rape case and ongoing conversation around it. When the clip was posted on Facebook, most of the comments contained abuse toward Agha. One user also issued a rape threat.

Remember, this happened at a time when the whole country is demanding justice for a woman who was gang raped on a highway in front of her children. It shows how deep the problem lies.

In the latest horrific case, the woman’s car had broken down on her way to Gujranwala. She was waiting for help in her car when two men started attacking the vehicle. They broke the car window, looted the valuables, and then dragged the family into the jungle on the side of the road, where they raped the woman one by one in front of her children.

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The incident happened five days after the dead body of a 5-year-old was found in Karachi. According to the medical reports, the child was sexually abused before the murder. Both cases left the nation in shock, with protests demanding the government provide justice and take immediate and effective measures to put an end to violence against women.

The main demand is for a public hanging of the accused rapists. Women rights organizations, however, have been advocating against it. Even now when the public is demanding public hanging for the offenders, feminists are educating them around the subject, explaining that such an execution is not a real solution. Aurat March organizers wrote in a Facebook post that short-term solutions resolve public anger via aggression and cover up the state’s complicity in creating conditions that result in such crime. They also argued that public hanging paints perpetrators as monsters who are understood to be anomalies, rather than products of the system.

On Saturday, Aurat March organizers, in collaboration with other women rights organizations and the general public, held nationwide protests in Lahore, Islamabad, Karachi, and Quetta to demand safety for women of the country.

Back in January 2018, the rape and murder of a 7-year-old girl in Kasur, Punjab led to nationwide outrage in a similar manner. The public pressured the government to find the culprits and give them exemplary punishment. Then, too, the demand of public hanging was widespread. The government hanged the man convicted of raping and murdering the girl on October 17, 2018 in a jail. The father of the deceased was invited to see it happening in front of his eyes.

After this rape and murder case, more and more families started to report abuse cases that otherwise would have been left unreported out of shame. According to a non-profit organization Saahil that works for child protection, the reporting trend increased immediately after the 2018 incident but again started to decline in 2019.

Young girls and women encounter harassment and abuse at a very early age. I previously wrote an article explaining widespread street harassment in Pakistan. The problem of violence against women and girls starts there, but the government never felt the need to make Pakistan’s roads safe for the vulnerable.

For example, the road the latest victim was driving on was opened six months ago but the national highways and motorway police were still waiting for a deployment notice. When the woman called the motorway helpline before she was attacked, they told her that the area does not fall in their jurisdiction. Police arrived on the scene only after a passerby called them about seeing glimpses of a woman with a man running after her.

The Punjab police chief has ordered the deployment of highway patrol and special protection personnel on the motorway where the horrific crime took place. The road may well have remained without any security if this incident had not attracted the nation’s attraction.

Still, the police had enough courage to blame the victim for the rape. Capital City Police Officer Umer Sheikh, while talking to the media, questioned the woman’s choices to head out with her children late at night and not checking the gas tank in advance. Soon after his comment, Twitter flooded with outrage against his statement and demands for his removal. The chief minister of Punjab said on Saturday that the Punjab inspector general had issued a show-cause notice to the CCPO for his remarks.

Women’s rights organizations have also demanded the CCPO’s immediate removal with a public apology — as well as structural reforms of the police force; sensitivity, investigation, and communication training for police, prosecution services, and judges; immediate measures to improve the safety of public spaces; the introduction of victim and witness protection programs; psychological and survivor support; meaningful access to the legal system; and the abolition of the dehumanizing and scientifically inaccurate two-finger virginity test for sexual violence survivors.

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After each incident of sexual abuse that makes headlines, the conversation on social media moves to #NotAllMen implying that there are only “some” men who commit such crimes. But as one Twitter user writes, “Yeah okay, not all men. Happens to all women though.” That tweet powerfully explains the severity of the issue of sexual abuse in Pakistan.

The CCPO also said, referencing the foreign nationality of the victim, that she had thought she was in another country when she headed out at midnight. Sadly, that implies that even the police know Pakistan is less safe for women than other countries.

While I was attending a workshop on newsroom culture on Friday via Zoom, a colleague of mine told me to never return to Pakistan. “I am glad you are not here. Just never return here,” she said. “This country is not safe for women.”

I could not think of a reply. Yes, I feel safe outside Pakistan, but that is my country where I want to return and live. If I do so will I be safe, or am I the next victim?