The Pulse

Pakistan Police Arrest Key Suspect in Shocking Highway Rape

Recent Features

The Pulse | Society | South Asia

Pakistan Police Arrest Key Suspect in Shocking Highway Rape

The attack shocked Pakistan and galvanized women’s rights activists.

Pakistan Police Arrest Key Suspect in Shocking Highway Rape
Credit: Pixabay

Pakistani police have arrested the second assailant in a gang rape of a woman whose car broke down at night on a deserted highway last month. Two attackers pulled her out of the vehicle and brutally assaulted her as her terrified children watched, helpless. 

The suspect, Abid Malhi, was arrested late on Monday, ending a monthlong manhunt. He was arraigned in court in the eastern city of Lahore on Tuesday and ordered jailed for two weeks pending further police investigation. The other assailant, Shafqat Ali, was arrested a week after the September assault. 

Police earlier said the woman had locked her car doors when she ran out of fuel on the road in the province of Punjab, where Lahore is the capital, and dialed for help. But the two men, who were armed, broke a car window and dragged her outside where they raped her.

The attack shocked Pakistan and galvanized women’s rights activists — especially after a senior Punjab police officer, Umar Sheikh, blamed the victim for being alone at night in the car with her two children and for running out of fuel. 

The incident also drew scores of protesters to the streets in several cities, including Islamabad and Karachi, denouncing attacks on women. 

Sheikh’s remarks also prompted a petition by women’s rights activists to have him fired. But the government of Prime Minister Imran Khan refused to sack or condemn the officer.

“It’s the mindset in Pakistan,” said activist Tahira Abdullah. 

She added: “Over and over I have heard it from many men, ‘Why did she travel so late? Why was she on the motor way? Why didn’t she check the petrol? Why didn’t she have a man with her? I would never let my wife, my sister, my mother out alone.'” 

Abdullah says Pakistani women and girls are facing an increasingly violent backlash from the country’s traditional male-dominated society. Nearly 1,000 women are killed in Pakistan each year in so-called “honor killings” for allegedly violating conservative norms on love and marriage.

“It doesn’t matter the political party — right, left, center, military, civilian. It’s just anti-women,” she said. “With increasing education of girls and young women and rising awareness and awakening of girls and women, men are now starting to feel threatened and scared of losing their authority, control and power.”

Pakistan has been buffeted by a number of brutal attacks on women and girls in recent months, most recently the rape and slaying of a 2-year-old girl in Khyber Pukhtunkhwa province who was snatched from outside her home where she had been playing. 

“We have regressed … we are going worse to worse to worse,” said Abdullah.

Last month, Shaheena Shaheen, a 25-year-old journalist and activist, was killed in southwestern Baluchistan province in a shooting that police have blamed on her husband.

More than 150 Pakistani women journalists signed a petition last month complaining of verbal attacks and sexist rhetoric pervasive on social media, many originating from those linked to Khan’s government, according to the petition. 

In April, two teenage girls were killed in the rugged border region of Waziristan by a family member after a video of the teens surfaced on social media, according to the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.

“Antiquated — and lethal — notions that ‘honor’ resides in women’s bodies and actions still prevail across Pakistan, and it will take far more than laws to effect a change when perpetrators of ‘honor’ crimes continue to act with impunity,” the commission said in a recent statement. “The patriarchy that upholds casual sexism is the same patriarchy that is used to justify, endorse and perpetrate ‘honor’ killings. Neither is acceptable.”

Two leading institutes — the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security and the Peace Research Institute of Oslo — have ranked Pakistan among the four worst countries in the world to be a woman, preceded only by Syria, Afghanistan, and Yemen. 

Abdullah said rights activists will be handing the government a charter of demands, including a renewed call for the dismissal of officer Sheikh.

“We are not forgetting him. We are going to keep at it. We are going to be relentless,” said Abdullah.

By Kathy Gannon for the Associated Press in Islamabad, Pakistan.