Victims of law and apathy By Murtaza Razvi - Sunday 24th April 2011

THE harrowing case of Mukhtar Mai’s gang rape under orders from a village council in southern Punjab in 2002 and now the acquittal by the Supreme Court of all but one accused show once again the inadequacy of Pakistani laws coupled with a male-dominated mindset that are obstructions in the way of curbing crimes against women.
The apex court granted relief to the defendants because the police had failed to build a strong case for the prosecution. What was apparently not considered by the court in the case is the fact that the existing law makes it very difficult for a rape victim to seek justice.
Under the law, the onus to prove rape lies on the complainant, instead of the defendant who should have to prove his innocence as is the universal norm. And let’s not forget that other lopsided piece of legislation, namely, the law of evidence, which considers one woman’s testimony as being equal to half that of a man’s in case of rape.
No judging authority has ever sought review by parliament of such bad laws which further victimise women and minority victims of crime by denying them justice. While other bad laws, including constitutional amendments and clemency ordinances seeking to indemnify corruption charges against politicians, and one pertaining to parliamentary oversight of judges’ appointment, have been sent back to the government for review (in public interest and rightly so), laws that systematically target and deny justice to over 50 per cent of the population have seen no such judicial activism.
Mukhtar Mai ceased to be a mere individual and became an icon of resilience, a symbol of hope for the socially marginalised sections of society in the aftermath of her ordeal; she not only fought for justice but also set up and runs schools for girls in and around her village. Yet, for every courageous Mai, there will be hundreds of other women victims whose ordeals go unreported. Mai’s younger brother, who was allegedly sodomised by her tormentors for having dared to have an affair with one of the so-called upper caste Mastoi women, and which was the cause of Mai’s own victimisation, was served no justice either; the case of his assault is but forgotten.
Even in the adequately high-profile case of Mai, it has been a nine-year-long journey in the quest of justice, at the end of which she only managed to get one man convicted. The rest of her 14 alleged tormentors have walked free. Does anyone blame her for feeling unsafe now, living where she does?
And this takes us to Meerwala Jatoi, a village in Muzaffargarh district in southern Punjab, where the influential men of the Mastoi tribe, Mai’s tormentors, rule the roost. They are otherwise small fry on the political landscape of southern Punjab, which is home to landlords with large holdings and all the trappings of a mediaeval feudal system in action. It is no secret that the abuse of landless, working men and women, and their children, is rampant here; some landowners even have their own private prisons.
Here, village councils, or panchayats comprising mostly uneducated men whose minds are steeped deep in the dark recesses of tribal, feudal rules and laws of their own making, run a parallel justice system aimed at further victimising the already marginalised in the land, especially those who dare to defy unjust social norms.
Amidst all this operate the rural police whose unwritten rules of duty stipulate that they assist the local landlords in their jurisdiction to maintain peace and order in their respective fiefdoms. This in turn makes the task of policing a cakewalk. They see no evil, they hear of none committed or alleged, and are hand in glove with the influential clans. For the underprivileged, it is literally a dog-eat-dog world.
This cruel social system continues to prevail because of a certain mindset that too is rampant, not only in rural areas but across the board. That’s why an entire neighbourhood can be roused to punish an alleged blasphemer, but there is little social outrage seen when girl children are ‘sold’ in marriages to older men; when women are traded off in forced marriages to settle tribal feuds; and yet others are killed, even buried or burnt alive in the name of so-called honour.
In the cities, too, out-of-court settlements for murder and other disputes, many of which are basically crimes against society, are also the norm within the legal system; a scourge that perpetuates injustice in society, as the Supreme Court Bar Association chairperson, Asma Jahangir, rightly laments.
Little judicial activism is seen in eradicating such anomalies which tear at the fabric of society, and action on which by all considered notions of justice and fair play will be seen as safeguarding public interest. But such issues do not get the attention they deserve.
Politicians, with or without roots in the rural, tribal system, are loath to take up these issues in parliament; many indeed have their sympathies on the wrong side. Senator Israrullah Zehri, who in 2008 justified the alleged burying alive of women, and now MNA Jamshed Dasti, for his comments on Mukhtar Mai, readily come to mind. So does the former president, Pervez Musharraf, who had the audacity to say that some Pakistani women want to get raped to get asylum abroad. Such, unfortunately, is the mindset on the subject.

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