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Pakistan: ’Everything does not depend on street power’ - Interview with Khawar Mumtaz

6 October 2013

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The News on Sunday - 29 September 2013


“It was definitely an effective protest, not a movement”

Khawar Mumtaz, Chairperson National Commission on Status of Women and leading women’s rights activist talks about the society’s reaction to rape cases, recourse to justice and media’s all-intrusive coverage

By Alefia T. Hussain

The News on Sunday (TNS): The response to December 16, 2012 gang rape that took place in Delhi symbolises the struggle against rape, a full-fledged movement that mobilised masses for sexual crimes against women in India. Contrarily, even after the rape of a five year old girl, a movement even slightly resembling that in India could not be launched in Pakistan. Would you agree?

Khawar Mumtaz (KM): Unfortunately, rapes happen all the time in Pakistan. We have had some horrendous rape stories but this certainly was the worst of its kind. In India, too, they have constant incidents of gang rapes and other forms of violence against women in rural and urban areas, where the issue is sometimes taken up publicly. The Dec 16 case became particularly fiery because its victim was a professional woman from the middle class. So, it hit the urban middle class immensely as it was very close to home. It was also the gruesomeness of the act that shook the people.

Really, in this case in India, I feel, both the horrific nature of the violence and the threat coming close, triggered the uproar. It was the tipping point.

In Pakistan, the five-year-old girl’s rape was equally horrendous. And there was a lot of reaction, definitely, but it wasn’t a movement. In Pakistan’s women rights history the real tipping point was the formation of the Women’s Action Forum (WAF) in 1981; soon after a zina case was registered against a 15-year-old girl who was convicted to be flogged for marrying against her parents’ wishes. It mobilised a number of concerned women and then slowly it became a movement.

The reaction in Pakistan usually to any unfortunate incident that demands street protest is insipid, not many come out of their homes. So, one is compelled to ask in such circumstances, what is the point of a token protest.

Regardless, I must point out that token protests against the recent rape incident in Lahore were made across the country, in fact in some cities like Islamabad it continued for four or five days, and the crowd grew every day. Still I don’t think it grew to become a movement. It was definitely an effective protest, not a movement.

Essentially, when we talk of movements we must look for a tipping point and who is hit the most. The cause/crime has to be something that touches a raw nerve in people. Anger towards a crime must be channelised properly to take the shape of a movement. This case in Lahore triggered anger alright.

This passive reaction is reflective of the degeneration of our society, where even a five year old is not safe in her street, in her playground. Our reactions and reflexes have become numb because we are in a state of shock every day.

Another pertinent question that arises here is, does a movement mean coming out on the streets only? A movement can be to ensure that the law takes its course, guarantee the little girl gets protection, keep pressure on the government for thorough prosecution and investigation. All this is also part of the consciousness of the movement — and I think that is happening. Everything does not depend on street power, although street power is important. We have seen some organisations yield anti-people street power too.

TNS: Odds are always against the rape victims who normally belong to the lowest strata of society; the police views rape victims with suspicion; and the situation in courts isn’t ideal. Please comment on the flaws in the criminal justice system?

KM: The real issue is how the case is followed in our justice system. Conviction rate in cases of violence against women is 3 to 5 per cent. It’s pathetic. It means prosecution and investigation process is very weak. This is where we hear of all the misuse of power and money playing its role.

Then there is the issue of witness protection. Often witnesses withdraw or retract because of threats coming from the more resourceful people. These factors lead to nothing in the end.

Also we have to realise we are a stratified society. There are those who have privileges and those who don’t. The Shahzeb Khan case is a perfect example. Justice system must be the same for all. Everyone must be equal before the law.

TNS: What about the parallel justice system? Is jirga effective in resolving the cases of violence against women?

KM: Parallel justice system does not provide justice to women. That’s what we have seen over time. The National Commission for the Status of Women (NCSW) is initiating a study to document how jirgas resolve cases of violence against women to see if there was ever a positive result. But, so far, through whatever we have seen in the media and otherwise, panchayats and jirgas give away women as bada-e-sulah, swara and vani — punishments which have been criminalised under the Anti-women Customary Practices Act.

Cases involving crimes against women must come out of the purview of jirgas even if some people feel that a jirga provides speedy justice. We see that women are used as bargaining chips in a range of disputes. The core settling element is always the woman. It, at best, provides compromise, not justice.

TNS: Reporting rape cases and protecting the identity of the victim – given the dynamics of the new, frantic and all-intrusive media how best can the identity of the victim be protected? In the given situation, where the media persons interview parents, neighbours and relatives etc does it make sense to conceal the name of the victim?

KM: By and large, I feel, the media has played a positive role in bringing a number of cases to public notice and because of it we have seen the Supreme Court take suo moto actions as well. On the other hand, media has a tendency of sensationalising, announcing as grave and somber crime as rape with fanfare, instead of focussing on facts and investigations.

In this recent case of the rape of a five year old, the TV reporting was undesirably sensational. One channel punctuated every few seconds of reportage with the image of the raped girl being taken into the ambulance. It was so unnecessary. We cannot make a spectacle of another person’s misery.

Some channels are sensitive to the issue, for instance they will not announce the name of the victim, but across the board all channels are not. Media persons reach out to the family members and neighbours and put pressure on them by asking offensive questions.

But you see in such cases we must pause and reflect for a while on what the story may convey, what is the reporting doing to whom, is the victim getting a better sense of justice because of coverage in media. I think just a little bit of sensibility and sensitivity can help, like seeking permission from the affected family for what they want shown and read in media.

TNS: As the chairperson of NCSW, how do you view the role of various government departments/bodies in protecting women’s rights? We may have more women as parliamentarians but we still do not have a women’s rights minister?

KM: I don’t think not having a women’s rights ministry at the federal level really makes a difference. Actual violations are now in the jurisdiction of every province after the 18th amendment. So, more importantly, we need effective women’s rights ministries and departments at the provincial levels.

NCSW is not an implementation body. Its task is to monitor and make sure the responsible government departments are implementing the women-related laws and bring back the issues to policy makers. Therefore, the Commission has the authority and mandate to ask for any information from any province or department. For me, the main objective of the Commission is to set up systems where we can monitor and get feedback as we go along.

Take the case of the Council of Islamic Ideology. As soon as we heard they were discussing DNA testing in cases of rape, we wrote a strong letter to them, and iterated cases where DNA testing has already been used as evidence in Pakistan. Resultantly, the CII seems to have softened its position. It continues to maintain that it is not primary evidence but has left it to the discretion of the court. It is NCSW’s responsibility to make sure that what comes out of the Council is properly scrutinised and examined.

I feel, as the chairperson of the NCSW, I’m not able to do as much as I want to because the Commission is still not staffed. My rules of business are still not approved. The procedural work is taking too long for my satisfaction.

TNS: To observers and critics, the pro-women legislation in the Musharraf-era has made Pakistani women’s rights activists complacent with the status of women in the country. How do you evaluate the women’s rights movement in Pakistan in recent years?

KM: Complacency comes when there’s a democratic government in place and when the parliament has passed some progressive laws in consultation with women’s rights activists, for example the acid crime bill, protection of women from harassment in workplace bill, the domestic violence bill in Sindh, the NCSW Act etc. All the work has come from outside the parliament. The government has been ready to enact it.

Today, some of the active women’s rights campaigners and allies are members of the parliament.

But I must emphasise that the spate of legislation has come about only after exhaustive consultation with women’s rights campaigners. So I wouldn’t say there’s complete complacency perhaps the street power has reduced. Because we have a democratic system in place, I see a different form of activism.

The truth is the more senior, older members of Women’s Action Forum (WAF) are tired and the younger ones don’t seem to have the same fire at the moment.


The above article from The News on Sunday is reproduced here for educational and non commercial use