Karachi: The children were too young to know how dangerous it is to be a girl in Pakistan. If the five-year-old girl and her three-year-old cousin had been just a little bit older, they may have known that being alone and playing outside are lethal risks in this country of men.
They did not know; and so, as dusk crept in and cast itself over their neighbourhood in Lahore, they remained engrossed in their games. By the time their families would notice they were missing, it would be too late.
What happened to the five-year-old between the time she was abducted from outside her home and the next day, when she was found abandoned outside a hospital, is the stuff of the most grotesque nightmare.
Unconscious and bleeding, the child found lying on a thin strip of green lawn just outside the hospital building had been raped. The doctors who examined her asserted that on the basis of their physical examination, she had probably been assaulted by several men for over an hour.
She was rushed to surgery because of haemorrhaging, and when she emerged her condition was listed as critical. The next day, television channels reported that she was deeply traumatised, crying and screaming even when members of her family approached her.
The utter cruelty of the case elicited denunciations and expressions of outrage. In a country where public debate on rape cases often hinges on the indictment of the victim long before it turns to the perpetrators, the fact that the victim was a child managed to force attention on the brutality of the crime itself.
The child had been too young to blame, too little to be accused of having provoked her attackers. The usual excuses — a lack of feminine modesty, culpable presence in the public space, a flawed character — could not be employed here, and so, finally, the ghastly fact of the crime was before the country.
So confronted, many grew angry; a group of female representatives from the Khyber legislature demanded that the perpetrators be hanged. Such cries for blood and vengeance were fervently repeated.
The aftermath of the case exposes once again the complete inability of law enforcement and judicial bodies to deal with rape investigations. Even with closed-circuit camera images, there was no solid identification of suspects.
A few suspects picked up by the police on September 13 had already been released by the next day. While DNA samples were collected from the child and sent to investigation labs, no report was available yet. There was no confirmation about the exact number of rapists.
Amidst the legal and investigative morass surrounding the case are the questions of how such a dastardly act can occur and how the complicity of society can breed the sort of demons who can commit it (and probably get away with it).
Just a few days before the child was assaulted, the British medical journal Lancet published a new study on rape in the Asia-Pacific region. Completed in partnership with the United Nations, the study was unique in that it surveyed not rape victims but rather men who had committed the crime.
While the study did not specifically look at Pakistani men, its results provide some insight into Pakistan’s situation regarding rape.
Not only were the results alarming (nearly one in four men, in the six countries studied, reported having forced a woman to have sexual relations), so were its findings regarding the causes.
The reasons the men listed for committing rape ranged widely from sexual entitlement to entertainment to punishment and even boredom. Almost half of the men reported that they did not feel guilty. More than half had committed the crime for the first time as teenagers.
The results provide some very specific diagnosis on the Pakistani condition. Like men in Indonesia and Bangladesh, men in Pakistan are raised with a sense of sexual entitlement, which the study identified as the primary motivator for sexual violence.
Seen under the lens of such entitlement, females are considered objects for use, unable to give consent and not having the right to say “no”.
In the case of grown women, this core belief is cleverly hidden in allegations of the women’s own character, her presence in public spaces and other such reasons.
In the case of children, the ugliness of such an assault cannot be disguised. As the study identifies, such behaviour towards women creates no guilt in the men, and it starts early. All of this is only possible when society largely supports it; society is confused about whether rape is a crime and is unable to definitely get behind rape victims and condemn perpetrators.
The mistake made by the child at the centre of the recent Lahore tragedy was to play outside in a society which does not consider even girl children entitled to be in public space.
In the Pakistan where such things happen, legislatures past and present have failed to force the stringent application of the Women’s Protection Act, 2006, and the Zina Ordinance continues to exist. In the Pakistan where such things happen, the Council of Islamic Ideology has cast doubt over the value of DNA as primary evidence across the board in rape cases.
When this cumulative picture of the country where the crime was committed is considered, the only thing different about the recent case is that she was victimised so early, subjected to a crime that is the fate of too many women.
She cannot speak today because she is too young, but if she was older and could speak and point to her victimisers, few in this country of men would believe her.
(The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy. She can be contacted at email@example.com)
-By arrangement with Dawn