BY AYESHA ISHTIAQ
‘Bol, ke lab azaad hain teray,
Bol, zuban ab tak teri hai.
Bol, ye thora waqt bohat hai,
Jism-o-jaan ki maut se pehle.
Bol, ke sach zinda hai ab tak’ – Faiz Ahmed Faiz
‘Speak, for your lips are still free.
Speak, for your tongue is still your own.
Speak, time is brief, before your body and soul fades away.
Speak for the truth that is still living’ – Faiz Ahmed Faiz
The nation of Pakistan is a hub of beautiful traditions, culture, food, and music. In the last decade, the country has seen vast changes in its state system with continuing projects to enhance development. While there are many progressive changes, the country still has a long way to go – especially in regards to its lack of connection with rural areas. While the big cities are thriving, small towns and villages are struggling with low standards of living, poor health facilities, and most of all, an incompetent police force. This creates a perfect breeding ground for criminal activities, and the district of Kasur, in the province of Punjab, has been unable to escape the clutches of this dark reality.
Kasur is one of the oldest districts of Pakistan, renowned for its Sufi shrines and being the resting place of famous Islamic mystics such as Bulleh Shah and Babar Kamal Chisti, two legendary Sufi poets of the South Asian peninsula. Bulleh Shah is a prominent figure in Punjabi literature and culture, popular for his philosophical poetry and resistance regarding equal rights for all. One would think that the burial place of such a figure would be a hub of light and optimism, especially considering followers from all over the country journey to visit his tomb and pay their respects. However, the reality of Kasur is far more grim. Instead of beautiful poetry and spirituality, the district is defiled with child abuse victims and pedophilia.
In 2015, an undercover ring of child pornographers was captured for raping more than 200 children on film, and selling it illegally. This marked the first in a series of horrific events that shook the country. The immense uproar following this discovery helped bridge the disconnect and class divide between cities and smaller districts. The event opened the eyes of many, helping the country understand the plight of those who are unsafe. The scandal brought the people together for some time, but the class divide was still too deeply rooted to be eradicated with this one incident.
The village had been tainted, its children exploited and the police made fickle promises to be more vigilant. Soon, those unaffected retreated back to the comfort of their homes while the children of Kasur were left to face their nightmares alone. This was the atmosphere of the village, its wounds still open, when another terrible event shook the town once again. On Jan. 4, 2018, six-year old Zainab Ansari was racing with her friend towards their Quran recital, but never made it to class. She was found a few days later in a garbage pile near her home, kidnapped, raped, and murdered. Her parents, blissfully performing the Umrah – the Islamic religious pilgrimage – in Saudi Arabia, were unaware that their world was being turned upside down.
The case of Zainab Ansari is just one of countless child rapes that end in murder in Pakistan. Every society has its varying social stigmas it refuses to properly tackle and eradicate and this is one of Pakistan’s. Stories like Zainab’s have almost become background noise, like the rush of traffic or the call of street vendors; sounds people have learned to ignore. Mental health, domestic abuse, religious intolerance, and child abuse are just some of the ever-present examples. While Pakistan continues to progress as a nation, it still has a long way to go in battling such taboos.
In the South Asian peninsula, one of these great taboos is related to child sexual abuse. Sahil, a renowned Non Governmental Organisation (NGO) in Pakistan dedicated to handling cases of child abuse, has reported a total of 270 cases of child abuse in Kasur in the past three years. This staggering statistic is evidence of the society’s inability to let go of the taboos it has clung to. Countless abuse cases turn to dust in the scrapbook of unspoken stories, unwavered by the cries of all the innocent children that echo across the land. Despite such a blatantly terrible atmosphere, the social barriers to discussing and reporting such cases still stand strong.
The extremist conservatives will provide vague justifications by referencing false religious beliefs, while others will associate the topic of sexual abuse with that of family honor. The latter excuse is highly prevalent in areas where almost every social taboo is seen as a consequence of a damaged honor. The collective society would much rather hide the truth than confront it because the reality, in their eyes, somehow damages the honor of the families. And so, in the name of such excuses, these atrocities perpetuate themselves. The police force will remain complicit and continue stacking their file tower high with cases of rapes and kidnappings, as long as their pockets remain full of money and the power remains with them. Many NGOs have objected to the lack of resources provided to and investigations done by the local police, blaming them for weak prosecution and early release of undeserving sex offenders. While there is a vast inefficiency in the present criminal justice system, the problem also stems from the lack of reports because rape cases often never even reach the police. Some police officials claim to have had encounters with rapists but the results of these are not substantial, nor have they had any large effect.
Everyone has grown accustomed to this way of handling things, so some cases are prioritized while others are ignored. Rape is a common narrative, with almost 11 children abused every day. While many NGOs work tirelessly to eradicate these cases, they still lack the proper governmental backing. All available figures handling the cases of rape, abuse, kidnapping and such are only recorded by these NGOs. In official government documents, there isn’t much substantial statistical evidence regarding these incidents. Officials tend to stay away from such crimes because of the social thought process behind them. This is because the majority of the time, abuse has its roots with close family members or friends. Such was the case with Zainab, as her rapist was a close family neighbor. In the investigation, Closed Circuit Television (CCTV) footage showed her walking willfully beside a man, indicating her familiarity with him. Cases like Zainab’s are usually deemed ‘ghar ka mamla’, or a matter of the house, by many authorities. Iftikhar Mubarik, a child rights activist in Pakistan, has been tirelessly working towards the establishment of a child rights commission. He sums up the attitude of the government when he rightfully states that, “at the governmental level there are verbal or on paper policies, but the lack of a child rights commission proves that the government is non-serious.” As these abuses continued to be swept under the rug, people fell back on using customs of honor and family to justify these occurrences. This was the status quo until the day the body of Zainab woke the country up and prompted a massive response.
After Kasur’s child pornography scandal subsided, it left behind the residue of pain that stitched itself into the people. That pain provided the spark for the beginning of a forceful resistance. Youth movements and the work of Sahil created a larger sense of awareness all over. Students, children and parents alike, began coming forward with their own various stories. Suddenly, it was not just Kasur that revealed its horrors, but the entire country. The towers of files stacked high by the police officials were beginning to tumble down. The need to educate children on how to distinguish unwanted sexual advances started becoming a priority as horrified parents realized that their child could be the next victim. The reality of sexual abuse stemming from within the family rather than from strangers shook families into a sense of awareness. The reaction to Zainab’s murder triggered a widespread backlash against the police force, the deep rooted social stigmas, and the taboos stemming from centuries-old thought.
On Feb. 17, 2018, Pakistan finally broke through the ironclad shackles of stigma as it caught and sentenced the man responsible for Zainab’s rape and murder. Public outrage prompted swift investigation. Before Zainab, around 12 girls had been previously raped and murdered within the same radius. Their autopsy results indicated a common DNA sample, indicating the work of the same serial rapist and killer. Riots broke out around the country, demanding justice for Zainab and prompting the police further into their search by beginning DNA matching with multiple suspects. As public anger grew, so did the efforts put into the investigation. These efforts yielded the aforementioned CCTV footage of Zainab with a man, later identified as Mohammed Imran. He was arrested and his DNA was found to be a complete match to the DNA found on Zainab, alongside eight of the 12 other murdered girls. Irfan confessed to the rapes and murders, stating that he had lured Zainab out on the pretext of taking her home. Government prosecutor Ehtisham Qadir Shah announced in a press conference that the court sentenced Muhammad Imran to death for his crimes after a five-day trial period on the matter.
Zainab’s murder, and the capture of her murderer, had an astounding effect on the country. In her cries mingled the cries of countless before her, echoing into the hearts of the entire nation. It provoked a massive protest movement, and showed the hidden zeal of the Pakistani people. The picture of her in a pink jacket with beautiful smiling eyes triggered an immense surge in the country. Every mother felt the pain, every father felt the rage, and every child felt the loss. It saw the rebirth of the society as it shed its ignorance and tackled the issue in a way that stands as an example for the times to come. The attention given to the most vulnerable people in the society shows the immense step the country has taken to protect the rights of its citizens.
It is hard to look for silver linings when the clouds are so dark, it is hard to think of sunshine when the sun never rises, but this incident brought with it something remarkable. It marked the beginning of a new thought, a new fighting spirit, sparking a fire in the people. It gave people the courage to speak out, to overcome their fear of stigma, to break free from their shackles and move towards a realization that the handcuffs only stay on because they let them. The cultural stigmas grounded in century-old practices and customs is suddenly being challenged.
In villages such as Kasur, there is a great deal of conservatism stemming from a lack of education and opportunities. The people living in rural areas are subjected to unfair treatment because it is hard for them to have their voices heard. The gap between cities and villages has historically been large but it is slowly being closed. The public outrage is prompting the government to realize its duties towards the people. Their inefficiency has motivated NGOs and media activists to work even harder. Because of them, Zainab’s stories reached the ears of the entire country, causing the large backlash. The amount of public anger showed that the people are not indifferent, but rather unaware of these problems. This ignorance is made worse by lack of resources and education. Authorities in the movement also provide an optimistic outlook. The people of Pakistan are ready to fight and they just want to be heard. This incident allowed the people to call out what they see as wrong and have their words heard and put into action. The arrest and punishment of Imran is a symbol of hope for countless citizens. It stands as an example of justice that the Pakistani authorities tirelessly brought about and hopefully will continue to.
This year, this small country experienced the rippling effects of a social movement. Parents became more wary of their surroundings and realized that rape is not just a tragic news story, but, in fact, the reality of many children. This has led to an increased sexual education in school. There is a surge in the state’s capacity for handling such crimes. While hard evidence of an improvement in the country’s criminal justice system is still hard to come by, it is important to realize the positive emotional and social impacts of this incident.
The capture of Imran has created a greater zeal as the people and police force realize that it is necessary to capture such criminals. The mass disillusionment with the justice system has lifted as the people finally learn to trust the system with their own cases. The authorities are less reluctant to take up such cases, and there is hope that they will continue to work for any other such victim just as hard they did for Zainab. The social barriers, while not fully removed, are not standing as high and mighty as they did before.
The country woke up from a slumber, stretched and turned, and shook off the grime covering it. Zainab marks a legacy, a warrior symbol of the nation’s awakening. In a country seemingly silent, the people are burning up with a need to bring justice. This was shown in the way the Kasur case was handled by authorities, in the masses that swarmed the streets demanding justice, and the efforts by the authorities. One step towards a hundred more, Pakistan is well on its way to turning the tides and taking on the deepest, darkest demons of its streets. The rape of Zainab hit the country, buckling it down to its knees, but the nation got back up to fight. The girl with the green eyes and a pink jacket struck a fire into the hearts of the people, a need to fight for every child crying into the night, for every parent to never see their child’s coffin and for the country to stand its ground on century-old taboos, breaking out of them and surviving even in the harshest of trials.