FEW concepts have as much gravitas as justice. But as the disqualification of Nawaz Sharif has shown, in Pakistan, even justice can appear ambivalent. Is it justice if it is seen as selective? Can justice be served if it appears that dangerous precedents have been established?
While the country obsesses over the course of justice as it plays out at the highest levels, there is little capacity to consider how it is typically meted out in our country. Last week, while we awaited the Supreme Court verdict on the Panama case, reports emerged that a panchayat in Muzaffarabad, in the Multan area, ordered the rape of a 16-year-old girl to settle scores after her brother was accused of raping a 12-year-old girl. The teenager was raped allegedly before the 40-odd members of the panchayat and her parents. Several days passed before the girls’ mothers lodged FIRs, and the police began to arrest panchayat members.
Media coverage of this informal act of justice got the formal wheels of justice turning: the chief justice has taken suo motu notice of the panchayat ruling, Shahbaz Sharif has tasked an investigation committee to report on the revenge rape within a few days, and the officers at the local police station have been suspended.
Where is justice when a panchayat orders rape?
The incident highlights how the law only works for some of the people, some of the time. For the rest, the judiciary is perceived as compromised and backlogged enough to enable the power of panchayats to persist. The juxtaposition of last week’s headline-making verdicts indicates that the law of the land can be exercised in the seats of power, not at the grass roots — for the average Pakistani, the law is more rhetorical than accessible or experienced.
We are a full 15 years on from the horrifying gang rape of Mukhtar Mai, also ordered by a panchayat to avenge the actions of her brother who was accused of having an affair. Pakistan has since enacted several laws at the federal and provincial levels to outlaw panchayats and jirgas as well as progressive legislation regarding rape and so-called honour killing. Sadly, this has had little impact on practice, as evidenced by Muzaffarabad.
Last year, the hopes of women’s rights activists were raised when it decided to review Mai’s case (the court had earlier upheld the acquittal of Mai’s rapists on the grounds of insufficient evidence). A fresh judgement against Mai’s rapists would have major implications for how the judiciary determines lack of consent and may lead to a sharp increase in rape convictions. However, the review judgement on that case is still pending.
Aside from the murky issue of what justice means in Pakistan, the revenge rape reiterates how the role of the state and law-enforcement agencies blurs between the formal and informal, allowing for a cherry-picking approach when it comes to the law.
After the rapes took place, police officers and a relative of MNA Shah Mahmood Qureshi reportedly tried to serve as mediators between the two families, and proposed an ‘exchange marriage’ whereby the victims would be married to their rapists to prevent the dispute from continuing — rather than immediately arresting the perpetrators and panchayat members. What hope for justice when its servants aren’t committed to its cause?
Once the families rejected the idea of an exchange marriage, the mother of the 12-year-old victim filed her complaint in a Violence Against Women Centre in Multan, a test project inaugurated in March that includes a police station and women’s shelter and provides psychological services for victims. It is a silver lining of sorts that she could access such a shelter, and highlights the need for more state resources to protect and empower women.
However, women will start to see justice served when they begin to vote on the basis of gender issues, and make politicians accountable for their record on the same. The political elite, which is dependent on the electorate, has the power to influence patronage systems which include the police and local-level politicians. And irrespective of the messages conveyed by last week’s judicial developments with regard to the country’s highest office, the judiciary must work with other state institutions in order to see the law effectively implemented.
Commenting last year on the Supreme Court’s decision to review her case, Mai said: “If any girl was in my situation, I would tell her that getting justice is very difficult. But we, as women, should still keep raising our voices. These court systems will have to change … Mothers, sisters, daughters, if we all unite and speak out, eventually we will get justice — if not for ourselves, for future generations.” Muzaffarabad suggests more women will have to suffer before justice becomes less difficult to access for those who most need it.