When a group of tribal elders becomes the judge and jury and passes a sentence of gang rape against a young girl to shame her family, the outcome can only be inhuman. In June this year, in remote Meerwala village, 610 kms from the capital Islamabad, young Mukhtiar Mai wept and pleaded for mercy when she heard the verdict. But the 18-year-old was dragged into a mud hut and gang raped, while a crowd of a few hundred stood outside.
The ordeal of the impoverished lower caste Gujjar family started when Mastoi tribesmen, of a higher social standing, accused 12-year-old Abdul Shakoor (Mukhtiar's brother) of an illicit liaison with a 22-year-old woman. The boy was beaten, locked up, and a meeting of the Panchayat (local council) called to avenge the family honor.
The hapless family argued that the boy was too young to indulge in an affair, but to no avail. Farid, the boy's father, was told to bring one of his five daughters - failing which all the women in his family would be raped. With no option left, Farid brought Mukhtiar, his eldest daughter, to bear the brunt of the verdict.
The incident remained buried for over a week and the state machinery moved only when a local newspaper reported it. Countrywide protests by human rights activists followed, highlighting the unfairness of 'justice' meted out by the powerful tribesmen.
The recent incident is not unusual in the tribal zones of Pakistan, where the 'edicts' of tribal heads are supreme, and violence against women, including killing them in the name of honor, is common. The majority of these cases remain unknown, and only a few like this one catch the attention of the outside world.
In an identical incident in 1984, in Nawabpur village in the same region, tribal heads of another tribe dragged about half a dozen women of a lower caste out of their homes, tore off their clothes, and paraded them naked. In order to avenge the family honor, they were also flogged in the local bazaar. The incident was sparked off when a boy from a low caste family was charged with falling in love with a woman from the upper caste.
Given the high prevalence of honor crimes, the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) conducted a study. The Commission found that between 2000 and 2001, a woman was raped every two hours and that nearly 1,000 innocent women are killed every year in the name of honor. The study found that excuses as flimsy as a woman sitting next to a man other than a relative could justify a killing.
The social sanction extended to honor crimes is equally shocking. "The real tragedy in this (Mukhtiar's) case is not only the fact that she was brutally assaulted, but that no one from the hundreds of onlookers objected or reported the incident to the police," says HRCP Chairman Afrasiyab Khattak.
Given the stigma attached to rape in Pakistani society, a woman needs a lot of courage to come out openly and fight her case. Says sociologist Iqbal Jatoi, "Many rape victims try to hush up the incident because they feel if it becomes public, nobody would marry them."
Some like Mukhtiar, however, are determined to fight the injustice. "I relive my pain when I recall the ordeal," Mukhtiar says, but she adds that she is encouraged to go public in order to expose these men so that they dare not repeat this on any other woman. Mukhtiar says that she chose to fight back after she heard that another girl in a nearby village committed suicide after being raped by two tribesmen. "Although we continue to receive threats from the influential Mastoi tribesmen who scoff at the police, I am no longer scared."
Naeem Mirza, Court Director of the Legislative Watch Program of Aurat Foundation, a women's rights organization, says that this incident not only shows the failure of the State, but also indicates the disturbing pattern of violence against women.
Pakistan's current legal system is a combination of Islamic and British common law but, in addition to this, a parallel system of justice prevails in the conservative tribal belts across the country, where tribal heads decide cases ranging from murder to theft.
Although the government officially banned the tribal system in the early 1970s, it continues to exist, and State machinery is impotent against the might of tribal chieftains. "In these tribal zones, the law of 'an eye for an eye' is the order of the day and even the general public does not trust the state legal system," says Ali Asghar, a senior advocate in Pakistan.
According to this parallel system of justice, whenever any crime takes place, the disputing parties call for a Panchayat and the tribal heads are asked to decide the case. The Panchayat determines the punishment to be inflicted on the basis of tribal rule. Anyone who does not abide by the decision of the Panchayat is subjected to punitive measures. And anyone who defies these decisions takes a grave risk, for the tribal jury can impose powerful sanctions to enforce its judgment.
The concept of honor forms the basis of the Panchayat decisions. "Honor makes men kill. Honor is a value in most tribal societies which is stronger even than religion," says Noor Naz, a human rights activist.
This is the first time the government has taken a Panchayat to task for its decision to inflict gang rape on a young girl. The countrywide protests by women's rights groups and human rights activists could possibly have pressurized the government to make Panchayats more accountable.
Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Sheikh Riaz Ahmed, also took note of the incident: he asked police officials to appear before him and explain their inaction. "The attack against the innocent girl on the instructions of the tribal elders is the most blatant violation of human rights and human dignity in 21st century," Ahmed reportedly remarked.
The notice of the Pakistani apex court was followed by the military government's order to take stern action against the police officials involved in the apparent cover-up and their failure to avert the crime.
Mukhtiar was also given Rs 500,000 (1US$=Rs60) by the government.
In the wake of the pressure built up against the local administration, three of the rapists and four of the men who ordered her rape and forced her to walk home naked were also arrested.
While action in this particular case has been positive, rights activists are demanding that the government put an immediate end to punishment by tribal councils. Says Saeed Ahmed, a human rights campaigner in Karachi, "There have been a large number of human rights violations in the name of tribal law, but in the majority of these cases, the culprits are freed because they have money and political influence and can therefore buy justice. Public memory is too short and soon nobody will remember the case."
It is perhaps for this reason that courageous young women like Mukhtiar have chosen to speak out - in the hope that breaking the silence will ensure an end to honor crimes.