People participate in a demonstration to condemn the rape on a deserted highway in Pakistan Image Credit: AP

Pakistanis are not new to national shocks. Floods, earthquakes, terrorist massacres, horrific crimes against women, children and vulnerable men — the list of soul-searing news is long. But there is something extra tragic about the last week’s roadside rape of a mother of three.

To being with, the horror itself is unspeakable. The victim’s car ran out of gas around midnight and as she sent distress calls out to the Motorway Police, the rapists descended on her, dragged her out of the car and after committing the beastly crime, left her in the thicket along with her kids next to the road’s hard shoulder.

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They also took away money, jewellery and credit cards. After long dreadful hours, she was found by the local police in medically critical condition holding on to her children. One account of her first engagement with the police suggested that she asked the rescuers to shoot her dead as she did not want to face anyone after her ordeal.

It beggars the imagination what she must have gone through in that terrible moment of misfortune and what deep scars her children must have suffered being eyewitnesses to the tragedy.

Pakistan’s political conscience wakes up only when it is politically convenient; for the rest of the time it remains happily comatose — just like the security and rescue system was when a helpless woman was being raped on the roadside in front of her children under the open Pakistan sky

- Syed Talat Hussain

What followed was sadder at another scale. The head of the city police in whose partial jurisdiction the heinous event took place used the classic victim-blaming argument to explain the circumstances of the crime by saying that the woman, a resident of France visiting her relatives, should not have travelled at night, and that she should have checked her gas meter before setting out.

In another botched-up attempt at defending his position, he went to great lengths comparing the difference between France and Pakistan’s social make-up advising all “Pakistani mothers and sisters of the country to be careful”.

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Insinuating the victim

For a police officer, who is also supervising the investigation, to insinuate that the victim somehow caused her own woes and thus mitigate the intent and purpose of the crime is morally reprehensible and legally disallowed.

As the outrage spread and more and more voices asked for his transfer, the Imran Khan government did the unthinkable: it deputed its powerful advisers and ministers to defend the police officer. “You did not understand what he meant”, said one.

“He did not break any law by making this statement”, said another. Chief minister of the Punjab, the province where it all happened, refused to condemn him in a friendly television interview even though the host repeated his question four times.

It was only in the face of the rising tide of resentment and anger that he grudgingly admitted three days later that the police officer must explain his position. Government representatives insist that the police officer, who still holds the post, is a competent person.

His official records tell an exact opposite story, however. He is marked ‘B’ in quality of work and ‘C’ in integrity. The national selection and promotion board recently found him unfit to be promoted to the senior rank.

For the government to rally behind the victim-blaming and controversial policeman and not throw its full weight behind the victim’s family could only have divided the national discourse about this national shame.

Unlike the past when most such events brought hearts and minds together in grief or in demanding swift action, this time gutters of gross speculation started to flow.

One twitter account holder with 42,000 plus followers asked what if the woman was a blackmailer and the event was a conspiracy against the Imran government and its favourite officers. Another one threatened a female television host with rape if she continued to write in favour of the victim.

Thousands of posts in support of the policeman flooded the social media realm, making it look as if he and not the raped woman was the aggrieved party.

Not a pretty picture 

For a country over-conscious of its international image and whose powerful civil and military rulers generally go blue in the face complaining about how the world does not see the good side of the nation, this is not a pretty picture to portray.

Nor should a government that has made a career out of mentioning “Islamic values” in its official communications be seen to be going against the grain of decency and commonsense by encouraging the idea that a woman driving on motorway with her children is easy pickings for rapists — simply because they step out of their homes after dusk.

And yet this is precisely the message that the government has sent out not just to the world but to its own citizens as well.

This is in part because deeply-entrenched misogynistic attitudes pervade the echelons of social, political and economic power but remain hidden behind a façade of gender equality and endorsement of the global conventions on the rights of women.

But this is primarily because politics and not principles drives leadership’s commitment to what they profess in public. When two years ago a minor child, Zainab Ansari, was raped and brutally murdered, the present government’s top leaders, then in the opposition, led a groundswell of public emotion and demanded that the chief minister of the province should resign.

Imran Khan issued special video message to express his sympathy for the victim’s family. The army chief offered the army’s help in investigation and forensics.

Pakistan’s political conscience

The home of the victim became the most visited place by the high and the mighty who all declared that they would build an impregnable administrative and legislative wall against sick predators. But that was then. It was done to show the then government in poor light and make the most of an election year.

In sharp contrast to that tidal wave of big words and strong slogans, there is deathly silence in tackling repeats of such crimes against women and minors. Since Zainab’s rape and murder dozens of similar incidents have happened without prompting calls for soul searching and pre-emptive action.

One of the two on-the-run suspects in the motorway crime identified through DNA tests has a devilish history: he was involved in a mother-daughter rape during another dacoity but got off with a light sentence. Parallel to this tragic case, there was news of another minor’s rape in Karachi, and a woman’s rape at her home, reportedly also in front of her children.

There is no debate on this dark side of national life, only intermittent fits of anger, transient remorse, pointless chest-beating and politics — lots of politics. In the case of the motorway rape victim, Prime Minister Imran Khan did not even consider it worth a tweet. This after all had happened on his government’s watch.

The symbolism of this apathy and opportunism is damning. Clearly, Pakistan’s political conscience wakes up only when it is politically convenient; for the rest of the time it remains happily comatose — just like the security and rescue system was when a helpless woman was being raped on the roadside in front of her children under the open Pakistan sky.

Syed Talat Hussain is a prominent Pakistani journalist and writer. He tweets at @TalatHussain12