People take part in a demonstration to condemn the incident of rape on a deserted highway, in Islamabad, Pakistan, Friday, Sept. 11, 2020
People take part in a demonstration to condemn the incident of rape on a deserted highway, in Islamabad, Pakistan, Friday, Sept. 11, 2020 Image Credit: AP

She went missing at 7am on Friday, September 4, from Karachi’s PIB Colony. On Sunday, September 6, her dead body was found. The body was in a gunny sack. It was almost unrecognisable. The decayed body that looked as if it was charred was found on a pile of garbage in a vacant piece of land in the Essa Nagri area. According to the post-mortem report of Jinnah Postgraduate Medical Centre, the victim had signs of rape. The cause of death was a blow to head.

She was five years old. Her name was Marwa.

Marwa went to buy biscuits from a nearby shop. She never returned.

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Pakistan, still unable to forget the 2018 rape and murder of the seven-year-old Zainab Ansari of Kasur, and other cases of rape and murder of children in Kasur and other cities of Pakistan, were jolted into the terrible realisation that even the hanging of the rapist of Zainab had not acted as a deterrent in the occurrence of incidents of violent sexual abuse and murder of children.

In March 2020, Pakistan’s parliament passed the Zainab Alert, Response and Recovery Bill, a historic law that mandates life imprisonment for culprits of child abuse. “The country’s first national child abuse legislation also requires police to register a case of abuse within two hours of a child being reported missing. Law enforcement officers must also complete their investigations into individual cases within three months.”

According to Sahil, a child rights organisation, in 2019, media reported “2,846 cases” of child sexual or other abuse. “The major crime categories of the reported cases are 778 abductions, 405 missing children, 348 sodomy cases, 279 rape cases, 210 attempted rape, 205 gang sodomy, 115 gang rape.”

Raping a child is the lowest of humanity. Hitting that child on the head with the intent to kill is the lowest of humanity. Putting her bludgeoned body in a gunny sack and throwing it on a heap of garage is the lowest of humanity.

- Mehr Tarar

2,846 children, girls and boys. These are the reported cases in one year. I don’t even have the courage to think of the countless cases of sexual abuse of children that remain unreported.

Raping a child is the lowest of humanity. Hitting that child on the head with the intent to kill is the lowest of humanity. Putting her bludgeoned body in a gunny sack and throwing it on a heap of garage is the lowest of humanity. I could copy and paste these words a million times, but nothing I do would ever be an apt condemnation of a crime that defies normal human comprehension. Men rape children. Men kill children. Humanity is shaken. Humanity demands action. Some men are hanged. More children are raped and killed. Humanity weeps an ocean. Nothing changes. The cycle of unimaginable cruelty continues in its unending darkness.

Rape of a mother of three

On Thursday, September 10, the news of another case of rape jolted the entire country once again. On Wednesday, at about 3am, on the Lahore-Sialkot motorway, in the Gujjurpura area of Lahore, a gang rape took place. The rape victim was a woman, mother of three. She was beaten and raped in front of her children. In this story of unimaginable violence children were spared from sexual abuse. But in this story that hits like a sledgehammer to the gut, children were forced to witness what no child must ever see even in their worst nightmare. The rape of their mother.

According to the FIR registered by a cousin of the victim, “My cousin named ---- told me that her car had run out of petrol. She informed me of her location. I advised her to call 130 [Motorway] helpline. When we [cousin and his friend] reached the location [from Gujranwala] around 4am, we saw that the window on the driver’s side was shattered, there was blood on the door, and the car was empty. We started to look for her. Then we saw her and her children on the mud road between the motorway and the forest. She told us that when she was waiting for help, two men armed with a pistol and thick sticks approached her car. Breaking the window glass, they dragged her [out of the car] and her children to the forest and raped her…”

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According to the FIR, she described the men to be aged between 30-35, and that she could recognise them if she were to see them again. Both were identically dressed in brown clothes.

On Thursday, Twitter and prime time talk show hosts displayed justified anger at the insensitive words of Lahore’s Capital City Police Officer Umar Sheikh. Speaking to a TV channel, CCPO Sheikh expressed his “surprise” at the woman’s decision to travel alone at night, the choice of the mother of three to take a road that had very little traffic at that time of the night, and that too without checking the petrol gauge. The categorical condemnation of his words echoed a unanimous rejection of his thoughtless commentary on a brutal rape.

The victim blaming never changes its jaded, cynical routine. It never gets old. It just changes its perpetrators.

Outside Twitter, almost every Pakistani will endorse the CCPO's words: why did she go out at night? Why did she go out at night alone? These questions and many others lile them are the representation of the categorical acceptance of male vileness and female "majboori" to accept that men will do bad things, and ergo it is the “duty” of women to be “safe.”

CCPO Sheikh’s poor choice of words is a stark manifestation of the entrenched societal mindsets, the immovable patriarchy as the "protection" of females, and the “vulnerability” of the "unchaperoned" female. Outright insensitivity and absence of empathy of police officials and investigators to rape victims is not a terribleness limited to Pakistan, it is a global phenomenon. A great deal of work is being done to change it: institutional resetting of attitudes, studies, well-researched documentaries of real-life victims, dramatisation of real-life stories in films and TV serials.

The lone witness who didn't stop to help

There was one witness of the incident of the woman being beaten and dragged on the road. He was in his car on that dark, deserted road, and he saw her. She ran to the middle of the road, and raised her arm asking for help. The only witness didn't stop. He did nothing to help her. He did call the police and informed them of what he had seen. He cried the next day, according to his statement to a TV channel. He wished he had done something to help her.

What the hell did he think was happening to that woman at 2:45 am as she was being dragged and slapped, screaming and bleeding?

On September 10, at 9:30 pm, Abb Takk’s Fereeha Idrees, a veteran journalist, and one of the top prime time talk show hosts of Pakistan, posted a series of tweets. She spoke to the rape survivor and her family friends. Every word of those tweets is a stab in the soul of anyone who identifies themselves as human. Feereha tweeted:

“Just had a very sad conversation [with] the victim [of the] Lahore rape incident. The story is heart-breaking and gives goosebumps. @ImranKhanPTI and @UsmanAKBuzdar must show zero tolerance in this case.

The educated girl has travelled on this route frequently in the past. The woman was at a family friend's home. They advised her repeatedly not to go at that hour, but she had travelled that route regularly, finding it safe. What came as a surprise was the finishing of petrol. She immediately called the motorway police emergency line when [her] car stopped. The police took her location. She was aware of her situation, so she locked her windows and doors.

Two men (demons) appeared out of nowhere and started threatening her, they had long sticks and heavy stones. She screamed but could not move her car, they smashed the car windows. They beat her up badly. In the fight, they used punches and fists and beat up the kids. The beasts grabbed the little children and ran away, she ran after them for the sake of her children.

The motorway police finally reached and found her car with blood and smashed windows. They then informed the local police. The woman was badly bruised, swollen feet and bleeding head, and so were the children.

The family who went to retrieve them from the police station said they were all muddy and completely terrorised. They did not talk for hours. The children were numb. ‘We told her to be strong for her children or children would never recover,’ said the family friend.

I just want to say to the #CCPOLahore that now his ‘surprise’ should subside that it was a person who was caught in a tragic situation, it was his police's duty to help her.”

A few hours later, Fereeha tweeted again, September 11, 2:30am:

Acutely traumatised

“Some more details on the sad #motorwayincident. The woman called the emergency number #130 and spoke to them giving them her location. They gave her a local number where she was told to call for help. She called that number and gave them the location too. She then waited for help.

She is obviously too traumatised to recollect everything. Yet she said it was a long wait. She is of the opinion that she waited for at least an hour. She also said her car has special type of windows. It was next to impossible for an outsider to tell [that] she was alone in the car. When the men appeared, they headed straight for her car. They were also carrying a gun.

One of them carried her two-year-old as they dragged her along. She tried running away once and waved at a car [passing by]. She said she was sure that the car had stopped, and [that] she was relieved.

Sadly, no help came from the car. She said that at that point she was only concerned for her children and trying with all her might to save and protect them. They beat up her children severely. The children were bleeding and so was she.

The shoes of the kids were sprawled on the road. As they were being dragged to the wilderness, she said that she still tried to console her children by assuring them that she was alright, at which [point] one of the men hit her head with the gun.

She was reciting duas and making her kids do the same. The kids were also reciting prayers.

While the family was being dragged like sacrificial animals to the altar, they dropped the bag they had stolen from her. The bag had her gold bracelet worth Rs 5 lakh, Rs one lakh cash and other valuables. The monsters held her on gunpoint as they went looking for the bag. [They] found it.

She said that their intention was clear. She also said that she would not be surprised if they had been tipped off. They were absolutely sure of what they planned to do. Her cell had fallen down, under her seat. They never asked for it. The phone was found later from under her car seat.

When she called the family where she had been invited for dinner, she was inconsolable. When her close friend came to pick her up, she was surrounded by the police. They were not letting her go without a medical examination. The family wanted to keep it quiet. The family, under extreme stress pleaded with the police to let them go. Her friend described her as ‘scared like a chicken’, her eyes were popping out, she was shivering, she refused to even recognise her friend and family.

It could not be sadder and heart breaking than this. The police insisted on a medical report, which of course is a professional requirement. The woman said that she was promised confidentiality by the senior officials at the [venue of the] incident. She was heartbroken to see that her information had been leaked.

The woman has not eaten until now. She neither spoke nor could say much the first day. She is speaking a bit today but it's an extremely difficult time.

Now is the time for Pakistan to get up and unite in a singular movement [so that] those who are responsible must be punished.

There was a moment after she changed and sat down on the floor. The family said she cried and cried, with her screams reaching the highest peaks. ‘None of us had the heart to stop her’, the friend told me with tears in her eyes. ‘She doesn't say anything, but her eyes say it all.’

To the robbed dreams in eyes, we can say nothing. Yet, I gave the girl one message. ‘The whole of Pakistan is with you; you have nothing to be ashamed of. We will make sure those responsible for your pain are punished.’ Let us all unite for this. Pls.”

According to the police records, in the first six months of 2020, “As many as 1,005 incidents of women subjected to rape were reported.” How many are unreported, no one knows.

Rape is not a mere four-letter word. Rape is a lifelong resetting of everything that is private, fiercely protected, inviolable. Rape is not a stigma on the victim, the survivor. Rape is a collective question mark on the morality of a society. Rape is not the shame of a child, a girl, a woman. Rape is the mirror to the rottenness of a system. Rape is not the izzat ka lutna of a female. Rape is the dishonour of every man who lays a harmful finger on a female. Rape even when it is not fatal acts as an assassin of that indescribably personal part of the victim that no amount of therapy or love ever brings back to life. Rape is not merely an attack on the body. Rape is a violation of so many boundaries it is one of those darkest acts of humans that defy any justification. Rape is so many things there is no single way to encapsulate its soul-altering effect.

As I write before fajr on September 11, memories of pain I had locked so deep within me I had forgotten it still haunted every part of my being take me to the 18-year-old me who went through the hell of brutal sexual violence. That terrified teenager lurks in every step that I did not take, in every path that I avoided, in every heartache that I tried to protect myself from, in every broken dream that twisted like a jagged knife, in every shattered relationship that bled me with its million little shards.

Thinking of the woman on that dark deserted road with her three terrified, traumatised, children, the image of her sitting on the floor wailing, today my entire being keened again: NO.

Mehr Tarar, Special to Gulf News-1592296810288