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Opinion

June 14, 2018

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A question of judgment

The recent judgment issued by the Lahore High Court (LHC) in the case of Khadija Siddiqi, the young woman who was stabbed 23 times in May 2016 when she had gone to pick her younger sister up from school on Davis Road in Lahore, raises a number of questions about our society and the manner in which it operates.

Khadija, after surviving her injuries and waging a long struggle for justice, states that the assailant was her class fellow, Shah Hussain, son of a senior lawyer. Based on her and her younger sister’s testimony, Shah Hussain was initially jailed for seven years by a judicial magistrate for carrying out the murderous attack in broad daylight. The sentence was reduced to five years earlier this year by a Lahore district and sessions court. Now the LHC has declared that he should be set free, arguing that the prosecution had failed to provide sufficient evidence. The injuries inflicted on Khadija are apparently not enough. The chief justice of Pakistan immediately took a suo motu notice of the matter.

It is hoped that Khadija, who has already been waiting for over two years – even having to sit for exams in the same hall as Shah Hussain – will eventually get justice. After all, controlling crime depends upon setting precedents and, by doing so, sending out a message to people in society that they are protected by the law and the country’s system. But even if this happens there are some disturbing elements to the case. Khadija’s character has been questioned, essentially on the basis that she did not report the harassment she accused Shah Hussain of.

The fact is that millions of women and girls are harassed every day in our society. This happens through unwanted phone calls, social media messages, catcalls or other kinds of unsolicited attention. Very few victims report such cases, to avoid both embarrassment and a situation where their families become alarmed. They simply tolerate this harassment in silence. The comments about Khadija’s character in the LHC judgment have set a dangerous example.

We also know that attached to this case is the matter of influence. Being a son of a senior lawyer Shah Hussain has always claimed he would never be punished. Sadly, his prediction may yet prove to be accurate. The immunity that influential individuals enjoy from the force of law has been illustrated in other cases as well, including in the case of Shahzeb Khan, killed in December 2012. His murderers had almost escaped punishment. There are numerous other examples being reported from all our cities and many smaller towns and villages. True justice, it appears, exists only for some, and is completely unequal in its application.

The practice of judging the ‘character’ or motive of girls and women is also extremely well-entrenched in our patriarchal society. Only when over 70 girls taking their intermediate science exams complained about the molestation they experienced at the hands of the examiner during their practical exam, was some notice taken by the college they attended. Initially, the girls were asked by women staff members present in the room to remain silent in order to avoid losing marks. The university administration too simply remained silent even when the girls and their male peers who had witnessed the multiple incidents complained. It was through a social media post of a particularly brave student that the incident came out in the public sphere. Since then, other girls have also come forward saying the same examiner had also molested and harassed them during previous exams, in earlier years.

The Federal Board of Intermediate and Secondary Education has promised to conduct an inquiry, but like many other inquiries in the past there is danger that this inquiry too will lead nowhere at all. There is also a risk that despite the promises made the college will not follow up on the matter, following a tradition that has been established before.

What is perhaps most telling are the comments on social media pages that appear below the posts of the teenage students who spoke out about their own experiences. People suggested that the girls should have immediately taken action, perhaps by beating up the examiner, ignoring the fact that only when the 70 odd students put together their stories after the exam did they realise that they were not alone in facing the unwanted attention and inappropriate touching. It is obviously difficult to decide on taking a collective action when each student is at her own examination table. This is all the more true when the female teacher present in the room who, it appears from anecdotal evidence, may have known about the examiner’s reputation strongly advised the girls against speaking out.

This culture of silence has created immense damage in our society. The failure to bring predators like the examiner, now accused of multiple offences in the past too, to justice indicates an attitude of connivance or acceptance by universities, colleges and examination boards. The examiner should have been identified, punished or at least removed from the list of examiners a very long time ago.

It is also important to remember that the actions of a woman can never justify harassment, molestation or rape. This applies to other countries as well as Pakistan. When a person commits an offence listed in a penal code as a crime, he, or indeed she, is guilty of it regardless of the circumstances or how the victim acted, was dressed or behaved. There would be very few exceptions, if any, in which this basic rule could be put aside. Women around the world have struggled to establish this principle.

It is encouraging that girls and young women in Pakistan are now also attempting to do the same. In this sense, social media, for all its flaws, has opened up windows for them giving them the power to speak out to the world rather than confining their complaints to either their homes or offices. Such forums also allow other victims to step forward and offer support to a victim who has dared to describe her experience.

We hope that incidents that have drawn widespread attention will result in some degree of change. We have seen that to achieve this women and even girls who are merely children have had to take matters into their own hands. But by doing so they have perhaps emboldened others. Keeping unsavoury events that take place every day in our society under wraps has not been helpful. While a law exists on harassment within the workplace, very few women are aware of it, and even those engaged in better paid office jobs fear discrimination and hostile comments should they take the initiative to complain.

Laws are not enough on their own. When we address issues of morality it is these incidents that deserve to be on the top of the pyramid. There are multiple examples everywhere, many of which have never been heard about in the public sphere or perhaps even spoken of by the victims. Our law and order system needs to set good examples and precedents, so do those who run educational institutions, offices, factories or other public spaces. Only then will things change and women such as Khadija or the intermediate students will have hope of gaining the justice they deserve.

The writer is a freelance columnist and former newspaper editor.

Email: kamilahyat@hotmail.com

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