Pakistan’s bravest woman finally lost the battle that she single-handedly fought with the rest of Pakistan. Eight years and 10 months down the road, the Supreme Court of the country handed down its 82-page judgement, that may or may not withstand the touchstone of justice, but it surely conveyed a powerful, startling and unambiguous message to the people of Pakistan. An unwritten message that the story of Mukhtaran Mai’s gang rape was not entirely true, that it appeared a case of delusion and that she perhaps suffered from bouts of lacunar amnesia. The rapists were, in fact, men of great honour and tradition. Five out of six of them immediately deserved to be set free and allowed to go home dancing and celebrating, so that their ‘honourable panchayats’ could sponsor yet more opportunities for raping the weak and helpless. The state institutions were essentially there to protect and patronise this politically sanctioned and culturally accepted act of bravery. The women of Pakistan must continue to suffer, while the state must always find a way out for those who indulge in this and other similar crimes.
The conclusion arrived at by the court has saddened the hearts of many who built their hopes for a better tomorrow on a judicial system that could differentiate between narrow clerical procedures and higher principles of justice, or at least between right and brazen wrong. Why must this be the only country in the world where a jirga (a medieval but officially condoned version of a village high court) can order or supervise the rape of a woman? Why must it be the only country where a high court and a supreme court would find nothing wrong with a woman formally presented for rape to four men in front of a large gathering and consider it judicially appropriate to set the culprits free? The fact that insufficient evidence and faulty police investigation were a hindrance in the carriage of justice was acknowledged but overlooked in favour of the rapists.
The assault on Mukhtaran Mai exposed the vulnerability and helplessness of every woman, just as the decision of the court lends a question mark to the dignity, sanity and security of every citizen of this country. For the survivors of this much patronised crime, the judgement considerably reduces any future expectations of justice from within the judicial system. On the contrary, it reinforces the path adopted by the Meerwala jirga as a preferred method of conflict resolution. Why was it not possible for the court to order a reinvestigation, just as it has done so in many recent cases? Why was the village jirga not taken to task for proposing and patronising such despicable deals? Why were the policemen not held accountable for conducting a faulty investigation or failing to produce the real culprits? These and many other questions point towards a systemic failure of our judicial system. The $350 million ‘access to justice’ loan (read gimmick) may have benefitted many consultants and middlemen, but has not taken us an inch forward on the road to justice. If it takes eight years and 10 months to come to a conclusion in such a high-profile landmark case, the courts are not likely to be radiating hope or confidence for ordinary citizens. A court case is now synonymous with an unending ritual of ‘next hearings’ and a pocketful of fee for the legal fraternity that is normally happy to let the show go on forever.
Mukhtaran Mai symbolised the struggle of ordinary people against the tyranny of an unjust system. The state institutions, however, have collectively connived to prove her wrong. The political parties have shown no interest in abolishing jirgas, supporting women, punishing rapists, abolishing practices like karo-kari or stopping hatemongering from religious platforms.
It is time for the people of Pakistan to demand and push for major structural reforms in the criminal justice process. Can the setback suffered be converted into a sustained and organised effort for judicial reform, instead of the knee-jerk emotional responses of anger, press statements and protests?
Published in The Express Tribune, April 23rd, 2011.
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