KARACHI: In the discreet corner of an under-construction building, Nasir* sat on the chest of a lifeless body, thumping so hard you would expect the ribcage to break any second. His victim, 14-year-old Jamal*, was first sexually assaulted and then murdered by putting a plastic bag over his face and wrapping the elastic waistband of his own shalwar around his neck. The final blows by Nasir were to make sure Jamal breathed his last in front of his eyes and no witness was left at the crime scene.
According to non-governmental organisation War Against Rape (WAR), Nasir was a serial rapist and destroyed many lives for his sexual desires but was caught when he raped another teenager and was unsuccessful in suffocating him in the same manner.
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While Nasir is now on trial for sexual assault and murder, not many cases of sexual violence against men in Pakistan are brought to light. In our patriarchal society, there’s this widespread assumption that males are not raped but news reports and data collected by activists suggest otherwise. In this month alone, two cases of sexual assault on men were reported from Peshawar, one of which was a gang rape.
“In Pakistan, it is unacceptable that someone can rape men. Men believe they are the strongest and they can hurt others but no one can hurt them,” says Rukhsana Siddiqi, survivors’ support officer at WAR.
Cases of male rape, Siddiqi says, almost never become public because the survivor and their family don’t disclose the incident. Eighteen-year-old Ahmed* was sexually assaulted by the enemies of his father as a threat. The family publically denied the incident but confided to WAR that they will not pursue a legal case because they want to hide the abuse.
“The number of reported cases of male rape is considerably less than cases of female rape, but because the cases are never discussed, the problem is not addressed nor solved. There’s no rehabilitation, counselling or treatment for them. I am sure there are many cases in which even the families don’t find out about the abuse,” she says.
Twenty-two-year-old Bilal*, who moved to a new city in search of a living, was regularly raped by his boss who used his financial weakness to manipulate him. Bilal did not file a complaint not only because he was his family’s sole bread-earner and needed the job, but also because he felt no one would believe him as his abuser was a man with a long beard who fasts and observes itikaf during Ramazan.
Hidden toll of stigma
Owing to how we view masculinity in Pakistan, males are not expected to share their problems. And with sexual abuse sometimes seen as a matter of male honour, the survivors are deprived of the process of sharing and unburdening.
Nida Idrees, psychologist and director of WAR, says male survivors don’t get to talk about their emotions and as a result, can become more frustrated than women. “Talking about sexual abuse is a taboo in our society; it is still acceptable for women to share their ordeal but for men, it is very difficult to discuss what they went through,” she says.
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“Because there is no catharsis and no way to get justice, there’s a higher chance of male survivors suffering from depression,” Idrees adds. Due to these additional challenges for men, the psychologist says the survivors either become very timid or extremely negative sometimes developing feelings of revenge.
For men and boys who do try to speak up, Idrees says it is a taxing process. “Most survivors fear to report abuses because of social repercussions and also because how our justice system is structured. Questions asked by police, which is the first step to seeking justice, are demeaning,” she says.
Support officer Siddiqi adds that if the survivor has a chance to win, the abusers pester them asking for forgiveness, offering compensation and in extreme cases, using threats to settle the case out of court. “There’s so much societal and legal pressure on them that they are forced to live in obscurity, moving between different cities, changing houses, concealing their real identity and switching phone numbers,” she states.
Fourteen-year-old Fahad* was kidnapped and gang-raped by a few boys from his neighbourhood. Determined to fight for a conviction, his mother filed a case which went on in court for two years, but then Fahad’s uncle was murdered and the family believes it was a threat for them to drop the charges.
As no one expects to be a victim of violent crimes, many don’t know how to respond to sexual attacks. Asiya Munir, lawyer for WAR, says in case of a sexual assault, the survivor should go to the relevant police station and file an FIR. “If the police are delaying it, go to a government-authorised hospital and get the medico legal examination done. As per the law, the doctor who conducts the examination automatically becomes a witness in the case. Based on the results of the examination, the hospital will call the police of concerned jurisdiction to file an FIR,” she explains.
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Munir says the FIR is sent to court within 24 hours and an investigation officer files an application to a judge to set time for recording statements. “The survivor is brought to a magistrate to record their version and the case begins,” the lawyer says.
Initiating rape cases and taking them till the end is an uphill task, Munir states. “Some judges delay recording statement [and] some are insensitive; there are many small battles to fight,” she points out.
Given the lengthy procedures of our justice system, Munir says cases can go on for years. “Earlier, the cases would continue for five to six years but now the duration has shortened to about three years. Some cases wind up more quickly too. It all depends on the courts and the judges and how quickly they want to wrap up a case,” she adds.
Strangely, the lawyer says, certain judges have this thinking of not hearing a case until it is a few years old. “They continue to hear old cases because they think new cases can wait,” she comments.
While time is one of the challenges, Munir says ideas we hold as a society come into play in courtrooms as well. “One judge, in front of me, advised an accused to take Holy Quran with him, sit outside the survivor’s house and not move until they forgive him. This is the kind of idea a judge is planting in an accused’s head; an accused who had raped, mutilated and murdered his victim,” she shares.
Then there is also so much denial, Munir laments. “Once there was a case of incest and the judge refused to accept that it is possible a father can abuse his own child but when the statement was recorded, the truth was revealed,” she says.
“Fighting in a system dominated by such men and then getting a judgment is a tough task. It is a daily fight for the lawyers. There are good and bad things about our law and there are some loopholes, which people don’t hesitate to exploit in their favour,” she laments.
On the practise of forgiving the accused, Munir believes our society will not improve through compromises but through convictions and punishments. “I have seen it myself; when there is no death penalty, the accused are very brave but when a case seeks death the accused runs around asking for forgiveness,” she says.
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Munir, however, points out that going through Pakistan’s justice system can be exhausting and can force the complainant to compromise even when they don’t want to. “Interaction with police and the abused and attending trials can take a toll on the survivor. It is easier for them to give up,” she adds.
Shackles of shame
In a society that lives under the assumption that males cannot be raped, Siddiqi says people don’t know how to react if someone close to them is sexually abused. “A 10-year-old boy was raped and his parents reacted as if someone had died in their family; neighbours and relatives would come to their house and condole,” she shares.
The constant discussion about the assault, Siddiqi notes, made the survivor run away from his house twice. “Initially, the boy would hide whenever a guest would come because he knew they would be talking about him and what he went through. Later, he ran away to a different city. Survivors are sensitive and they quickly realise if someone is talking about them or not,” says Siddiqi.
“As activists, there’s only so much we can do. We cannot change the entire society and tell people how to behave. There’s not enough awareness and education in our society to protect people from abuse and then from its aftermath,” she complains.
Unfortunately, Siddiqi says, we have a carefree attitude towards boys and very protective attitude towards girls. “This needs to change. We have to take care of our boys as much as we take care of our girls. In some ways, boys need more attention,” she stresses.
*Names have been changed to conceal identity