Last week, two heinous high-profile rapes shocked Pakistan. Since then, things have reached a fever pitch as Pakistanis have mobilised en masse and taken to the streets with demands for justice and societal change.
Where Pakistan stands today feels a lot like where India stood in the aftermath of the horrific Delhi bus gang rape of December 2012.
Much like Nirbhaya (meaning ‘the Fearless One’), the woman who was brutalised on a Delhi bus for 45 minutes and who later died of her injuries, the young mother who was raped in front of her children while travelling on the Lahore-Sialkot motorway last week, has become an unwilling catalyst for major change.
And just like Nirbhaya’s case brought hundreds of thousands of Indians out onto the streets in protest, we're seeing countless Pakistani women, men and children alike standing shoulder-to-shoulder in protest against corrupt police, an ineffective justice system and a surprisingly silent government.
Will the survivor from the motorway incident be Pakistan’s Nirbhaya?
I have previously written about how the Nirbhaya case led to powerful changes in India.
For instance, since then not only has India made important changes to its rape laws, it has introduced gender-sensitivity classes for men who are employed in public service roles like rickshaw or bus drivers and created separate, fast track courts for rape complaints.
The country has also put into place important police protocols to protect rape survivors (for instance, now when a woman files a rape claim in India, she must be assigned to and interviewed by a female officer). Today, Nirbhaya’s mother continues to fight on behalf of Indian rape survivors through the Nirbhaya Jyoti Trust, which provides free lawyers to female victims of violence.
I tell you all this to serve as a reminder of how far Pakistan can and must go.
Will the survivor from the motorway incident be Pakistan’s Nirbhaya? I really hope so. Because at least then she and her children’s pain and the suffering won’t have been in vain.
Yet, even as I sit writing these words from my home in Houston, I am hyper-aware of how I am separated by an ocean and many miles from the Pakistanis currently marching in angry protest. Because of this distance, I’m feeling a tired exasperation and a sort of survivor’s guilt.
My exasperation stems from having to repeatedly witness my Pakistani cousins, aunties, friends and colleagues be denied their basic rights and dignity.
My guilt stems from not being able to stand shoulder-to-shoulder, arms and placards raised, alongside my people.
Standing in solidarity with sisters back home
Earlier, Zeresh John, an ex-editor from Dawn.com who now lives in the US, told me she feels the same guilt and frustration. We then talked about how, as women living in the US, we can still be advocates and allies with the women of Pakistan.
According to John, "The insight and perspective of having lived in both countries can contribute vastly to the conversation. Perhaps, it is the illusion that we are safer here in the US that necessitates our support and resources.”
She also said something to me that, innately, I had known for a long time but that, nonetheless, hit me deep.
According to her, there is a meaningful way for Pakistani women of the diaspora to support the women of Pakistan. Through documenting stories, sharing our varied perspectives, commiserating with one another and just talking about how violence happens irrespective of our geography, we can help to push the conversation and the movement forward.
After the motorway incident, a lot of us overseas Pakistanis have turned to our social media feeds and WhatsApp groups as a way to stay updated and also to blow off steam.
Because we don’t want to be complicit by staying silent, we have been sharing the powerful images of the protests taking place in Pakistan.
We are also reflecting on our own lives and experiences as women moving through a world that is too often unsafe for us.
At a distance, this has been our way of showing our sympathies and splitting the anger with the women of Pakistan.
For this story, I spoke to women from the US, Canada and the UK to hear about how they are feeling and what they are thinking in light of the past week’s events.
Countless women (not surprisingly, many of them are new moms) told me that their minds and bodies simply shut down after hearing about little Marwa being raped and then burned to death and the motorway-incident, where the woman was gang-raped in front of her young children.
Here’s what they had to say:
Many told me they were not able to read past the headlines
Tahira Aftab, a business owner (and author’s mom) in Vancouver, said, “For four days nonstop this news has been everywhere. How will this woman be able to escape her trauma ever? Are we doing wrong by this woman by dissecting this from every angle day and night? It’s continued assault by the media.”
Also read: Hundreds gather to protest gang rape
According to Yumna Maan, a new mom in Vancouver, “I can’t even find the words to describe how I feel about this. How can a human do that to another human?”
A family and child protection lawyer, feminist and activist in Vancouver, Laila Rana, said, “I honestly can’t even talk or think about children being raped. It’s just such a visceral reaction — I feel physically sick. It’s unfortunate that it’s the most violent, most heinous cases that lead to the discussions we should be having every single day. As a society, we should think about why it’s the most extreme cases that are considered serious.”
Another new mom from Chicago, said, “I’m a new mom already feeling alone and depressed because of Covid-19. I feel helpless because my cousins are protesting in Karachi while I’m just sitting here pressing ‘like’ on their posts on Instagram. I can’t even bring myself to read the full story of what happened to this mom and her kids.”
“I couldn’t stomach it for days. I still can’t. I reached out to my cousin who grew up in Rawalpindi and now lives in Chicago and she said she doesn’t even know where to begin with her feelings and it’s too hard for at the moment. Honestly, I couldn’t even read through the articles. My heart sank and I didn’t have it in me to read,” an anonymous physician’s assistant in Chicago, said.
According to Nitasha Syed, a senior product manager in San Francisco, “Shivers down my spine and sleepless nights is how I react to the rape news around me. I cannot for the life of me understand when the world will realize that rape is NOT a woman’s fault. We are exhausted from constantly having to be on guard. Do you know how many articles I’ve read on how to jump out of an Uber? Do you know girls are always having to share each other’s location and keep tabs on each other just to make sure everyone gets home okay from work?”
“Overall, in my group chats, the reaction has been anger, outrage and disgust.”, says, Bushra Ahsan, President of SWB Freights Inc. in Vancouver.
Maheen Nusrat, who is based in London, said, “We went to grab a few groceries not even five minutes from my home. Because of Covid-19, I don’t take my baby into stores and I was waiting outside and it hit me just how badly traumatised I feel by this incident. I felt my heart palpitating, I was petrified for my son’s safety, I worried some guy would come by and harm us. I literally looked at every male passerby with suspicion.”
John, who is an ex-blogs editor and current communications officer in Virginia, said, “News of the rape, sexual harassment, and the anti-Aurat March sentiment triggers my own trauma faced on the streets of Pakistan. It’s resurfacing now in the US, a country where I am not in immediate danger. My current struggle with being far is the guilt of feeling safe when other Pakistani women are not.”
“Our men should be our protectors, not our enemies. Superheroes began as a male-dominant category. Looks like the women are the real superheroes across all the categories, after all.” says Komal Farooqi, an entrepreneur and managing director at Khawar & Sons in Houston.
Almost every Pakistani woman currently living outside the country described a feeling of an all-consuming need and a burning rage to stand in solidarity alongside the women of Pakistan
According to John, “It’s definitely surreal to experience the rage and solidarity from a distance. It’s so crucial to be present. Despite the distance, it doesn’t automatically cut one off or detach one from the pain. I feel the need to be involved almost in an urgent way. My makeup as a woman and a former journalist in Pakistan demand that from me."
She continues, "All the women I love and admire, who have been mentors to me are in Pakistan and this is their reality. I am bound to it through them. Just as, when I still lived in Pakistan, I was bound to the women in the United States as the #MeToo movement was gaining momentum.”
Hira Hyder, a journalist based in Toronto, says, “I am incredibly proud of the women, activists and journalists who took part in the protests for the motorway-rape case. They do not have the privileges us women residing in other countries have, yet they fearlessly stand up for justice. You are all a ray of hope and a source of courage!"
"As for the privilege that I have as a female journalist in Canada — my responsibility has doubled to be the voice for those Pakistani women who are unable to give a voice to themselves. I may not have been present at the protest in Pakistan but I stand in solidarity with my Pakistani sisters.”
“It’s times like this where you show unity. Feminism isn’t just about standing up for your rights. It’s also about standing up for the rights of other women who aren’t able to have a voice and to give them support they need so they too can speak out against injustices.”, says Iqra Khan, an MBA graduate and human resources representative in Houston.
Many also talked about how Pakistan’s justice system is in need of a major overhaul
According to Mehreen Nadeem, an attorney in Houston, “It’s deeply saddening and infuriating how the CCPO’s comment shifted blame onto the victim, implying that she shouldn’t have been at a specific place at a specific time, that the men of her family should have ‘protected’ the woman, that the circumstances she was in (which were out of her control) were self-created. Plus, the CCPO basically implied that rape only occurs outside of a person’s home. This way of thinking has existed for generations. So long as the leaders who are responsible for our safety have this distorted way of thinking, our laws and policies will not change and we will not be protected or safe.”
Rana says, “In Pakistan, the biggest hurdle is to move past cultural taboos and for there to be open discussion around consent and sex. That is the first step.”
“Women get raped in their homes. At work. At school. Young girls. Old women. In burka. In bikinis. At night and in the day. By strangers. By men they know. Sometimes by men they are related to. It is a despicable thing to ever, ever lay the blame for rape on a woman. The only person to blame for rape is a rapist.
The police chief should be fired, the perpetrators locked away for decades. The entire nation needs to wake up and understand women cannot be safe anywhere as long as rapists are not held accountable,”, according to Rabia Chaudry, an attorney, author and podcast host in Washington, D.C.
Roohi Hussain from Vancouver says, “Aside from timely catching the culprits, I say castrate them. The whole system needs to be overhauled. Everything from how cases are reported to the way victims are treated. Stop the victim-blaming!
Society’s treatment of women in terms of the “she asked for it” attitude ostracises women. That’s why women don’t want to be identified or come forward. A woman is not just ‘izzat’. She is a human being.”
Hyder says, “I strongly urge Pakistan to rise above the regressive social norms and put an end to victim-blaming. It is the perpetrators you must hold accountable. Not the victims.”
“I feel because our judicial system is not effective, rapists are not scared. They have the freedom to do whatever they want to do — rape a cat/baby/older woman, etc. I feel most of the men in Pakistan don’t even know that rape is a crime. I personally want the rapist to be punished publicly,” Amna Nasir, a business owner and human resources professional in Seattle, said.
Some felt the problem was unique to Pakistani laws, society and culture
According to Khan, “We can’t say that rapists don’t get away with their crimes in America. However, there is more of awareness here and an outcry every time it happens. For example, in Pakistan it’s impossible for a woman to leave her home without having a man whistle her, touch her or make her feel threatened in some way but, in America, we are able to roam freely without the fear of all that happening.”
Ahsan says, “I was listening to Prime Minister Imran Khan this morning talk about how Pakistan is at the top of global consumption of child pornography and pornography. We know most of the child rape and murder cases are linked to Qasoor and Faisalabad. There is a bigger story there.
Another very big issue is not having a system that registers previous sex offenders and paedophiles. One of the accused in the motorway-incident had been charged with gang rape in 2013. He walked free… Imran Khan did pass a law to chemically castrate offenders. I support it 100%.”
She continues, “We know rape is a common crime all over the world but being raped in front of your kids is just unfathomable. How do you register something like this? Broken legal system, family honour, lack of resources for the poor — the list is too long to really try and pinpoint what/who is responsible.”
“I don’t understand why the media hides the faces of rapists but openly shares personal information about the victim and sometimes even asks these victims really insulting questions," says Aftab.
According to Zahraa Hyder Syeda, host of talk show @nofilter.z9 in Toronto, “My sisters and I would always, while watching Pakistani films or dramas, excitedly say, ‘We wish we can visit and explore Pakistan soon!’ Because we love our culture, we love our people, we love it all. But we no longer have that excitement to visit anymore. We are terrified of the thought. We do not want to go back.
So I can only imagine how insecure and terrified the people — especially women — living there must be. The change must take place. Change in our narratives, in our upbringing, in our sex education, in our system, in our government. Before it’s too late.”
Another anonymous source says, “I have been catcalled and harassed so many times on my trips to Pakistan. Even having PIA flight attendants flirt with me — even though I had a ring on my finger and frequently mentioned my husband. Last year, I was stuck on the Motorway because our Daewoo broke down and I remember thinking I was so glad to be stuck with another woman, my Mami”
“A few weeks ago my family and I celebrated Pakistan’s Independence Day. We were truly thankful to the ones who sacrificed their all to make Pakistan independent. And we were furious that the “leaders” of today have set that very nation ablaze.
Our government urges [overseas] Pakistanis to financially invest in the country, to pursue Fatima Jinnah’s zeal and to evolve as a Riyaasat-e-Madina’. Yet, the poor are poorer than ever before. Infants, girls and women are raped and minorities are butchered while there is no accountability," recalls Hyder.
Nusrat says, “I don’t want to go to Pakistan because even though [that mom] had been travelling alone with her kids, there is no guarantee of safety even if I am with my husband. What protection do you have against guns?”
According to Rana, “I have heard women in our community -- not from our generation -- but who are still educated and assimilated into Canadian society talk about how there is no such thing as marital rape in our culture and religion.
I have a huge number of South Asian female clients and a lot of them go back to domestic violence and sexual violence. Predominant reason being societal pressure and being unable to support themselves financially.”
Somaiah Jalal, a treasury manager in Vancouver, says, “I know it happens in Canada and the US but there are laws to protect and punish. When it comes to women in Pakistan, it’s just a headline and then back to the ‘norm’. What scares me most is the stories we don’t hear. The parents that tell their daughters not to speak up or not to stop the abuse if it's a family member.”
Some also called out Pakistan’s entertainment industry for being complicit in society’s mistreatment of women
Syed says, “Can we stop creating dramas that further perpetuate a culture where abuse is acceptable, rapists get away with everything a woman’s job is to sacrifice her life for everyone around her?
Islamically, the onus is on the man to control himself and lower his gaze. Why we fail to understand this part of our religion and start quoting the Quran when we see a girl wearing a sleeveless shirt is beyond me.”
“My brain has been brewing with all sorts of awfulness. But doing a root cause analysis — and I know I’m being very simplistic here — but I am concerned about the lack of modesty in Pakistani culture as of late. No, I’m not talking about burqas vs. sleeveless. I’m talking about our hypersexualised media.
The objectification of women in our media. The glorification of violence. When young men are exposed to all this then violence against women seems more normal. Still, the rapists are responsible,” according to Tooba Ali in Toronto.
Rana emphasises, “There’s a few dramas that are more ‘progressive’ like Dar Si Jati Hai Sila. Then there are dramas like Ranjha, Ranjha Kardi which normalise marital rape by not treating it like a problem that the main character gets pregnant by marital rape. When your storyline is hinging upon the strong female figure being raped so that she can fall in love with her husband what are you really saying? What are you teaching women?
Then you have Meray Paas Tum Ho where a woman’s value and worth is placed on her loyalty to a man. We saw feminists push back to that saying ‘no, women have value in and of themselves’. It’s interesting because I think dramas are playing a big part in the feminist movement in Pakistan.”
But Khan says, “I don’t think you can blame the entirety of the situation on dramas. But Pakistani entertainment consistently promotes a male-dominant culture where men are able to get away with cheating on their wives or having affairs with their sisters-in-law. That doesn’t help an already bad situation.
People in power — celebs and anyone in the entertainment industry — have a responsibility to use their platform to spread awareness and become advocates for feminism and to empower women in a way that helps shift society’s mindset.”
A small minority felt that the entertainment industry was an unfair scapegoat
Farooqi feels that “actors take a bold step in even playing these characters in very thought-provoking films, dramas, web series. Every role and every female character in any show portrays some sort of existing woman in the world. It should be thought-provoking, not misconduct provoking.
We should be more accepting and supportive that we have an industry willing to create and send a message through its scripts and plots. In America when a woman plays a bold character she’s viewed as a badass. In Pakistan, the same woman will be viewed as a disgrace. Do better, Pakistan. Do better.”
A new mom in New York says, “Dramas are entertainment. Dramas don’t teach you or tell you to rape or harass people. It’s unfair to blame everything on celebrities, tv shows and movies.”
Many talked about how sexual harassment, sexual abuse and rape are problems women are confronted no matter where they live
John says, “Rape is rape everywhere in the world. The US conviction rate for rape is under 1%. Prosecuting sexual assault is abysmal globally. Our inability to process and respond to assault runs across all cultural divides in the exact same way.”
According to Nadeem, “The reality is that rape happens regardless of gender, age, socioeconomic status, how a person is dressed or where they are going. Even in America, the common law definition of rape was limited to an unlawful act that was committed by a man against a woman and the concept of marital rape didn’t exist. The common law definition still has not changed but states have expanded the definition of rape over time to address gender, age and circumstantial sensitivity.
A rapist can be male or female, a victim can be male or female, rape can exist within the family and even within marriage. In my opinion, changing laws is the easy part — the hard part is changing people’s mentality about rape and encouraging society and victims to speak up about these crimes. When this change starts happening at an individual system that is when we will see a change in our legal system. We have needed a movement for a long time and I hope that this is it.”
Syed goes on to say, “You might think these issues are confined to Pakistan but it is everywhere. Even where I work in Silicon Valley, I see it. Throughout my career, I’ve had male colleagues act like they have some God-given right to be verbally disrespectful towards me. Some have gone as far as trying to cross the line by being physically disrespectful.
As a woman, you’re constantly stuck in the middle of wanting to report and then thinking about the backlash that YOU (as the victim) will have to face. And if you think we are advanced out here and won’t face backlash then, boy oh boy, do you have it wrong!”
“Unfortunately, rape is treated the same worldwide. Victim blaming is the common denominator. ‘What was she wearing’ and ‘who was she’ and ‘she should have been more careful’ are universal statements. However, in Canada, a perpetrator will be legally held accountable in comparison to the perpetrators in Pakistan.” says Toronto based journalist, Hyder.
Rana says, “I can’t say that Canada does an amazing job of protecting women but it is further along. Women in Canada are also subject to the same rape narratives. They are subject to the same victim-blaming and doubt. They are not believed or supported by the police and the justice system. Also, in Canada, sexual violence is addressed differently based on race, socioeconomic status, etc. For example, a white woman being raped is treated differently than womxn of colour, trans and non-binary people.
The more privileged you are, the more access to justice you have. The less privilege and more marginalised you are, the greater your vulnerability. However, the one thing Canada does have is a stronger child protection system. This is something I want to contribute to in some way in Pakistan eventually.”
According to Nusrat, “The fact that so many men around the world gaslight women, dismiss our experiences, refuse to acknowledge their part in rape culture makes me feel dejected. I am a mother of a one-year-old boy and all I am thinking about is how to raise him so he is not a product of toxic masculinity. I’m putting this extra pressure on myself to be better as a mother."
She continues, "At the same time, I have to accept that he will be a product of his environment and until the culture of misogyny truly changes and men take ownership of their complicity and complacency, I alone won’t be able to raise a man who isn’t all the things I abhor. Ultimately, it’s the culture that needs to change.”
After hearing about the motorway incident, Nusrat from London (quoted above) did an anonymous survey on her social media to see how many women in her community have experienced sexual assault. She grew up in a major Canadian city and she shared the results of her survey with me.
Several desi women who have been raised in South Asian families across Canada reported the following: molestation by a grandfather, a grandfather figure, forced oral sex at age four by an uncle and many reported rape/unwanted sexual advances by boyfriends.
Header image: Protestors at the Karachi Press Club on September 12.