The Stigma of Reporting a Rape in Pakistan

Sarah Zaman is a board member at War Against Rape (WAR), a nonprofit advocacy group in Pakistan that helped Kainat Soomro with her case. Founded in 1989, the group investigates more than 100 rape allegations every year. But because many rape victims are fearful of retribution and the stigma that pursuing such a case can bring, WAR takes only a handful of cases to court.

Zaman, formerly WAR’s director, discussed the problem of sexual violence in the Pakistan with FRONTLINE in several interviews over a period of four years. Below are edited excerpts from those conversations.

“Two Policemen Told Us, ‘This Woman is Lying’”

How common is rape in Pakistan?

It’s fairly common. You have to understand that you can’t really go by statistics. Statistics will tell you a couple of hundred cases in a year that were reported. But then, that’s not even the tip of the iceberg. It’s just a little dot, really, because a lot of cases, even if they do get reported, even if the police are approached … they have powers to dispose of cases. …

[Recently] we visited a couple of police stations in Karachi in order to get a case lodged. Two policemen, at different points in time, told us that this woman is lying, she’s trying to be like Mai.

[Editor's Note: Mukhtar Mai is a well-known Pakistani woman who was gang raped on the order of a local tribal council to settle a family dispute. Mai was expected to kill herself, according to tradition. Instead she took her case to court. Five of the six accused men were ultimately acquitted.]

[After Mai's case, the police told us that our victim] has no chance, because we know that she’s lying. It’s almost like Mai has become this figure where a woman has been lying throughout and it has been shown in court, because the accused were released.

All the problems and all the omissions that remained within the criminal system that actually led to that eventuality, nobody talks about that. They just see, OK, so it went on for so many years and then it resulted in acquittals, so she must have been lying.

These judgments set a very bad precedent, and they discourage women from coming forward even more.

The Marriage Option

Basically, in Pakistan rape is a crime against the state, as it is in most countries. However, we have seen time and again the state absolving itself of that responsibility. We have had judges sitting in their own chambers, calling in the accused and the survivor and try to strike some kind of reconciliation through monetary compensation or otherwise, or even just asking the survivor or the guardian of the survivor to forgive the accused. It’s a very warped system.

There have been marriage options given to survivors very often. Of course, we tend to contend that if it’s a gang rape, is she going to marry all of them? It’s just not a viable solution at all.  And most cases it is actually against the wishes of the survivor. But society imposes that on you, that it’s a fast and quick way to dissolve “differences,” as they call it, between the survivor and the accused. …

Talk about why marriage seems to be a common defense in rape cases.

We don’t have a law on marital rape. Some would suggest, and we do contend, that there is a law, but it’s often missed. Rape laws, as they are right now in Pakistan penal code, they say that an offense basically constitutes rape if it was done against the will of the person and against her consent. These are two different clauses.

You would think, what is the different between against her will and without her consent? We do contend that there is this little space if judges were to supply statutory interpretation to the law, they would see that there is this little gap or little provision there where you can possibly try marital rape cases.

But in my seven, eight years, I have never seen a single case of marital rape reported or taken up by police or anybody else.

The fact that a woman might be married to her accused becomes a question of consent, in the sense that if he is her husband, then she has to consent to his sexual advances or his sexual needs. She has to cater to them.

A woman, essentially, cannot be raped within marriage. If a victim is shown to be married, then the whole case goes out of the window, because you were married to him, you can’t claim that he raped you. A husband cannot rape his wife.

Is this a common defense?

Marriage is not really a common defense, but consent definitely is. The defense always tries to establish that there was some level of consent involved. Thanks to the 2006 changes in laws, rape is no longer a compoundable offense, in the sense that if you cannot prove rape, then you cannot [now] be tried for fornication or adultery. Luckily that has gone out of our law books.

Reporting Rape: “It’s Equated with Defiance”

When anybody comes to WAR we have to work with the assumption that the survivor is telling the truth — just the fact that she’s actually come this way to tell somebody about it.

I’ve had policemen in Pakistan here in Karachi tell me that any woman who actually comes forth to report rape is shameless. Just the fact that she’s admitting to having been raped, that is an act of shamelessness in itself. Her name is almost equated with shamelessness.

It’s equated with defiance, which is not really acceptable for Pakistani women. We have to toe the line that men set for us.  So there’s a lot of things that women actually have to struggle with.

So once a rape has occurred, what happens next?

The police are generally the gatekeepers to the criminal justice system. The criminal code of procedure specifically says that it is the fundamental right of any citizen of Pakistan to get an report or a complaint registered with the police. And only thereafter can the police launch an inquiry or an investigation.

What usually happens with sexual violence cases in Pakistan is just like how you have profiling in airports. You look at the condition of the woman that has come in. If she seems nervous, jittery, distraught, things like that, you, the police officers, would believe her more than a woman who’s calm and composed.

And that is one thing that we struggle with the most at WAR, is to actually get policemen to recognize that a violation has taken place, and give that person their fundamental right of lodging a complaint. That is not done. When we compare the number of cases that are reported to the police to the number of cases that are reported to the Medical Legal Center [which gathers medical evidence for investigations], there is a huge disparity between numbers.

The number of complaints registered with the police formally are half of one third of the number of cases that are approaching Medical Legal Centers for medical, legal examinations in rape cases.

So you’re saying the rape cases are reaching the police but they’re not being investigated?

They’re not being registered, period.

And if they are registered, they’re not being investigated?

They’re not being investigated properly. Forensics is a relatively new science to Pakistan. You’ve got contamination of evidence all the time.

In a country like ours, freedom can be bought with money, and usually in rape cases the offenders are in some position of influence or power.  It is very hard for survivors belonging to lower-income groups to even get the police to believe that they have been raped. Especially if she’s levying charges against somebody who is more well-off than she is. Whether it’s actually in terms of money, or it’s in terms of social position in society.

So these are the kind of problems that we have in the police especially, which is the first point of contact for survivors generally. There they are discouraged. If they belong to a certain ethnicity, they might be told: “You guys are liars anyway. Why are you doing this? This is only going to cause you more humiliation. Don’t do this.”

And you can imagine what’s going to happen in incest cases: “He’s your own father. He’s your own brother. Why are you doing this?”

So those are the kind of issues survivors have to deal with. And we try and assist them in dealing with those things. It is a mess from the police to the medical, legal, to the judiciary to the laws themselves. We’ve got no law on marital rape. We’ve got no law on digital rape. We’ve got nothing on incest. We’ve got nothing on necrophilia. … So you know, you don’t even have laws that cater to various forms of sexual violence. Everything in Pakistan is working against survivors.

Tell us a little bit about DNA testing.

We don’t really have a culture of DNA testing. In rape cases, it usually is not done. There has been a lot of talk about having DNA testing to use for rape cases and gang rape cases free of cost for the victim and her family, but it hasn’t really materialized.

DNA testing, as you will find in case law, is not really required to prove an account of rape. Medical, legal examinations where vaginal swabs are taken and sent for chemical testing, that’s really sufficient. If done properly, evidence might be found on the person, on the victim’s body or on her person anywhere, on her clothes, which can be tested even in the chemical labs here.

But again, it’s not really any one thing that is not working. You have bad collection of samples. There’s contamination, of course.

And the fact that when we go and speak to people in the chemical examiner’s offices, they say: “You’ve got to help us upgrade our computers, our machines. These don’t work. Where there’s a good chance of conviction, which we can assure by turning out a good, solid report, we can’t do it because we don’t have the resources. We don’t have the infrastructure. We don’t have the trained people, personnel who would actually do these kinds of tests and come up with a comprehensive report.”

“The Woman’s Position in Society Is Always Important”

I think you mentioned that there’s often political influence on the police. How does that play out?

The police in Pakistan generally are not free from political interference. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a rape case or a gang rape case or a murder case, a hit-and-run case.

The person lodging the complaint makes you sit there for many hours because he has to confer with his senior before he lodges your complaint. Then, even if a person is apprehended, it just takes a phone call from somebody that the accused knows for his release. …

Ultimately, a woman who belongs to a poor family with limited influence and limited resources is automatically, almost by default, not going to be believed when she goes against people who are more influential, more political, well‑connected people.

We did some work on medico-legal certificates and what kind of services are given across Pakistan. I learned that the medico-legal certificate in Lahore actually has a section, has a distinct line, where it asks for the woman’s caste — name, age, whatever — and then suddenly you see, “caste.”

I was baffled by that, because I didn’t understand what that had to do with anything. Then I spoke to one of the medico-legal officers, and he told me that usually a lot of women from lower-income groups tend to implicate men who are more [powerful]. … Basically, it’s a money-making business, and we want that information documented. What kind of caste does she belong to, and what caste does he belong to?

There is an automatic bias. Rape is not just something that happens in isolation. You get a lot of people, the landed feudals, or landed gentry, actually just picking up girls and taking them to their homes, raping them. Nobody ever hears about it. It’s not reported.

You cannot rule out the economic factor and the social factor. The accused’s position in society and the woman’s position in society is always important.

Are marks of violence considered an important indicator of rape in Pakistan when it comes to believing a woman?

Definitely. If you don’t have marks of violence on your body, then your story is suspect — especially in gang rape cases because it is assumed that if a woman is gang raped, she will be badly bruised, beaten up, black and blue. And in the absence of marks of violence, then it’s really not possible that she could have been raped because, again, it is assumed that a woman would resist whenever she is attacked.

Not every woman reacts the same way. One woman might resist to her utmost. Another may just not do anything for fear of inviting more violence — and usually that is what happens.

[But] marks of violence are an important criteria for our courts. They need that in order to believe that a woman is telling the truth. Although in most cases, you do not find marks of violence [even if there were any]. By the time she actually reports, the bruises have subsided and there is little trace available.

Then there have been cases we have handled where a victim has been burned inside the mouth with a cigarette when she became unconscious, and the assailants just wanted to check if she was faking it or if she was actually passed out. They burned her and the medico-legal officer who was conducting the medical examination did not see, did not check, did not ask her.

They do not officially have to do a head-to-toe examination. They don’t check under the nails. Often they don’t even have swabs. They don’t have weighing machines. They don’t have X‑ray machines to actually make an age determination.

So in cases where there’s omission like that, then you have to request that a medical board be constituted and that a whole group of doctors actually sit together and re‑conduct the examination, but by that time, more evidence has been lost.

Why Capital Punishment “Reduces Conviction Rates”

In gang rape cases, the maximum penalty is the death penalty. I think that, probably, for a lot of judges, puts the burden of proof fairly high. Can you talk about that?

In gang rape cases, we do have the death penalty if it is proved beyond reasonable doubt. That, of course, puts a lot of pressure on the prosecutor, the defense, as well as the judge. It’s not really an easy trial for anybody when a man’s life may hang in the balance.

We do take a stand against the capital punishment, and we believe that in gang rape cases, where it might actually lead to a person being hanged, it reduces conviction rates even more, because there will always be a chance that the man is innocent. … Then, of course, they lay more burden on the woman to really show that she was raped.

“There’s Definitely Hope”

What steps does Pakistan need to take to support victims who have been raped?

To support victims or to actually change systems?  Because they are two different things.


Basically as far as rape is concerned there are different things that a state can do to support victims and to provide good services.  When we say “support survivors” we actually mean supporting them throughout the criminal justice process as well as ensuring their rehabilitation and their reintegration into society. As of this moment, the government of Pakistan is doing neither.

Is there any hope in the system in Pakistan? 

Oh, there’s definitely hope. Recently, the government of Pakistan has taken a lot of steps, pro-women steps in the sense that there has been a lot of legislation on different forms of violence against women. And the government of Pakistan is legislating on the matter. …  We’ve got a whole [lot] of [things] we need to do to actually even start making a change in the way that these cases are treated, perceived.

When this gang rape case happened in India that drew a lot of international attention, what were some of the effects in Pakistan?

Well, I don’t really foresee any effects as such, because cases have been happening all around the world and they haven’t really helped Pakistan’s government change any of the laws, necessarily, or any of the systems, necessarily, that have been indicated to be flawed. …

But I do feel that a lot has changed over the past, say, 20 years or 30 years, in the sense that now a woman can actually stand in court and say, “I was raped, and this and this happened to me, and this and this guy, such and such a person did this to me.” It was unimaginable for a woman, say, about 15 years ago to stand in a court and admit that she was raped.

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