Why Is It So Hard to Try A Rape Case in Pakistan?


When 13-year-old Kainat Soomro accused four men of gang rape, she risked everything: her reputation, her education and even her life.

In Pakistan, just talking about rape and sexual violence is a cultural taboo. But bringing a case through the Pakistani courts and discerning truth from fiction is dangerous, complicated and, and as filmmakers Habiba Nosheen and Hilke Schellmann learned, fraught with challenges. The two spent nearly four years probing Kainat’s story as she took on the men she says raped her — as well as of her alleged rapists’ quest to clear their names. Here, Nosheen and Schellmann discuss how the course of their investigation took dramatic and unexpected turns, revealing a deeply flawed justice system and the people it serves on both sides. Their film Outlawed in Pakistan airs Tuesday on FRONTLINE,

Who Is Kainat Soomro and what made you want to tell this story?

Hilke: The film is about Kainat Soomro, a Pakistani teenager who says she was gang raped by four men. We’ve been following her story for years as she took her case to the courts, and we also followed her alleged rapists.

While we were doing the story, we also uncovered more systematic problems in the Pakistani criminal justice system: a lack of police investigation and a lack of DNA evidence that could have helped her or other alleged rape victims, as well as those trying to clear their names.

Habiba: … What ends up happening in Pakistan due to the lack of investigation is [the case becomes] a he-said vs. she-said situation. When the case goes to court, you have a woman’s word against a man’s, and there’s no way to decipher the truth from fiction.

For example, a simple DNA test could have solved this case years ago, and that wasn’t done in this case. You can get to the truth a lot quicker if you have the proper evidence collected in a proper way and investigated in a way that speeds up the process of a legal rape case.

What’s the environment in Pakistan when it comes to talking about rape and sexual violence?

“I just think people didn’t take us that seriously. They thought, ‘Sure, I’ll talk to you. You’re just some girl.’”

Habiba: I think it’s still a big taboo in Pakistan for a woman to admit that she’s been raped, and often she’s not believed. When a woman does speak up about rape, one of the biggest accusations that she faces is that she’s doing this to either get attention or, more importantly, to get a visa to go abroad. That is the accusation you hear again and again when people talk about Kainat or when people talk about about other women who have brought up cases of  rape. That’s because their argument is, “Why else would a woman do this? It’s so shameful that she would be talking about these things that are so inappropriate for a woman to be talking about. She’s clearly only doing this to get a visa.” …

People were confused that we came all the way to Pakistan to follow a rape case. That seemed to them not a priority for journalists, and I think that follows the priority that Pakistan places on rape. It’s also not a place where resources go to investigate rape or assistance for rape victims.

You’ve been working on this for nearly four years. What made Kainat’s story stand out to you, and why follow it for so long?

Hilke: We went to Pakistan together because we wanted to tell stories of interesting women. Pakistan is ranked the second lowest in the World Economic Forum’s global gender index, and we wanted to find stories of women who are maybe going against stereotypes and pushing some of these boundaries of what is expected of them as women.

We followed Kainat and two other women, and over time it just became clear that her story was so gut-wrenching and so many developments happened during in her court case – which we don’t want to spoil the film here — that we just started focusing in on her. …

To be honest, we were also struck by a teenager who was that outspoken and determined.

Habiba: There’s something special about the way she’s been able to be so public about an issue that’s such a taboo in Pakistan, and that you don’t see often in Pakistan, I think. That struck us that’s interesting and fascinating.

Hilke: And we heard it time and time again from people that Kainat is really pushing the boundaries by speaking out publicly. Even the attorney for the four accused men — who believes his clients are innocent — said that he thinks she’s a strong woman for taking on this battle so publicly. …

The women’s organization that we talked to, her lawyer, they all say, we have been living in Pakistan for decades, and this wouldn’t have been possible two or three, or even one decade ago that a woman would go on TV and be able to say that she was raped and she wasn’t at fault, and that is progress.

What were some of the constraints of making this film?

Habiba: Initially, budget. It was just the two of us for a long period of time taking our personal savings and a camera and running off to Pakistan. We were assisted by some journalism grants, but that just covers expenses. We were doing this for free on all of our vacation time. During family wedding time, I would go to Pakistan and I would take Hilke with me and we’d try and film. We were two independent filmmakers going on an adventure, unsure of whether anyone would ever see this film we were funding out of pocket.

Hilke: We’d constantly ask ourselves that, even when we were back in the editing room. We knew we had a great story, but we wondered, does anybody care about an alleged rape victim and the systematic problem of rape cases in Pakistan? Will anybody ever care? So we’re really grateful that FRONTLINE and ITVS got on board and told us that yes, there is an interest in this.

Habiba: Beyond funding, it was this really interesting journey where we were juggling pregnancies — at one point 75 percent of our staff was pregnant — the dangers of being in and out of Pakistan and making sure the story is as balanced as we can make it.

But also, one of the biggest challenges is that this is a very complicated court case with a lot of different perspectives. Everybody has a different story of what happened to Kainat Soomro, so deciphering truth from fiction as a journalist, when we don’t have the documents to go to help you get some clarity, was hard.

You’re asking the most basic questions because there is no credible paper trail that you could simply follow, and you take that for granted in the U.S. For example, here, if you want to verify a marriage, you call up where two people were married. But as a Pakistani, I know that documents can be forged in certain places, so you have to look at everything with a bit of suspicion because you know the reality that just because there’s a document to vouch for something doesn’t mean that it actually happened. That’s tough as a journalist, because usually documents are our friend, but when you strip us away from that, it’s really hard to know what’s true and what’s not true.

You spent years parsing out those complications. How did the film and what you learned about the case evolve over that time?

Habiba: This film has also evolved greatly, and we were lucky to have an earlier version of the film accepted at Sundance. And after Sundance, we started working on this version closely with FRONTLINE, and we finally had the resources to tell the story we wanted to tell, to dig in.

For example, we had heard of an investigating officer who didn’t do much in the case, but we couldn’t put that in an earlier version of the film because we hadn’t spoken to him. We didn’t have the funds to find him. He had moved and it’s tough to find people in Pakistan, especially when they don’t have addresses.

The most recent journey with the film and FRONTLINE was when we had the resources, and we really just honed in on these things that we knew about from the court records and documents and from our hours and hours of interviews with people. We finally had the resources to track people down, whether we spoke to them on or off-camera, but on the record. That process and that journey shed light into the systemic failures in this case, so we just had to go back to the drawing board and just make sure that they were included in our FRONTLINE film because they are gut-wrenching and very important.

The film, as it premiered at Sundance, was more of a point of view of Kainat’s story, and what it takes and what struggles a woman faces when she takes a rape case to a Pakistani court, whether you believe her or not. In that version, we also of course speak to the alleged rapists and their attorney, but in the FRONTLINE version what you also get access to is the intricacies of this very complicated legal case that tell a larger story about what’s failing in Pakistan when it comes to rape cases.

Hilke: With the resources from FRONTLINE we were actually able to dig deeper into our own footage, because we didn’t have the money to translate everything. The Urdu-language translations were easy because Habiba speaks Urdu, but there was stuff in Sindhi, for which we had translation on the fly, but only after working with FRONTLINE did we have the money to get full translations, and that helped tremendously in finding very important parts of the story that made it more poignant and clarified the threats that this woman was under.

I think one of the reasons why we had to go back to Pakistan so much was that you have to over time build access. You had to get access to the defense lawyer first, and then work to get access to the alleged rapists, whom we then talked to, but one of whom didn’t show up, so we returned on another trip to interview him. So it takes time to build that access.

What was it like as women to try to get that access?

Habiba: It was easier to get access in Pakistan as two women with a camera than it will ever be in the U.S. to speak to people about an ongoing rape investigation. I just think people didn’t take us that seriously. They thought, “Sure, I’ll talk to you. You’re just some girl.”

People actually were a lot more willing to speak to us than you would expect, and I think it was partly because we were very non-threatening. For example, at first, especially due to our very limited budget, I showed up to one of our shoots with the defense attorney alone with my camera, and he asked, “Where’s your crew, mam?” I said, “This is it.” It automatically puts people at ease when you show up with a very tiny crew and you just tell them, “I just want to talk to you and hear your story.”

[The alleged rapists] were pretty anxious to talk to us because they felt that their story needed to be heard too. They felt that they had been wronged because they had been denied bail. At one point, one of the uncles of the alleged rapists said he was very angry about that. He said, “In this country, murderers get bail, so why was my nephew denied bail?” …

Hilke: Our philosophy is always that we are first and foremost investigative journalists, so we want to get the whole story, both sides, and also be fair in our reporting, so we wanted to make sure that we also talk to the alleged rapists. I think it is important that we hear their side of the story as well – that this is an alleged rape, they think they have been wronged.

How did Kainat react when she found out you were also filming the accused rapists?

“Even though this is a story that takes place in Pakistan, we hope that the take home message that people would get is that there are things that you can do in this country as well to address these issues.”

Habiba: We met the men in Kainat’s hometown, so she got the word that we had spoken to the accused rapists and she asked me about it: “I heard that you went to talk to those guys.” I said, “Yes, of course.” I didn’t even think that that something that needed explaining. [I told her,] “You’ve told us things, and we need to be able to not only verify them but also allow them the chance to speak about what had happened as well.”

And I think she felt really hurt by that because that kind of journalism doesn’t really exist in Pakistan — from both sides. She said, “Well you visited me so many times, you guys have been following me and filming me, and why would you go talk to the other guys if you believe me?” I thought that would be the end of it, that we had lost our access to her and she would never talk to us again. And that was fine with us, because it was not negotiable for us to just interview Kainat and her family. We knew from the beginning that our commitment to getting the perspective of the alleged rapists was very important  to this story and why this story is different from other films on rape cases.

Did you ever feel like your lives were at risk?

Habiba: I don’t think we ever really thought about that question. I think you assume a certain amount of risk when you go to a place like Pakistan, and you decide to tell certain types of stories, but I think to be able to continue doing the work that you do as a journalist who wants to tell stories out of places like Pakistan, you just try not to think about it too much. …

What do you want viewers to take away from this film?

Hilke: A lot of people in the West has stereotypes about Pakistani men and women and how they behave, and when we got to Karachi and started reporting this story, we saw that things were a little bit more nuanced. Kainat does face a lot of opposition for speaking out and saying that she was raped. But her family is with her, so we also wanted to show that things are very nuanced on the ground.

And another big takeaway is that there is a big lack of systematic forensic investigations by police. They’re just not educated to do it right. And the lack of DNA testing is a huge problem in rape cases in Pakistan.

Can people who want to help Kainat do anything for her or others like her?

Habiba: We as journalists, as a principle, we don’t say to donate money to a particular person or organization. That’s not our job. But if people watch this film and are inspired and want to engage with cases of rape and work with victims in their local communities who are dealing with rape crises, I think they should definitely consider volunteering at organizations in their own neighborhoods. Because in all honestly, rape isn’t just an issue that affects Pakistanis, it affects women all over the world. Even though this is a story that takes place in Pakistan, we hope that the take home message that people would get is that there are things that you can do in this country as well to address these issues.

There is also a problem of sending money to NGOs in Pakistan. The level of transparency with financial records is not that high. …

Hilke: Just from a technical stand point, it’s also incredibly difficult to send money to Pakistan because of international terrorism banking regulations. We ran into a lot of problems paying our fixers in Pakistan, for example. We hope that our viewers understand that sexual violence is common around the globe, and that if it inspired them, to take action in their local communities, maybe volunteer at a rape crisis center or somewhere else in their communities.

Are you planning to take this to more festivals?

A short 39-minute version of the film has already done a festival run. We got incredibly great feedback and it was lovely to be able to test it out with audiences and get their emotional feedback. But after the film airs on FRONTLINE, we’ll take this version, which is more of an investigative documentary, and we’ll cut that down to 39 minutes and  take that to other festivals. We want to continue to take this film to new audiences around the world. …

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