Symbolically, women’s bodies have always been crucial to a man’s manliness — a they have been the embodiment of honour, and conversely, revenge. Tradition dictates that a woman’s chastity is indelibly linked to her family’s pride/honour. In similar vein, manly courage has always been equated with how well a man can defend a woman. And in certain societies that are governed by village councils/panchayats, a woman’s body is used as a moral compass – she will be subjected to oppression and rape – if her own kin has committed a social crime.
In Multan, the southern district of Pakistan’s Punjab, a panchayat dictated that a man could rape an adolescent girl, who was the sister of the man who allegedly raped the former’s sister. In its simplest terms, this is revenge rape – where the 16-year-old was to bear the brunt of her brother’s ‘sins’. The Express Tribune quoted police officer Allah Baksh who said, “The Panchayat had ordered the rape of a 16-year-old girl as punishment, as her brother had raped a 12-year-old.”
A 12-year-old girl was raped while she was working in the fields in the afternoon on July 16, 2017. When a meeting was held in the village to discuss the rape, the panchayat’s members ruled that the alleged attacker’s 16-year-old sister should be raped in order for justice to be delivered. Hence, two days later on July 18, the 16-year-old was abducted from her house at night where she was sleeping with her mother and raped brutally.
Under the warped law of retaliation – an eye for an eye – this isn’t the first time that a woman has been subjected to violence for a crime she has not committed: Traditionally women have been considered to be in ‘possession’ of men – if they are raped, the man’s honour and dignity is sabotaged. For centuries, therefore, men have exhibited power through wielding over women’s bodies. Women have been raped during wars and during riots – from the Partition in 1947 to the Gujarat riots in 2002. Raping a woman has been the ultimate assault to the enemy – a psychological warfare – diminishing the enemy by dishonoring it through its women. In addition, women have been raped by jilted lovers; women have been raped for revenge; and women have been raped for dishonouring their family. Revenge rape is quite prevalent in rural parts of Pakistan and India.
One of the most prominent cases has been the 1992 case, where Bhanwari Devi was raped in the field she was working in with her husband, since she objected to the marriage of a nine-year-old child bride. The upper-caste men were furious and raped Bhanwari Devi after beating up her husband black and blue.
Then, there is Muktaran Mai. In June 2002, Muktaran Mai was gang-raped – it was an incident ordained by her village Meerwala’s panchayat. Meerwala is in Muzaffargarh district of Pakistan’s Punjab. Mai was subjected to rape and torture because her 12-year-old brother was (wrongly) accused of having an affair with an upper-caste woman. So the punishment was imposed upon Muktaran Mai, where the Mastoi men were given permission to rape her. Mai was raped by at least 14 men from her community. While there have been several instances where women have taken their lives after experiencing such an ordeal, Mai took her attackers to court. The incident received global attention, however, unfortunately nearly all Mai’s attackers were eventually acquitted. But Mai went on to be a warrior of human rights, campaigning for women’s rights and education particularly in rural areas.
A similar incident took place in 2015, when two Dalit sisters were raped (as decreed by their village panchayat), since their brother had eloped with and married a woman who belonged to an upper-caste. In the same year, a 16-year-old was raped because her mother had won the local elections. The 16-year-old committed suicide, since the police refused to file her complaint.
In the case of the recent incident in Multan, the incident was reported to the Violence Against Women Center, an organisaiton which in turn reported it to the police, prompting them to go after the perpetrators. Since the case has been reported, 12 members of the said panchayat have been arrested. In India itself, the number of rape incidents that take place, is abysmal and appalling. In 2012, the National Crime Records Bureau reported 24,923 cases – but surveys conducted across the board report that only six per cent of rape cases are actually reported.