By Salman Masood The New York Times
KABIRWALA, Pakistan Pursuing justice is not easy for a woman in Pakistan, not if the crime is rape. Ghazala Shaheen knows. Two years ago, her relatives say, an uncle eloped with a woman from a higher social caste. The revenge was the rape of Shaheen, she and relatives charge, after a gang of men raided her father's home and abducted her and her mother in late August. It is not uncommon in Pakistan for women to suffer callous vendettas for the wrongdoings of their male relatives, even a 24-year-old woman like Shaheen who, despite being from a relatively poor family, has earned a master's degree in education and wants to be a teacher. Under what is known as the Hudood ordinance in Pakistan, to prove rape a woman must produce four witnesses. A failure to do so can result in her being charged for adultery, becoming a victim twice over. The stigma alone is enough to keep many women from trying to bring their attackers to justice. Human rights activists have repeatedly called for the repeal of the Hudood laws, which were enacted in 1979 by General Zia ul-Haq, the country's last military dictator. President Pervez Musharraf has vowed to introduce amendments to the laws, but critics say his efforts have been halfhearted. But in September, under pressure from hard-line clerics, Musharraf's government delayed passage of a proposed law that would have allowed rape to be tried in civil courts, where a rape victim needs only to provide a medical witness and other evidence. In 2002, the case of Mukhtar Mai became a cause célèbre among human rights advocates after a village council ordered that she be gang-raped. Mukhtar has since become an international figure, winning worldwide praise for her courage in speaking out and for her efforts to bring the culprits to justice. Despite the outcry, lesser-known cases, like Shaheen's, continue to emerge with disturbing regularity as the laws go unchanged. Shaheen, whose father is a retired military police officer, recounted her ordeal at an uncle's home in Kabirwala, a dusty farming town in the southern part of Punjab Province, not far from where she says about a dozen men forced their way into her father's house on Aug. 25. Some of the attackers were wearing police uniforms, Shaheen said. "Pick up the women, they shouted," Shaheen recalled. "They dragged me and my mother and put us on two motorbikes." Both of them were told they were being taken to the police station in connection with Shaheen's uncle. "But we soon found out that we were kidnapped," Shaheen said. The abductors held them for 11 days. Both said they were beaten. "I was raped by two men," recalled Shaheen, with moist eyes ringed by dark circles. One of her rapists, she said, was Nazar Mirali, someone from the rival clan. She did not know the other one. "I pleaded," she said. "I implored but they did not listen to me." Mirali could not be found for comment. He and another man, who was not identified, were named in the complaint filed by Shaheen on Sept. 26. Word of Shaheen's late August abduction had spread throughout the area. On Sept. 2, human rights activists, along with Mai, the woman who has brought attention to such cases after her own ordeal, called a rally in Kabirwala to demand the arrest of the accused. Two days later, both Shaheen and her mother were recovered by police from Jhang, a neighboring district, after a tip from someone in the area, said Abdul Rashid, a cousin of Shaheen. Shaheen said that evening at the police station that she had been threatened and harassed by her attackers not to talk about the ordeal. A police official, too, told her not to mention rape, and the police logged the case only as a kidnapping. "I was frightened - they threatened they would kill my father," Shaheen said, referring to the Miralis, who are a relatively well-connected family in the area. Shaheen said she suffered in silence for more than a week but then gathered the courage to come forward. She went for a medical checkup. "Yes, I confirmed in my medical report about rape," said Dr. Saima Iftikhar, the medical officer at the Kabirwala district hospital who examined her. Since then, Shaheen's ambitions have been shattered, and it is she who suffers scorn for the rape, rather than her attackers. She says she feels helpless. The school where she had expected to teach refused to accept her. "They said they can't accept me as it is a matter of their repute now," Shaheen said. Human rights activists have been critical of the police. They say the police have been slow to move against the accused because of pressure from high- level politicians to hush up the case. "Have they collected all the evidence? Have they raided the houses of all the accused?" said Rashid Rehman, an official with the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, an independent body that has taken up the case. On Sept. 26, Shaheen, along with Rehman, submitted another application to the police and presented a copy of the medical report confirming rape. Thirteen of the 14 men accused of taking part in the abduction are in hiding, police officials say. The police say they are doing their best. "We have apprehended the main accused," said Shahid Hanif, the district police chief of nearby Khanewal, who seemed clearly exasperated by the case. "No one is happy with police," he said. "What else does she expect us to do? We recovered her. We have arrested the man accused. Does she expect us to kill him? We can't do that."