Mukhtaran Bibi. Dr. Shazia Khalid. Kainat Soomro. Samia Sarwar. Khadija Saddiqi. Quratulain Baloch Annie. Asma Aziz. Arooj and Aneesa Abbas. Sajida Tasneem. Countless others who have been kept anonymous for the sake of protection. Domestic abuse, rape and honour killings are rampant in Pakistan while accountability and justice remain to be ideals far beyond our reach.

According to the Aurat foundation, more than 70 percent of Pakistani women are victims of domestic violence. Each day, at least 11 instances of rape occur in the country but what is more devastating is that these statistics do not account for the countless cases that go unreported. If listing down the names of each victim could fill books, detailing each horrifying case would make collections and those too would only scratch the surface of this deep-rooted and backward problem in the country.

A select few cases like that of Qandeel Baloch—murdered by her brother Muhammad Waseem for insulting the family’s honour—and Noor Mukadam—kidnapped, tortured, raped and then beheaded by her brutal partner Zahir Jaffer—gain enough traction to create some unrest and demands for justice, while the majority barely make it to the news. The sobering reality is that the momentum always dies down. It takes the life of another tragic victim for the movement to be revived and rather depressingly so, we have far too many to rely on. While the country fumes with anger at the recent cases of violence like that of Sadija Tasneem who was bludgeoned to death by her father-in-law after an argument about moving her children to Australia where she was a citizen, a careful gaze must also be pointed towards the barriers that stand in the way of equitable justice.

Creating a legal framework for the protection of women is one basic requirement and while we have been slow in creating it, successive governments have come up with comprehensive bills that aim to create the infrastructure needed to offer help—physical, psychological and legal alike.

In 2013, the Sindh Assembly was the first to pass the Domestic Violence Prevention and Protection Act which called for the creation of a district-level women’s force that would respond to complaints. It also promised committees, a universal and toll-free helpline and the construction of shelters. This major development was supported by the governments of Balochistan and Punjab who passed similar legislation by 2014 and 2016 respectively. KP was the last to pass it in 2021 because, unsurprisingly, there was immense opposition from religious groups, which serve as a major obstacle in passing vital laws. This is because they have always enjoyed a disproportionate degree of influence, not only over the people but in the political arena of Pakistan as well. The Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) for instance, has often put up extensive opposition to state-level policies for women’s protection. After calling these provincial acts ‘un-Islamic’, it proposed its own bill which supported values like husbands being allowed to ‘lightly beat’ their wives. Three declarations of divorce by a woman warranted punishment and a prohibition on using contraceptives without the husband’s permission were integral—and preposterous—clauses which violated basic rights.

Even when the Domestic Violence (Prevention and Protection) Bill of 2020 was introduced in the National Assembly (NA), religious fanatics went haywire about how it would destroy family values and was an infringement upon sharia laws. This backlash prompted the then Advisor to the PM on Parliamentary Affairs, Babar Awan, to suggest passing the bill onto the CII for a review. As predicted, it was called ‘un-Islamic’ and was ordered to be reconsidered. Ever since, little progress has been achieved on this front despite the fact that the bill is comprehensive and goes above and beyond to provide every provision that will allow women to feel safer. It clearly defines what domestic violence is and looks like, sets a minimum and maximum prison sentence and imposes fines. In addition to the province-level acts, this bill would set up the legal and infrastructural framework needed to ensure that perpetrators are brought to justice. However, there is little that can be done to get it out of legal limbo because of a strangely intolerant mindset when it comes to women.

There are countless other examples of legislation that should be hailed as major accomplishments because they signify progress, ever if it is rather late or slow-paced. Anti-rape laws were passed according to which chemical castration was set as the punishment for rape crimes and special courts were created to expedite trials which had to be concluded in four months. Then in 2021, Justice Ayesha A Malik of the Lahore High Court (LHC) declared the two-finger test to be illegal, saying that it only served as a violation of a woman’s dignity. The Protection against Harassment of Women at the Workplace Bill of 2022 offers provisions to the law that protect women working in the formal and informal sectors from harassment, abuse or manipulation. Even the loophole that enabled perpetrators of honour killings to seek forgiveness for the murder by their family members was successfully closed after Qandeel Baloch’s murder. Evidently, it is not as though we lack the capacity or the political will to create effective laws. The problem lies in the neglect shown towards implementation, without which these are surface-level changes at best.

Laws with immense potential are either condemned by religious authorities who also rally the public behind their views or they are simply not applied. The reality is, chemical castration as a punishment is rewarded rarely. A lack of evidence still allows for the perpetrators to roam freely. Even resolving the honour killing loophole was rather useless because acquittal is just as easy to obtain by differentiating the crime from an honour killing to murder, effectively enabling the Qisas and Diyat laws to apply. We have decent laws but executive bodies simply do not have it in them to show commitment to implementation. Local and state-level authorities are well-versed in their old ways of intolerance, and unawareness, and often, they act with impunity.

We live in a time when institutions like police stations not being women-friendly is normalised. Police officers frequently refuse to take the statement of a victim of domestic abuse or rape by asserting that it is a private matter that must be dealt with at home. In the instances where they do hear the victim out, unsympathetic and accusatory comments should be expected. This was exemplified rather perfectly when the Lahore Capital City Police Officer (CCPO), Umar Sheikh, stated that the 2020 motorway rape incident—where a woman was raped at gunpoint in front of her children—took place because she was travelling late at night without her husband. He further declared that she should have planned her route carefully, should not have stopped the car and should not have gotten out. Each comment was more preposterous than the previous and reflected the victim-blaming culture, particularly when it comes to women, in Pakistan. If the default mentality is that women must, in some way, encourage these crimes to occur then clearly, we are in an impossible situation where laws will do little unless this mindset changes. The law is only as good as the people who interpret it. It is no surprise then that inequitable justice is the norm in Pakistan.

Every once in a while, there will be an example of a victim who survived torture and spoke out. One such victim is Khadija Saddiqi who was stabbed 23 times by her abuser. The law, combined with the inept police forces, failed her by granting remissions to the abuser who got out after serving a few measly months in jail because of good behaviour and donating blood. Surely someone who committed such a heinous crime deserves more time in custody to, if nothing else, regret it. Remissions are undeniably important but certainly within the ambit of ensuring that justice is served. There is a greater onus upon such bodies to enforce the law in a manner that upholds their essence and majority of the times, they fail to do so. Only three percent of all suspects in cases of domestic violence, rape and honour killings are ever convicted or charged. How has such a dire situation persisted through time, one must wonder.

Perhaps what allows for executive bodies to resume functioning in the broken way that they do is a severe lack of awareness of laws for protection. A majority of the women of Pakistan are so severely disadvantaged that they know little about the structure of the state and if they do, they are often bullied into submission by a patriarchal society or social pressures and taboos—the latter un-ironically being a byproduct of the former. Thus, there is little to no pressure upon law enforcement or the government to uphold the law or oversight to hold them accountable for the times that they display a negligent attitude. Most women have just accepted the culture for the way it is and this is true not only for women belonging to low-income backgrounds where education is unpopular but those that belong to the elite strata of society as well. The internet has provided a platform through which greater mobilisation is made possible—as seen in Noor Mukadam’s case, which saw intense media coverage and mobilisation on social media, due the positions of power both concerned families possessed, as well as the refusal of her friends and family to back down. Such support is often rare. But even so, digital media can only go so far as well. A careful investigation will show that we are trapped in a cycle which starts with the news of the crime, massive public outrage, authorities scrambling to process abusers, the case getting lost in the trial, and media attention going down until another victim’s story comes out after which, the loop repeats itself.

It has only been 7 days since Sadija Tasneem’s ruthless murder was reported and it seems as though we have forgotten about it, obsessing over the next breaking news or ringing alarm bells for another victim. It is a tragic cycle, one that must be broken.