By Afzal A. Shigri
February 2nd, 2016
CULTURAL and societal values, prejudices and customs tend to be accepted unquestioningly and reflected in all aspects of society. Often, they are also resistant to change. Society, during the course of its evolution, has treated women as inferior, with matriarchal societies a rare exception.
Despite the development of complex and sophisticated social structures, women have been consigned to the periphery. Even in the West, more specifically the US, which stands as the standard bearer for women’s emancipation, the right to vote was pledged after decades of struggle in 1912 by the forerunners of modern-day feminists.
Hence, it is only to be expected that governance structures have been dominated by a patriarchal set-up and led by men with a vested interest in sustaining male hegemony. Indeed, the impact of this culturally sanctioned male dominance on the justice system can be so overwhelming that even the best of legislation remains open to distorted implementation.
The most important area of the present complex governance structure in Pakistan is the criminal justice system, with the front office being the police station, which is the locus of interaction between the institution and the common man across the country. Male chauvinism and hegemonic practices therefore have a strong influence on the biased behaviour of police towards women.
Despite legal provisions for their protection, women suffer at the hands of the male-dominated police.
However, the same culture, which denies women a voice and autonomy, also entails different treatment and a certain amount of deference based on gender. This cultural phenomenon is reflected in the procedural laws wherein no woman can be body-searched by a male. This not only imperils the lives of police personnel in the present security situation but also denies them the opportunity to make possible discoveries of significance as the Zenan Khana may only be entered after the women living there are given an opportunity to leave the place.
In case of criminal cases, except for heinous offences, the female accused is allowed bail. Similarly, she cannot be detained in a police station and must be sent to the judicial lock-up before sunset. She can only be interrogated for investigation in the presence of a woman police officer or a senior police officer. Similarly, for the arrest of a woman in a criminal case, the police party must be accompanied by a female police officer or a woman from the locality.
These legal provisions are further elaborated on and strengthened through rules, regulations and departmental standing instructions. In big cities, separate women police stations have been established staffed by female police officers for dealing with women. In case of a victim seeking shelter in a police station, she is sent to a government facility set up for this purpose and in case of its non-availability, to an NGO. In rural areas, such a woman is sent to stay with the family of a person of good reputation and integrity.
Despite these elaborate legal provisions for protecting them, the reality is that women suffer at the hands of the male-dominated police forces. When faced with dealing with cases involving women, even the most compassionate police officers consider it a nuisance, and their effort is to shift responsibility by referring the cases to their seniors or to other institutions. Police officers in field assignments treat cases involving women as a diversion from their normal duties with the potential of attracting negative media reports or complaints by the women against the investigators they dread most.
Most of the cases filed are related to domestic violence or disputes that have failed to be resolved by the family or the informal community structures. The police station is approached as a last resort by such women who are likely to have already exhausted other avenues for resolving their family disputes.
In such cases also, the police normally avoid taking legal action and advise the victim to seek remediation of the grievance through family or civil society traditional structures or even by involving the perpetrator of the violence. As a last option, the police may agree to initiate legal action, and contrary to popular perception, may do so with a healthy respect for the dignity of the women. Even if it is a plainly criminal act, the police tend to treat it as a personal and private matter, which should be settled within the family or through civil society structures.
Such an attitude is shaped by their experience that despite initiation of legal action, the involved parties will end up engaging in compromise. These reconciliations are generally weighed against the woman where even her close relations pressurise her to reach a compromise, and the police willingly facilitate them knowing prosecution to be futile.
In cases of molestation and workplace harassment, the attitude is even more complicated and the standard reaction is to evade action. In most rape cases, the complaint is lodged with inordinate delay that is fatal to the investigation as all forensic evidence is lost. A case lost before being initiated is a nightmare for the police as they will be ultimately blamed for acquittal of the accused, and the police investigator will be faced with the prospect of a futile questioning of the woman in question to establish the veracity of her statement.
On the other hand, an informal system in tribal settings punishes the entire family of the accused by yet another injustice to the female members of his family through the custom of Vani and Swara or honour killings.
While some progress has been made with an ever-vigilant media and civil society checking the wrongdoings of the law enforcers, it is important that the police are trained and sensitised to the plight of women who continue to suffer in the name of family honour. It is time that women are treated as equal citizens and extended the protection and dignity ensured to them in the Constitution as equal citizens. The responsibility rests with society and police that is duty-bound to follow the law and resist social pressures.
Afzal A. Shigri is a former IGP Sindh.