Zainab and the Hierarchy of Rape Culture

zoha batool khan
9 min readJan 18, 2018

On 5th January, 2018, in Kasur, Pakistan, a missing-persons FIR was filed for Zainab by her paternal uncle, a day after she had gone missing. She had been living with her maternal aunt while her parents were away on Umrah in Saudi Arabia and had left for a madrassah in the Road Kot area near her house on 4th Jan. Footage was soon received by the family that depicted her walking with a stranger near Peerowala Road.

On 8th January, the police recovered her body from where it had been left in a rubbish heap (different articles state different locations). An autopsy report showed she had been killed two to three days earlier, sexually assaulted, tortured and strangled to death, the details of which are still being investigated. The body was buried on Wednesday when the parents returned, the funeral prayers led by Pakistani Awami Tehreek’s chief, Tahirul Qadri, whom Zainab’s father supports.

This has not been the first time Kasur has featured in headlines due to violence against children. Last year, two men were imprisoned for a pedophilia ring consisting of multiple children abused all over Punjab over a number of years by a wealthy family that would force the children to perform sexual acts on tape and then use it to extort money from parents. Then too, the state looked the other way and insisted it was a land dispute.

As the news spread, protests erupted not only in Kasur but all over the country; in major cities such as Karachi, Islamabad and Lahore, there were protests at press clubs . #JusticeForZainab started trending, attracting coverage from BBC, Reuters, Al-Jazeera, among countless others.

While the fact that this didn’t just go underground as one of the countless cases of violence against women but gained global attention is remarkable on its own, the focus has shifted entirely to catching the rapist and hanging him publicly to act as a deterrent to other rapists and child molesters. Petitions demanding punishment have cropped up and are quickly gaining lakhs of signatures, citing Iran’s Atena Aslani case as inspiration, the same country whose soccer team’s captain was barred from playing in Malaysia in 2015 because of Sharia law, whose leader deems gender equality incompatible with the Islamic Republic. Cries for punishing the rapist as per Sharia are echoing throughout Pakistan, when it was under the same mantle of Sharia that the landmark Violence Against Women bill was criticized and deemed unIslamic by Pakistan’s Council of Islamic Ideology, the same council that insisted DNA couldn’t be primary evidence in a rape case, termed the changing of women’s minimum marriageable age from 16 to 18 ‘blasphemous’, going so far as to declare women themselves anti-Islamic, among a host of other misogynistic stances.

Apart from the erroneous focus on Sharia methods for punishment, the problem is, in fact, the focus on punishment itself. The under-reported crimes in Pakistan alone show that this is a serious, systemic problem and punishing one individual will not fix the system in place that fosters the attitudes that lead to this. The punishment should be doled out, that much is certain, but it can’t be our main goal. It should be on making sure no victim needs to fear a situation like this in the first place. Even in our focus on punishment, we’re making mistakes by not revising what we know of rape and justice, and why, why there’s only one type of victim and one type of rapist, by not fixing the flaws in the system that allow only some crimes to be punished.

  • The misconceptions surrounding rape itself: We should be looking at a multi-faceted reform of the system that makes certain bodies more vulnerable to violence and why it’s mostly men inflicting it, what entitles them to this. No, it’s not because of mental illness. Many mentally ill people are not abusive, which counters the idea that illness makes one inherently prone to abuse; this explanation just perpetuates ableism and stigmatizes mental illness further. It also serves as an excuse, where the blame for rape is shifted from the individual onto the illness. Rapists know perfectly well what they’re doing. They choose it because they think they’re entitled to other people’s bodies, regardless of bodies. The problem is taught, not a result of sickness.

No, it’s not about lust, a pervasive misconception that we can’t seem to shake off despite multiple research studies. For one, the elderly and children often make up significant chunks of assault victims. It’s simply about dominance, about exerting control over a victim to teach them ‘who’s boss.’ Rape has been historically used as a tool of subjugation globally, often as an explicit command issued out to soldiers to ‘pollute’ bloodlines and honor, used to perpetuate every crime from religious to caste-based to class because all conflicts are gendered. Panchayats or arbitration courts think it’s completely logical to punish the women in a family when the men are convicted of a crime; the men of the accuser’s family then proceed to rape the women with the full approval of the village elders. They also sanction ‘revenge rape’, a concept blatantly misogynistic, horrible and twisted beyond belief. Even marriage of one’s choice is apparently asking for it.We should be asking why certain bodies are battles zones to engage in warfare on, why they’re used like land to ambush the foe on, treated like property and discarded when defiled, no identity of their own except how they can be used against those in actual power, as liability. It’s this sort of social reform that must be carried out to prevent any blocking of progressive bills.

  • Why only some victims are defended: We should be questioning why only selective types of victims get sympathy, those we can turn into martyrs, those we could see as our own or ourselves. Why are women like Qandeel Baloch seen as deserving of their fate? We all know why: it’s because they owned their sexuality and refused to abide by chaste-victim norms, refused to be subordinate and modest, and we believe that if someone doesn’t play by our rules, they deserve what’s coming to them, even when our rules haven’t protected those who obeyed either.

Why are some bodies considered public property, disposable, particularly trans people and sex workers, so when they’re violated, it isn’t considered rape? Because they were never seen as people, and beyond that, as people with autonomy, whose consent matters as much as an upper-class cis woman’s. Why has state-sanctioned violence against the trans community gone unprotested? How was Zainab not asking for it but Muskan was? In our society, some bodies have been sexualized beyond the point of requiring consent, of basic rights, and we just watch when that’s reinforced everyday in every sphere. We only sigh in relief that today, it wasn’t our body chosen.

Why was the body of an 8-month-old Ahmadi girl, Kainat, burned in Gujranwala while a mob danced? Are only Sunni Muslim girls worth protecting, because Sunni Muslim honor resides in them? Maybe that’s why Zainab’s father was insistent that the committee to investigate Zainab’s murder and rape shouldn’t be headed by an Ahmadi. After all, what would they know of violence, right?

Why can your abuse only be abuse if you fit the damaging, restrictive mould of what a good, defendable victim is supposed to be? Only a dead victim is worth lauding, and it’s evident in how countless girls Zainab’s age, of all ages, are going through the same thing, through marital assault and rape, just under the sham of a marriage, and no one cares; no one will mourn them and their current-tense suffering because it’s too painful and requires actual work to undo, something more than grabbing onto one perpetrator and making a ceremony out of the punishment, something too close to home. it’s easier to mourn someone dead: they can’t make any more demands of you, ask you to do something more than perform.

  • Why only some rapists are prosecuted: On the other end of this equation, why are some rapists easier to vilify while others walk free? There has been no national protest against the sexual abuse going on in madrassahs, because they are either connected to militant groups who threaten the family into dropping charges or because the social prestige from being a religious clerk protects them. One’s profession can influence how people see them and what they’re capable of; just as sex workers are unduly stripped of autonomy by virtue of what they are mostly trafficked into, molvis are given undeserved saintly status for what they chose. It is in this thread that parents’ complicity in abuse also comes under investigation, where many cover up their own children’s abuse because they blame the child for being the victim, are in denial, or refuse to believe this happened because they somehow consider it blasphemous, completely under the spell of their priests.

Apart than the focus on punishment, there were numerous ‘tips’ all across social media on how to prevent child abuse, arguing this was only realistic because we couldn’t do anything about the abusers. These mostly assumed the abuser would be a qari, a driver, house help. It neglects to consider two scenarios: someone from the immediate family is the abuser, making it a case of incest (statistics show that in most of the cases, it was someone the victim was close to), or that the parents, if not the abusers themselves, would want to cover it up for various reasons that include but are not limited to: the family’s honor being at stake, the religious beliefs that insist men working for God can’t do this, financial or societal pressure, etc. It is not only unrealistic to expect the parents to be guarding the children 24/7, blaming them when something goes awry when they have other responsibilities to attend to and are prone to lapses in judgment and trust, but also dangerous because they might be the ones trafficking their children into this for money, etc., to begin with. This line of argument can not only endanger the child by entrusting them to the perpetrators but also deflects from the problem by pretending that we can solve this if we’re just alert enough for it to never happen.

It is parents pulling their daughters out of school early and forcing them into child marriage, selling their daughters off to pay loans incurred back home. How can you trust a parent to stand up for what’s right in a country where a mother kills her own daughter for honor? How can you entrust a child’s safety to a parent when so many are fleeing abusive households?

Children are the most defenseless in our society. Zainab’s intersection of sex, class and age all contributed to her being an easier target. This needs to be a wake-up call to Pakistan to improve its child protective services program (which is, frankly, in shambles), to help and free the victims still alive, not wait for them to die before validating their suffering, to change the culture and mindset that says you’re either your father’s property or your husband’s which means you’re just passed from abuser to abuser, creating a scenario in which too many girls are either forced into marriage or jump into it to flee abusive households and end up being trapped in another one. We can’t focus simply on punishing Zainab’s rapist because she’s not the only victim. There are countless others whose lives remain unaffected by this hanging. For their sake, the change needs to go deeper. It needs to be a social change, with classes about sex education that normalize sex and stop making it so taboo that it prevents abuse from being talked about, to explain the importance of consent and respecting autonomy, of how a no means no, how abuse works and how it’s wrong.

We need a legislative reform that criminalizes all forms of harassment and implements punishments effectively, that is, importantly, pro-trans and pro-sex worker, segments of population that are disproportionately targeted, that decriminalizes sex work to allow them workplace protection and recognizes that they too can be abused. As per Ambedkar, social reform needs to happen to effect political change but as per Humeira Iqtidar, secularism as a state policy (a facet of it here as pro-child and pro-woman legislation that markedly deviates from all aspects of Sharia, progressive as they seem), needs to be implemented to facilitate secularization, the social process, opens up conversations about abuse, incentivizes better treatment of victims.

We cannot afford to involve Sharia, whether in punishment or legal, social reform. We’re using the palatable bits to fix the problems caused by the other version which is a self-defeating process because it doesn’t change anything about the root of the issue. Using it as support inevitably leads to misuse and problems tomorrow. The #JusticeForZainab movement needs to center the voices and experiences of victims, instead of marginalizing them all over again, making props out of them to push for more religious involvement. This requires unlearning how all of us have been complicit in upholding this system, even victims who prioritize our own definitions and experiences and force them onto other victims, discrediting theirs under the assumption that they don’t know well enough (as we’re seeing victims insist that Grace is faking it). And as a victim, I say this needs to be a reckoning for the whole country, for the rapists and all the bystanders who assisted through silence. May there be no more of us or of them after today, and if we do this right, we can ensure a world like that.