Mukhtar Mai
Mukhtar Mai Reuters

The infamous gang-rape (and subsequent death) of a young medical student on a Delhi bus last month has cast a harsh glare on India’s ancient patriarchal attitudes towards women as well as the country’s epidemic of rapes.

The tragedy has galvanized Indian women’s rights activists and other protesters to demand a complete overhaul of the nation’s police and legal systems and the imposition of improved public safety measures for girls and women.

The incident and ongoing sweep of protests may mark a historic turning point for Indian society.

However, rape is also a serious problem in India’s neighbor and bitter rival, Pakistan.

Rapes occur across Pakistan for a wide array of reasons – for pure lust, for revenge, to avenge a rejected marriage proposal, for religious and ethnic reasons, or simply to satisfy a predatory man’s desire to exert unadulterated brutality and power.

Adding to the unremitting horror, the social stigma surrounding rape frequently leads to the victim committing suicide (often aided and abetted by her own family) or being forcibly married to her attacker (to preserve her family’s "honor.")

Indeed, shortly after the highly publicized death of the Delhi student in a Singapore hospital, a 9-year-old girl was kidnapped, beaten and gang-raped by three men in Pakistan – a horrific incident that has hardly generated much media attention either on the sub-continent or the West. Nor did her suffering inspire massive public demonstrations of sympathy and outrage.

In this case, though, the girl’s mother defied threats from the rapists and informed local police, who soon arrested up to six suspects. The child remains in critical condition in a hospital.

This unspeakable episode occurred just weeks after a six-year-old Hindu girl was gang-raped in Sindh province.

In fact, rapes are so common (and typically unreported), that the perpetrators in Pakistan are rarely ever arrested, much less held over for trial, convicted and jailed.

Perhaps the most famous rape victim in Pakistan was Mukhtar Mai, the illiterate village woman in Punjab who endured a brutal sexual assault by up to 14 men in 2002, survived, sought justice through the courts and became a symbol of the country’s complete disregard for the fairer sex.

Almost all of her rapists were ultimately acquitted after a lengthy series of trials that went all the way up to the Pakistani Supreme Court nine years later. (The other defendant was sent away for life.)

“I felt like the whole world was with me,” she said, according to the Global Post. “But still I did not receive justice.”

In Mai’s case, her rape was ordered by the jirga (a council of elders in another village) after her brother had offended members of a rival clan.

Her ordeal attracted enormous attention from Pakistani politicians and celebrities as well as from foreign countries, but her application to leave the country was denied on accusations that she would “use” her tragedy to become “wealthy” in the West.

Mukhtar Mai remains in her native village, living in fear of reprisals over her extraordinarily courageous stand.

Meanwhile, despite Mai’s passing fame, sexual violence against women continues unabated in Pakistan, as religious conservatives in government thwart every effort to upgrade laws to protect females.

Data on sexual violence in Pakistan, as in India, are vague and believed to be vastly underreported. What both nations share is the existence of a “rape culture” where men have brutalized women for centuries with impunity.

Ayesha Hasan, a freelance journalist, told German broadcaster Deutsche Welle, “Every year some 2,900 women are raped in Pakistan, almost eight a day."

It is notoriously difficult to even prove a rape occurred – in some cases, the courts require eyewitness verification from four Muslim men (an impossibility in 99.99 percent of such incidents.) In addition, as a bizarre twist, female rape victims are themselves frequently arrested and imprisoned.

A report in Rediff suggested that up to 90 percent of Pakistani females have been victimized by domestic violence (not necessarily rape).

In an opinion piece published recently in Pakistan’s Express Tribune newspaper, a columnist wrote: "The plight of women who have faced rape and sexual assault in Pakistan has been largely confined to formulaic articles in the press, slow-moving cases in the courts, and frequent dropped charges due to bribes, threats of further violence and family pressure on the victim to avoid further 'shame.'"

Girls from religious minorities, including Hindus and Christians, are particularly vulnerable to sexual assault and rape, as well as to forcible conversion to Islam.

The Indian Express newspaper, citing a survey from the Society for the Protection of the Rights of the Child, reported that in 2011 alone almost 2,000 women from minority faiths in Pakistan were “forcibly converted to Islam through rape, torture and kidnappings.”

“The method of choice to convert the girls who are abducted is to have them marry within the Muslim community,” said the Asian Human Rights Commission.

On a broader scale, Shahla Haeri, a women's studies professor at Boston University, characterized rape in Pakistan as "often institutionalized and has the tacit and at times the explicit approval of the state.”

Maheen Usami, a journalist, put the grim reality of Pakistan in context in a blog published by the Express Tribune almost two years ago.

“Despite the lip service paid to the rights of women and their ‘honor,’ most women in Pakistan are treated as chattels and dirt, to be trod on, spat upon and trashed verbally and physically,” she fumed.

“If there is so much respect for women in Islam, then why is there a daily litany of abuse heaped on their heads?”