On Monday, a high court in Pakistan acquitted a man who had been accused of stabbing a woman 23 times. Despite the presented video footage of the incident, 23-year-old Shah Hussain walked free, to the shock and dismay of his victim, and fellow law student, Khadija Siddiqi.
The young woman was attacked in Lahore in May 2016 while trying to get into a car after picking up her sister from school. Siddiqi has alleged that Hussain had harassed her before the attack.
For two years, she tried to obtain justice but was failed repeatedly by Pakistan’s judicial system. Last year, she even had to sit an exam in the same room with Hussein – the son of an influential lawyer – after a lower court granted him post-arrest bail.
After initially getting a seven-year prison sentence for the attack, which was reduced to a five-year one after an appeal, Hussein was acquitted for reasons the court has not yet made clear.
According to Siddiqi, a sessions judge told her that she must provide proof of this murder motive. She also claimed that the judge said that this incident occurred because she must have insulted Hussain in some way or another. Her character was continuously questioned in court and she was pressured to make a compromise which she refused to do.
This is not the first time a person with authority has justified violence against women in Pakistan. And it’s not the first time the judicial system has failed a Pakistani woman either.
Siddiqi’s case should be seen in the larger context of Pakistan’s systemic failure to protect women and children from violence and punish those who choose to perpetrate it.
A culture of impunity for men and victim-blaming for women
Pakistan is heavily influenced by its religious zealots and conservative forces. It is not uncommon for people in a position of power to claim to be proponents of morality and religious principles.
Yet the interpretations of Islam or of local traditions they propose, almost always are to the detriment of women’s and minority’s rights. Thus, harassers, rapists and murderers are often let off the hook, as their victims are blamed for what has happened to them.
They are accused of not covering enough, not being religious enough or of provoking the violence. In the cases of gender-based violence, rarely are these religious, conservative authorities arguing that harassment, rape and murder are all crimes that Islam condemns and proscribes punishment for and therefore, those who commit them should be severely punished.
These perceptions, unfortunately, are widely spread not only within rural conservative communities but also within judicial and law enforcement institutions, which are heavily male-dominated.
It is therefore hardly surprising that Pakistan is no stranger to blaming a woman for a man’s crime and seeking to punish her.
In 2007, Kainat Soomro, who was 13 at the time, was kidnapped and gang-raped. After she spoke out against her rapists, the village elders decided that she should be killed for bringing dishonour to her family. Her parents rejected the decision; her brother was subsequently killed and her sister divorced. She lost the court case against her rapists.
A sense of impunity rules in Pakistan which allows men to violate women without fear of the consequences. As Soomro said: “Men from the powerful families of the village rape any woman they please and then simply kill her or declare her outlawed. Men get away with it because they are powerful. And the woman is always blamed. That’s how these influential men behave.”
Another rape victim, Mukhtar Mai, went through a similar struggle. In 2011, after an almost decade-long battle for justice, Mai lost an appeal to have all six rapists thrown in jail. Mai was ganged raped in 2002 at the order of a village council for a perceived “slight” by her then 12-year-old brother against a powerful clan in her village. The Supreme Court in Pakistan acquitted five of her six rapists.
Victim blaming of even younger children is also not uncommon in Pakistan. In February this year, seven-year-old Zainab Ansari was raped and murdered . Instead of asking why a man raped and killed the little girl, there were some publicly questioned why she was left alone to walk around.
And even when the Pakistani justice system is presented with indisputable evidence of a violent crime perpetrated by a man against a woman, it is slow to deliver justice. It has been two years since social media star Qandeel Baloch was killed by her brother and even though he proudly confessed that he strangled her in the name of “honour”, the case against him is still dragging through court.
The fight for justice continues
The cases of Soomro and Mai we know about because they managed to find in themselves the super-human courage to speak out despite threats to their lives. But there are also many we don’t hear and will never know about.
In its 2017 report, The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan revealed that cases of violence against women are largely unreported due to conservatism, illiteracy, fear of stigma, shame and dishonour, and poverty.
It is commonly believed that “decent” women should not report rape or harassment for the sake of upholding their “honour”. This is why so many incidents are unreported. All the while, men get away with their crimes.
That in this dangerous environment plagued by shameless misogyny and sexism, resilient Pakistani women still speak up should make us feel proud. Like Soomro and Mai, Siddiqi has vowed to continue her struggle for justice.
She plans to take her fight to the Supreme Court and has already called on the chief justice of Pakistan to look into her case. Her unwavering courage is indeed a beacon of hope for all women in Pakistan.
In the end, it will be women like her, like Soomro and Mai, who with their courage and determination will force the system to change. Siddiqi’s struggle is for the sake of all women in Pakistan.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.