KASUR, PAKISTAN: The second-grader’s homework assignment on Jan. 4 was to describe herself. “I am a girl,” wrote Zainab Amin, who had a perky smile and a pageboy haircut. “I am seven years old. I live in Kasur. I love mangoes.”
The next morning, while walking to a Koran class at her aunt’s house, the little girl vanished. Five days later, her battered corpse was discovered in a garbage dump nearby. The medical examiner’s terse report hinted at the horrors she had endured while the community was frantically searching for her.
There was “mud, fecal matter, and blood on the body,” it stated. There were strangulation marks on her neck. There was semen and other “signs of sexual assault,” including sodomy.
Zainab’s gruesome rape and murder followed several waves of child abductions, murders and sexual abuse that earned this economically struggling city a macabre reputation as Pakistan’s capital of child sex abuse. But it also triggered an unprecedented national bout of soul-searching, outrage and public confessions from victims of sexual abuse. Pakistan is a conservative Muslim society; child abuse is common but rarely reported, and sex education is too controversial for public schools.
Rape victims are often charged with adultery and jailed, and tribal councils – part of a traditional parallel justice system – have sentenced women and girls to be raped as retribution for forbidden dalliances or elopement committed by their male relatives. In most instances, state authorities do not intervene unless the case is especially egregious and attracts news coverage.
But Zainab’s case, which coincided with the #MeToo phenomenon in the United States, thrust a long-verboten topic into the public arena. Headlines screamed “Pakistan’s Shame!” The #JusticeforZainab hashtag went viral. Celebrities sent out tweets revealing childhood secrets of being molested by older men. Clerics from competing Muslim groups rushed to lead funeral prayers and protests. Provincial government officials, facing calls for their resignations, fired Kasur’s police chief and offered a reward of 10 million rupees (about $100,000) for information about the culprit.
“There is no shame in having been a victim of abuse,” tweeted Frieha Altaf, a silver-haired public relations star who confided that she had been molested by her family’s cook at age 6. She said the experience “scarred me for life” but that she had remained silent until now because the issue was a social taboo in Pakistan, “shushed away by victims’ families.”
Fashion designer Maheem Khan reported on social media that she had been sexually abused as a child by a Muslim cleric “who came to teach me the Koran. I froze in fear day after day.” She urged her fellow Pakistanis to “take a look at ourselves as a society” and parents to “listen to your children, teach them, warn them, talk to them openly about what is appropriate and what isn’t.”
Zainab’s death set off three days of violent rioting in Kasur, a gritty industrial city near the border with India where residents were already on edge after a spate of similar crimes – including a video porn ring that reportedly targeted nearly 300 children. Most cases were never solved, and some suspects were freed by the courts. Last week, as anger at authorities boiled over, three protesters were shot dead.
Rights activists said they fear that the furor will die down and little will change, though, largely because of the entrenched political interests, clan loyalties, legal limits and cultural taboos that work against justice in such cases. Witnesses often refuse to testify, police are discouraged from investigating, and courts routinely free accused abusers. There is almost no sex education in public schools, and it was not until two years ago that sexual abuse of minors was made a criminal offense.
Already, in the days since Zainab’s abduction, a similar case has come to light in northwest Pakistan – this time with an even younger victim, a girl of 4 named Asma. Her body was found in a sugar cane field with signs of strangulation and rape. Her father was away at the time, working as a construction laborer in the Middle East.
“I was in Mecca praying for my children, and I came back to this,” said Ansari, 50, a slight man with a gray beard. He said he was frustrated by the lack of police progress in finding Zainab’s killer but that he hoped the tragedy would help prevent similar crimes in the future. “We need justice for all such cases,” he said.