It began with a gruesome crime: a 12-year-old girl was raped by a teenage boy in a field in mid-July.
What happened next was a reaction that Pakistan has been sharply condemned for over the years: A tribal council — or panchayat in Urdu — ordered a revenge rape.
Two days after the girl was raped, her brother sexually violated a 16-year-old girl. She is the sister of the first rapist, a 17-year-old boy.
The panchayat that ordered the rape is led by influential landlords who settle disputes according to tribal customs that predate Islam.
In the July incident, the family of the 12-year-old girl appear to deeply adhere to the rules of tribal justice. After she was raped, her mother appealed to the panchayat in their area of the city of Multan, known as Muzaffarabad.
She first asked that the rapist marry her 12-year-old daughter, according to her initial report to the police. That report was leaked to NPR and other media outlets.
In conservative areas of South Asia and the Middle East, raped women and girls are seen as bringing dishonor on their family. Marriage is seen as quickly concealing the shame. There are efforts by feminists across the region to try outlaw the practice.
According to the report submitted to the police, the family of the rapist refused the mother’s request. The report goes on to note that in seeking an alternative resolution, the panchayat decided that the rapist’s sister, age 16, should be raped in retribution.
This is where the story typically stops. Rarely do panchayat rulings bubble up to the media.
It is not clear why, but days later, the family of the 16-year-old girl lodged a complaint with the police about the revenge rape.
The mother of the 12-year-old girl said that when she heard about the complaint, she decided to go to the police as well. On July 24, she lodged a complaint about her daughter’s rape.
The mother of the 12-year-old made her complaint in a government-run center in Multan that is meant to protect women against violence. Established in March, it is a test project of sorts, containing a police station, psychological services and a shelter.
A senior police officer at the center also provided NPR with details of the incident. The officer requested anonymity because she was not authorized to speak to the media.
The center is confusingly known as “Violence Against Women” — probably an unfortunate lost-in-translation mistake.
The officer said the mother of the 12-year-old did not understand why the other family had gone to the police. “She said when her own daughter was raped, she did not complain, she had a panchayat,” she said.
The panchayat exist alongside Pakistan’s justice system. They are powerful in some rural areas, particularly around Multan. Some villagers resort to them because, simply, they are seen as the law.
In addition, some residents of rural areas don’t trust the courts or don’t believe the courts can enforce their decisions. Pakistan’s courts are also slow and expensive for the country’s poor.
Instead, they go to tribal councils, “where cases are immediately sorted out and a verdict is given. For them it appears to be speedy justice,” said Shazia Khan, a woman’s rights activist based in Lahore.
After the mother reported the revenge rape, police arrested 20 men and were searching for others, reported Dawn, Pakistan’s leading English newspaper. According to local media reports, the men belonged to the families of the two girls who were raped.
That kind of police action follows a “traditional pattern,” said Omar Waraich, Asia spokesman of Amnesty International. After a rape is ordered, government officials typically condemn the act and usually round up some men. But “what they don’t do is dismantle these inherently abusive systems,” he said, referring to the tribal councils.
“There’s a lack of political will, and they don’t want to deal with it, because they fear there will be a backlash,” Waraich said.
He pointed to the case of Mukhtar Mai, a woman’s rights activist who was gang-raped in 2002 and paraded naked to shame her family on the orders of a different tribal council. Instead of staying quiet, Mai risked more violence against herself and her family by speaking to the media and taking her accused rapists to court.
Documentaries, a book, and an even an opera have been made about her. Her case has reached the Supreme Court and last year, was being reviewed again.
But until now, none of the men whom she accuses of raping her have ever been found guilty.
“What a pity,” said Mai of the two rapes in July. “First the life of one girl was ruined and then in order to avenge the disgrace, the life of another girl is ruined.”