Some friends and I were recently arguing over which trait can be termed quintessentially Pakistani. Suspicion, volunteered one, pointing to our endemic regard for conspiracy theories. Cynicism, countered another, stating that Pakistanis are no longer capable of hope and assume the worst of all people and circumstances that may arise. I cast my vote for apathy, that prevailing characteristic that has compelled a foreign correspondent to describe us as an ‘inshallah nation,’ forever complaining about our predicament, but never doing a damn thing to remedy it.
The last of our crew suggested irony, and went on to make the point that the greatest tragedy of Pakistan is that it has no regard for how contradictory and ironic many of our problems are. At the time, she was pooh-poohed. Nothing as subtle, poetic, and literary as irony could define the brute mass that is Pakistan.
This week, however, I was forced to revisit that conversation, and am now willing to concede that perhaps irony is one of our defining traits as a people and polity.
On Sunday it was revealed that a woman named Abida Hamid was manhandled in the presence of high-ranking police officers when she came to the Faisalabad Civil Lines Police Station to register an FIR against a policeman. Hamid was slapped and dragged along the floor by a female police officer, while the Deputy Superintendent of Police Tasleem Sabir, the female SHO Zahida Parvin, and another SHO Nasrullah Niazi stood by and laughed. According to some reports, Hamid was then made to lie on her stomach and flogged on the orders of the male police officers present.
Since the incident was captured on a mobile phone and broadcast on several cable television channels, swift action has been taken against the offending police officials. The Faisalabad City Police Officer has suspended several of the officials involved, and a three-member team constituted by the Punjab police inspector has launched an inquiry into the horrifying incident.
Here’s where the irony starts to come in…
This incident reflects the total failure of the initiative to launch women policing in Pakistan. After all, Hamid had to bring her complaint to a station dominated by male police officials and face torture at the hands of female constables who, to some extent, were acting on the orders and encouragement of their male colleagues and bosses.
The very fact that the female police officers treated Hamid with such little respect – indeed, their physical abuse of her is appalling and unforgivable – indicates that they have no sense of their raison d’être. Female police officials are meant to play a vital role in ensuring that justice is served in patriarchal, misogynistic societies. They are recruited and posted at stations so that women who have encounters with the law – whether in the role of victim or accused – are treated with dignity and sensitivity and ensured protection. They are the mediators charged with making the law and justice more accessible to disenfranchised women. Moreover, by participating in the justice system in the capacity of law-enforcers, such women are also empowered to challenge systemic societal discrimination.
The women who slapped, dragged, and flogged Hamid are obviously unaware of the sacred role they play in our country’s justice system. Whether this is the result of poor training, social brainwashing, or poor leadership is up to the official inquiry committee to clarify.
But back to the irony: The drive to promote women policing in Pakistan was the brainchild of Benazir Bhutto, who in her second term as prime minister called for the establishment of women’s police stations. In fact, the establishment of independent women’s desks in police stations, and more importantly, independent women’s police stations, was one of the few measures that Bhutto was able to implement during her two short stints in power, and one of two significant measures to empower the women of Pakistan that were actually realised.
Is anyone still wondering what is so ironic about this situation? In a week when every aspect of Bhutto’s assassination is being minutely debated – the hoses, the doctors, the missing Mercedes – no one has shown any concern for the deteriorating state of BB’s political legacy and the few productive things she was able to achieve in her ill-fated, tragically truncated lifetime.
Establishing women police stations and a vital female police force was the cornerstone of Bhutto’s feminist politics and one of the most progressive articulations of her democratic ideals. Unfortunately, this proud aspect of her political legacy has fallen by the wayside, as the Faisalabad police brutality story amply demonstrates.
The extent to which Bhutto’s dream of a law-enforcing infrastructure that caters specially to Pakistan’s women has faded is shocking. Although she institutionalised a female police force in the mid-1990s, Karachi, the nation’s largest and most crime-infested city, opened its first, fully independent women police station as recently as November 2009 (before that, women police stations were extensions of regular police stations).
Last year, PPP MNA Nafisa Shah admitted that the government’s failure to implement a female police force on a nationwide scale was a disservice to Bhutto’s political legacy and vision. She wrote:
Despite Mohtarma Shaheed’s focused initiative, little thinking has gone into policymaking to enhance the role of women in the police and her dream of empowering women by raising their own force in the police has yet to be fully realised.
One of the most concerning aspect is a negligible presence of women in the police sector. In Sindh, out of a sanctioned police force of nearly 87,000, women’s sanctioned strength is 1,740 against which there are 558 policewomen working, a mere 0.62 percent of the total. In Balochistan, out of a total sanctioned strength of 46,873, there are around 76 sanctioned posts against which 56 are working. The case of Islamabad police shows that out of the about-10,000 police force only 157 are women. In Punjab the sanctioned strength of the police is 166,900 against which women account for only 840 posts with the working strength much lower than this figure. In the Frontier women’s sanctioned strength is 262.
One hopes that the shameful Faisalabad incident forces the authorities to revisit the pressing matter of police reform, with a careful eye towards revamping women policing. One also hopes that the timing of this incident helps give some perspective to Bhutto loyalists – rather than dwell on every question surrounding her death (many of which we can be certain will never be publicly answered), more effort should be expended on preserving her political legacy and ideals.
For in focusing on Bhutto’s assassination, we’re sidelining her accomplishments. Now, isn’t that ironic?
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