| A chicken is vaccinated at a poultry farm in Islamabad. (AFP)
Mattrai (Pakistan), Feb. 27: The gangrape of a nurse who refused to perform illegal abortions has outraged Pakistan and intensified calls for the repeal of its rape laws.
Rubina Kousar, 26, was attacked by three men after they burst into her lodgings at a rural health centre at Mattrai in Pakistan’s Punjab province last Wednesday.
Police arrested Allah Nawaz, 24, his brother Malik Riaz, 34, who has been elected as a local council leader, and a friend, Mohamed Ashraf, 25, on suspicion of rape. They deny the charges.
The case has pitted landowners, who rule their fiefdoms with impunity, against those wanting to do away with brutal practices that go unpunished in rural backwaters.
“I was constantly put under pressure over the course of six months to carry out illegal abortions on two women but I refused,” said Kousar. “And so revenge was taken.”
Kousar’s job at the clinic, set among neat squares of cotton and wheat fields bordering Pakistan’s western tribal belt, pays her '35 a month. Abortion is illegal in Pakistan except when the mother’s life is at risk.
“The family came and harassed me but I never imagined they would do this,” she said, weeping and shaking with shock.
The gang tied up the clinic’s guard and then advanced on Kousar’s lodgings.
“They broke a panel in my bedroom door and unbolted it. One of them held a pistol to my head and threatened to kill me,” she said. “Another held me down and then they took turns raping me.”
Pakistan’s hudood law outlaws extramarital sex and forces a rape victim to field four witnesses to prove her case. The victim can be considered a guilty party.
President Pervez Musharraf is facing increasing pressure to repeal the law, introduced by the late military dictator General Zia-ul-Huq, even if it antagonises radical Islamists. All the same, human rights activists fear Kousar will not get a fair hearing.
The all-embracing power of the local landowner is such that cases like hers often face obstruction. “This case is part of the feudal system. Unless we change society these cases will continue,” said Riaz Hussein, of the Punjab Healthworkers’ Association.
“In the past our staff have been subjected to this type of victimisation for refusing to carry out illegal abortions but they have not raised their voices for fear of retribution.”
But activists are also hopeful that recent publicity given to rape crimes may change the judiciary’s attitude to hudood cases.
The case of Mukhtaran Mai prompted an international outcry three years ago after she testified against neighbours who allegedly gang-raped her on the orders of a council of elders.
The case is now before the supreme court, which could sentence 13 men to death. Speaking from the local jail, the men accused of raping Kousar said the charges were false.
“It is probably a conspiracy concocted by our political enemies,” said Allah Nawaz. “We hope the perpetrators of the rape are bought to book.”
“They have threatened my family with dire consequences if we do not settle this,” said Kousar. “But this is not the past when we can get pushed around. God will give me the courage to fight them.”