OVER A COFFEE: ‘No one burnt Fakhra’ —Dr Haider Shah
‘No one burnt Fakhra’ was the verdict of the court as all witnesses turned hostile and the person accused by Fakhra got acquitted. Fakhra is, however, not the only victim of our malfunctioning justice system as the list is a long one
The Oscar award for Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy’s Saving Face brought the issue of vitriol (acid throwing crime) to prominence. Little did we know that the real storm was waiting in the wings as the story of the tragic end of Fakhra suddenly surfaced in the media. The acid attack victim that left Pakistan 12 years ago returned in a coffin to Karachi, as her agonising desire for getting justice accompanied her departed soul.
The story of Fakhra has all the elements of a tragic movie: her association with Napier Road, Karachi, her relationship with a scion of a feudal family of Punjab, and her ultimate end after 12 years of painful existence. But while movies help in catharsis, this story has come as an acid attack on the face of a society that lives under many pretensions about its ideological foundations. Who pushed Fakhra into the ravine of pain? I don’t want to name anyone as this is the job of the state and its law enforcement machinery to find the perpetrator and bring him to justice. But let me declare my own musings first while the hunt for the perpetrators may carry on. Fakhra was not killed by a single assailant. There were many accomplices. Perhaps the whole society stood by the side of the perpetrators. Perhaps by turning my back on her I was also one of them.
The story of Fakhra reminds me of Boule de Suife, the famous short story of French writer Maupassant. Set in the times of the Franco-Prussian war, the story is about a prostitute who was travelling along with nine other local residents in a stagecoach to flee to a peaceful region. As a microcosm of French society, the stagecoach represents various social classes of the then France. Boule de Suife is shown as a conscientious person who shares her food with the rest of the travellers when they are hungry. The stagecoach accidently reaches an area occupied by the Prussian army and all the occupants of the coach are detained for interrogation. The travellers find out that the army officer in charge wants to sleep with Boule but because of her intense French nationalism; she is not ready to do so. All the nine journey mates begin convincing Boule and after providing moral and philosophical arguments, they prevail upon her. As the army officer is entertained, the stagecoach is let off. In the remaining part of the journey the hypocrisy of the so-called respectable sections of society is fully exposed as they look down upon Boule, refrain from interacting with her, and no one offers her food when she is hungry. Boule is left to herself to weep in solitude.
Like Fakhra, not a long time ago in India under different circumstances, the murdered Jessica Lal’s sister had also lost the battle against a politically backed and influential family of an arrogant killer. The readers may recall that the Lal murder case became an icon of national conscience for India when the court acquitted the killer because all the witnesses had testified against the murder charge. Jessica, a young model, was brutally killed with close range pistol shots after she refused to serve the son of a local influential politician accompanied by his friends as she had already closed the bar. The murder had taken place in front of horrified employees and guests at the club. In the court, however, no one came forward to testify against the powerful accused and as a result, the killer walked free. As a mark of maturing Indian nationalism, civil society launched a vigorous campaign that gathered so much strength that the investigation was re-opened in December 2006. With renewed interest of the law enforcement agencies and under the spotlight of the media, the accused found the tide going the opposite way and after being found guilty, he was imprisoned for life.
Fakhra’s case is much more tragic than that of Lal. While the bullets fired by the assailant ended a beautiful life in minutes, Fakhra had to experience 12 years of agony between the attack and her death. ‘No one burnt Fakhra’ was the verdict of the court as all witnesses turned hostile and the person accused by Fakhra got acquitted. Fakhra is, however, not the only victim of our malfunctioning justice system as the list is a long one. ‘No one raped her and no jirga was involved in the crime’ was the verdict for Mukhtaran Mai. Some time ago, a young educated girl of Peshawar, Samia Sarwar was murdered in the office of an NGO by a hired assassin who had accompanied the mother of the girl as part of an honour killing plot. The father walked free from the court thanks to the old tribal norms-based law that facilitates a murderer after some money payment.
The situation reminds me of a famous Hollywood movie, Predator, in which marines stuck in a jungle are killed, one by one, by an invisible alien predator. We are also unable to figure out who is killing us as our social and religious norms mockingly take aim at us with impunity. Even more sinister is the comparison with another thriller in which the lead role investigating a murder mystery is shocked to find in the end that she herself was the killer as she committed the murder while she was not in her senses due to some psychiatric disorder. Maybe we are the actual perpetrators as we have acquiesced in a legal order that enables such crimes to go unpunished. Let us be honest and not look around for anybody else to blame. The criminal is residing inside us. Isn’t it time to call the police?
The writer teaches public policy in the UK and is the founding member of Rationalist Society of Pakistan. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org