Pakistan has been on the boil over the rape and murder of 8 year old Zainab in Kasur in Pakistani Punjab on January 5. The anger, which is being expressed both peacefully and violently across Pakistan for almost half of the month now, is directed against the government machinery and the police for their insensitivity and inaction over this as well as past incidents of a similar nature.

But thinking sections in Pakistan and elsewhere feel that the protesters (and the State) may be barking up the wrong tree.

The malaise lies not only in what is visible to the naked eye, namely, the State and the police, but also in the social structure, the ideology, traditions and the mores prevailing in Pakistan (and the South Asian region as a whole). The rape and murder of Zainab and scores of other kids stem from the way society sees and treats women in this region.

Though currently infamous as the “rape capital of Pakistan”, Kasur has a hoary tradition of spirituality. It was in Kasur that the celebrated 18th.Century Punjabi Sufi poet and musician Hazrat Baba Bulleh Shah was buried. Bulleh Shah is known for his songs on the plight of women and the depressed castes, both Muslim and Hindu, and his advocacy of liberation of the downtrodden.

Shocked to the core by the rape and murder of angelic Zainab, even conservative and reticent Muslim women were out on the streets all over Pakistan to demonstrate their anger and anguish about the gory deed. Anger over the foul deed spread like fire as the media kept flashing her cherubic visage day after day.

Men went into a collective frenzy, rioting in various places and killing at least two persons. The incident was grist to the mill of the opposition parties to lambast the Shehbaz Sharif government in Punjab for negligence. Civil society activists took up the issue with zeal demanding that the authorities look deeper into the basic causes of such acts and attack the phenomena at their root.

The Lahore High Court ordered the police to catch the culprits at the earliest. Shaken by the scale and intensity of the uprising, the Federal and Punjab governments promised swift action. And for once, the police shed their indifference to social evils and went on an overdrive, if only to appease the enraged public.

The Additional Inspector General of Police (Investigation) of Punjab, Abu Bakar Khuda Bakhsh, told a parliamentary committee that 1,500 persons had been investigated in the case. He also revealed that since July 2017, seven cases of sexual assault on kids had been reported in Kasur within a half-a-kilometer radius.

DNA samples in all those cases were similar and the suspicion was that the acts were committed by serial rapist cum killer. The role of one Tanveer is being investigated, Bakhsh added.

Zainab’s murder was the 12th. such case of child sexual murder reported from within a two kilometer radius in the past 12 months.

“Besides geographical proximity, other similarities in these cases include use of under-construction houses, crimes occurring between 4pm and 9pm, and rape or sodomy of children, before killing them,” points out Express Tribune.

The Pakistani and international media quoted the NGO “Sahil” as saying that there were 129 cases of child assault in Kasur in 2017, including 34 abductions, 23 rapes, 19 sodomy cases, 17 attempted rapes and 10 abductions with rapes or gang-rapes. During the last three years, on average, there have been two reported cases of child sexual abuse every three days.

The all-Pakistan figures are also alarming. About 11 children were sexually abused every day in the country in 2016.

Again according to tis NGO, only 78% of those cases were registered with the police. In 142 such cases the police had refused to register a First Information Report (FIR).

Social activists are sure that non-reported cases would be much more because of police apathy, parental fear of social stigma, and the possible involvement of a close friend or family member in the crime. It is shocking to learn that while the entire country and the world knew about the Jainab case, the website of the Kasur District Police had nothing on child molestation or rape.

Kasur had attained notoriety in 2014, when two Christian brick kiln workers, Shama and Shahzad Masih, were accused of blasphemy and burnt alive there. In Pakistan, blasphemy invites the death sentence any way. In 2015, a child porn mafia with connections to a ruling PML (Nawaz) member of the Punjab Legislative Assembly, was discovered. But while the gang leader was jailed, the man at the back of it all, the ruling party legislative assembly member, was allowed to go scot free.

According to “Sahil” there has been an increase in child rape cum murder cases since 2015. Four children were found raped and murdered in 2015 and 2016. In 2017 , eleven such incidents took place.

Rights workers believe that for every reported case, there would be many unreported ones as incidents of rape are rarely ever reported for fear of incurring societal stigma. And it is the woman or the girl child victim who has to bear the cross.

According to media reports other Pakistani districts have also not been safe for children. Even as the Zainab case shocked the nation, the body of 15-year-old Sajida, raped and murdered, was found near Sargodha. A molested body of 11-year-old Shariq was found in Kasur. Ten year old Ali Raza had been sexually assaulted and murdered in the same place.

Legal experts tend to put the blame for the increasing number of such cases to legal and police negligence which is reflected in the very low conviction rate in Pakistan.

But social activists feel that the problem is located much deeper in the nature of Pakistani (and South Asian society), where women, whether old or young, are subjugated and degraded in myriad ways. Molestation and rape follow suit.

The social underpinnings of the ugly phenomenon of child rape cum murder is well brought out in an essay written by Dr.Shenila Khoja-Moolji in a recent opinion piece in the Pakistani daily Express Tribune.

Khoja-Moolji says: “ Rape and murder of girls do not happen in a vacuum. It is an effect of sedimented societal views about the female sex and institutional practices that reproduce male dominance in every domain of life.”

“We (the men) live in a society that abhors women. We don’t like it when they enter the workplace and make it known through harassment and unequal pay. We ogle them when they are on the streets and even grope them when the opportunity presents itself.”

“We are threatened when they appear as TV personalities and curse at them on air. We create a political fuss when a girl with uncovered hair is depicted in a textbook. We pass laws like the Hudood Ordinance (Islamic ordinances reinforcing conservative social mores). We police what women can wear at universities. We even reprimand female professors for wearing jeans!”

“We do all this, and then wonder why eight-year-old girls get assaulted? Who is responsible for this monstrosity? YOU. You, my dear reader, and I, are complicit in reproducing a system that views women as sub-human. We reinforce male privilege through minor, everyday actions from swear words to advocating for policies that make life unbearable for women.”

“If we are so angry about what happened to Zainab, then it behoves us to first check ourselves and our views about women and girls. We then have to come out and try to hold societal institutions — from the state and the media to the mosque — accountable for portraying women as less-than-men.”

“Indeed, in Pakistan, women are not considered as fully human. They are viewed as sex objects available for men’s pleasure, as upholders of familial morality and honor, or as domestic managers who will nurture children. Women who deviate from these pre-assigned roles do not have much breathing room.”

“If men are so mad at Zainab’s murder then let’s see them give up their privilege and make space for women in their professions, on the streets, in media and in politics. Let’s see them pass pro-women laws or just implement the laws already in place. Let’s see them stand up and speak for women when misogynist elements want to push women to the margins every day.”