The extended family members all lived within yards of one another, in a small village near a riverbank in Pakistan’s largest province, Punjab.
It was in this village, near the city of Multan, where the first of two rapes occurred.
A daughter of the family, around the age of 12 or 13, was cutting the grass in nearby fields on July 16 when a boy raped her, police said. The boy was a 16-year-old relative of hers.
In the days that followed, the family’s elders gathered in shock and anguish, seeking to resolve the matter.
But mourning soon gave way to vengeance. The elders — who effectively served as the “panchayat,” or village council — decided that justice should be served as revenge. They instructed the victim’s brother, also about 16, to rape the teenage sister of the alleged attacker in retaliation for his crime, Ahsan Younis, head of the Multan city police, told The Washington Post.
So the 16-year-old brother assaulted the teenage girl in his family’s home, effectively carrying out what Younis called a “revenge rape.”
Two rapes, within two days, all in one extended family. It turns out that the first alleged assailant’s father is a brother of the second alleged assailant’s grandfather.
“They are victims and accused at the same time,” Younis said Thursday morning. “It’s barbaric.”
Indeed, the case is shocking. But it is not entirely unheard of — such “honor” crimes still take place in some parts of Pakistan and India. But what made this case different was that somebody spoke up, and authorities took action.
The rapes were reported to the Violence Against Women Center in Multan, and authorities investigated. But as they investigated the case, police learned that several other family members also were involved, Younis said.
Authorities ordered the arrests of 29 people — all members of the extended family. Of those, 25 have been taken into custody, including the first of the suspected assailants.
Family members admitted to police that the second rape was ordered as retaliation for the first one. But they asserted that the decision was a consensual one between the two sides.
A representative from the Violence Against Women Center told the Pakistani newspaper Dawn that the mother of the first accused had offered either of her two married daughters to settle the score, on the condition that the first victim’s family not take legal action against her son. But the panchayat demanded that she instead hand over her unmarried teenage daughter to be raped as punishment.
This was a distinct type of a panchayat, made up entirely of elders from the same extended family. Most such village councils have leaders from different, unrelated families in the area.
The two males accused of rape could face a maximum punishment of the death penalty, Younis said, but “that is up to the court.”
The “revenge rape” has spurred outrage in Pakistan and prompted its chief justice early Thursday to order the inspector general of Punjab police to submit a report on the case, according to Dawn.
It has highlighted the continued prevalence of the panchayat system, an informal village governance system in which leaders have been known to settle disputes over women with forced marriages, stonings and other punishments.
Human rights lawyer and activist Asma Jahangir on Wednesday urged the government to crack down on all panchayats, which she said have no legal standing.
“Panchayats have no standing and the courts have stated the same,” Jahangir said, according to Geo News. “If they act outside of law, then the panchayat and its members should be prosecuted according to law.”
The story also underscored the problem of violence against women and girls in Pakistan, which has ranked as the world’s third most dangerous place for women, according to a 2011 Thomson Reuters Foundation expert survey. More than 1,000 women and girls in the country are victims of “honor killings” every year, according to Pakistan’s Human Rights Commission.
But progress has been made. Last year, Punjab lawmakers gave unprecedented protection to female victims of violence, passing a law that criminalizes all forms of violence against women, whether domestic, psychological or sexual. It also mandated the establishment of women’s shelters and a toll-free abuse reporting hotline, Reuters reported.
The case also had several parallels with the most high-profile case of its kind, which occurred in the same district: the gang rape of a woman named Mukhtar Mai.
“Such incidents remind me of what happened with me in 2002,” she told Geo News on Wednesday, saying she was heartbroken by the case and encouraging the rape survivors to speak out.
In 2002, Mai was allegedly dragged into a house, raped and pushed back out naked. About 200 tribal leaders watched in approval nearby, as The Post’s Pamela Constable reported. The woman’s father was too afraid to save her.
The gang rape had been ordered as punishment after her brother was accused of having an affair with an older woman.
Mai did what many in Pakistan do not have the courage to do, because of the stigma surrounding sexual assault: She reported the attack and challenged her assailants in court.
After a lengthy and humiliating investigation and trial, judges acquitted most of the 14 men accused in her gang rape.
Mai became an international symbol of women’s rights, won awards and founded a school. Her story even inspired an opera, “Thumbprint,” which opened in New York in 2014.
But despite all this, she continued to stay in her poor, native village in Punjab.
“I have so many students and poor women turning to me,” she told The Post in 2011. “I cannot leave them.”