ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Kainat Soomro was only 13 years old when, she says, she was abducted and gang-raped by four men in 2007. She defied Pakistan’s traditional tribal justice system to pursue her alleged attackers in court — and barely escaped a death sentence imposed by village elders for bringing disgrace to the community.
“Outlawed in Pakistan,” a documentary screened last month at the Sundance Film Festival, tells Soomro’s story.
Filmmakers Habiba Nosheen and Hilke Schellmann follow Soomro and the men she has accused as they muddle their way through a legal system in which the vast majority of rape cases end with reputations tattered all around but very few convictions.
The documentary’s conclusion? The criminal justice system in Pakistan is hopelessly flawed on all sides.
Most cases cannot be proved for lack of evidence. Law enforcement officials are averse to filing charges in the first place. Victims don’t know where to turn, and doctors are unprepared to deal with sex crimes. Defendants are vulnerable to bogus allegations.
An extended version of the documentary will air this spring on the PBS documentary series “Frontline.”
“We really approached the story as investigative journalists, without taking any sides of who’s right and who’s wrong,” said Nosheen, who co-directed and co-wrote the documentary with Schellmann. “We were being objective.”
Nosheen lives and works in New York, but she was born in Lahore, Pakistan, and is intimately familiar with the attitudes that pervade Pakistan’s conservative society. Sensitive topics such as rape and violence against women are rarely discussed, she said.
Schellmann said she wanted to show how a criminal justice system works when there is no evidence. Many rape cases in Pakistan devolve into “he said, she said” exercises because of sloppy police work and lack of evidence, Schellmann said.
“The laws on the books are pretty good,” she said. “But if you got a possible death penalty on the table for a gang rape, the burden of proof is pretty high.”
Written laws can’t defeat a strong gender bias that prevents those statutes from being enforced, said Zohra Yusuf, a human rights activist.
“It starts with the police station,” Yusuf said. “The attitude of police officers most of the time is, ‘She did something to invite rape.’ And this attitude is in the lower judiciary as well.”
And many women, especially those from rural areas, do not realize the need to get a medical examination immediately, advocates said. In terms of getting evidence to the courts, the women have no idea what to do.
The film could make international audiences more aware of sexual violence against women in Pakistan. There is a high level of awareness inside Pakistan, but Pakistanis tend to pay more attention when the issues are discussed in films for a Western audience, Nosheen said.
“I’m not sure if it’s a good thing or a bad thing,” she said.