The deafening silence around rape at seminaries
The on-going case of sexual abuse of a student by Mufti Azizur Rehman, a JUI-F cleric has yet again brought attention to the rampant child sexual abuse in religious seminaries at the hands of religious teachers; a known secret in Pakistan for decades yet little has been said or done that could be considered a step in the direction to curb such horrific and pervasive abuse. The video of the survivor being raped has been making rounds on social media and he has come forward alleging that he is being harassed and threatened by the accused and his sons, yet the nation that lost its marbles over a young girl questioning the efficacy of the institution of marriage or an actress twirling in a mosque for a shoot has exhibited a deafening silence on this issue.
Our society despite acknowledging the widespread child abuse in religious seminaries has not only normalised the situation but has also displayed a silent acceptance towards it. An FIR was registered on June 18, 2021, a few days after the video made rounds on social media but the cleric and his son were initially able to evade arrest. They were eventually arrested from Mianwali on June 20 but before being arrested, Rehman, also made a video pleading his innocence. He alleged that he was drugged by the victim and appealed to the religious sensibilities of our nation ruled by the love for Islam more than Islam itself. He placed his hand on the Holy Book as he made his statement and termed the allegation a conspiracy to have him removed from the seminary.
He went one step further and in order to drive the point home, urged the people to consider that he was drugged in other videos too, if they surface in the future. On Monday, June 21, he confessed to raping the student after shamelessly lying, assassinating the character of the student, alleging the people in the seminary were out to get him and also taking a false oath on the Quran.
Every year a disturbing number of students are victims of sexual and physcial abuse, the perpetrators, often being the clerics themselves. These cases are actually not even a fraction of the actual horrers that take place at semenaries .
This is not the first case to come light however, as in 2017, a cleric associated with the Sipah-e-Sahaba raped a 12-year-old boy in 2017, while in 2018, an FIR was registered against a cleric in Johar Town, Lahore for allegedly raping a minor, in 2019, a differently abled girl of 13 years was raped by a cleric in Shujabad while a 13 year old was being raped for around two years before she told her mother. In the same year, an eight year old was raped by her madrassa teacher near the seminary while clerics in Mansehra were gang raping a male child to a point where his eyes were bleeding. In 2020, a seminary student was caught raping a seven year old on CCTV while in Kandiaro a 12 year old boy was raped by his religious teacher, but another of the cleric’s victims recorded the attack as evidence, while just this year in Talagang a madressah teacher and prayer leader raped minor girls in a room adjacent to the mosque and made videos of their heinous acts.
These cases are enough to make one’s soul tremble and to enrage one enough that concrete action has to be taken but unfortunately despite the plight of these innocent children becoming a source of social media outrage or media attention, very few victims actually find justice.
The state in cahoots with the society has forsaken the children of this country when it comes to rape, especially at the hands of men associated with religion.
In 2016, the Criminal Law Second Amendment Act 2015 brought about the needed amendments in the Pakistan Penal Code to address the increasing number of child abuse cases. Section 292-A criminalises seducing a child through obscene acts or exposing them to explicit material, punishment for which is imprisonment for a minimum of one year to a maximum of seven years or an imposition of a fine, which may not be less than Rs 100,000 and may extend to Rs 500,000. In severe cases, both punishments may be meted out. Section 292-C penalises child pornography with imprisonment for not less than two years, which may extend up to seven years or with a fine of minimum of Rs 200,000 and a maximum of Rs 700,000.
The point of concern is that the law does not effectively recognise male rape victims. Section 375 of the Pakistan Penal Code identifies female rape victims but exempts male victims. If the rape victim is male then the offence comes under Section 377, which is regarding unnatural offences and recognises male rape victims in a nuanced manner. The punishment for the rape offence that comes under Section 375, mentioned in Section 376, is the death penalty or imprisonment for not less than ten years or more than twenty-five years. The criminal shall also be liable to pay a fine, whereas for the offence that comes under 377 the punishment is imprisonment for life, or with imprisonment for a term which shall not be less than two years nor more than ten years, and the person in question will still have to pay a fine.
The struggle is not restricted to lacunae in law. The quest for justice for victims is also greatly impeded by a myriad of social factors. Most victims belong to a less privileged economic class, hence these kids are in the madrassas in the first place as such places offer free housing, meals along with religious studies. In Pakistan, the poverty-stricken class can hardly afford life’s basic necessities let alone afford hefty legal fees and expenses that accompany long-drawn litigations.
In the past few years, religious clergy has been amassing more political power than they had previously, ensuring an increase in their influence and power to flout rules. The victims and their families are easy to threaten and pressurise especially when banned or extremist religious outfits get involved in such cases for the protection of their men.
Given the power bearded men possess in this country, the police back off as well and often becomes complicit in compelling the victims to accept monetary compensation and compromise. Sometimes families resign to the possibility of being failed by the judicial system and show reluctance to take any action.
The clergy uses accusations of maligning religion and hatching conspiracies against religion against anyone asking for justice for the victims of child abuse. One such case is of the participant of the Aurat March 2021, who shared her child abuse story by a cleric on her shawl and was accused of committing blasphemy by the right-wing zealots. Since religion has a powerful grip over society and through its extension the custodians of religion, masses are disinclined to support any fruitful steps to bring accused clerics to justice or lend support to any regulatory measures that would eradicate the systematic abuse of seminary students.
Another reason crucial in the abuse of children and lack of reporting is the concept of the unquestionable authority of teachers. Since victims are instilled with the view of possession of supreme authority by a religious teacher, it renders any opposition almost impossible especially when the cleric twists religion to support his depravity.
Some abuse survivors fail to break the cycle of abuse. Those who are victimised inflict the same pain on others as a subconscious way to claim back the control they had lost or in an environment where such acts are rampant, the abuse appears normal to them, thus continuing the vicious cycle.
The state has failed to effectively oversee religious seminaries, allowing institutions which were once considered the hub of knowledge and education, to become a playground for paedophiles and molesters. To date, thousands of seminaries remain unregistered. The management of religious seminaries are usually complaisant with the abuse, while also being complicit in the act by actively brushing off any complaints against their teachers.
Even in Rehman’s case, it was only after pressure built on the seminary that they expelled him around June 3, but no FIR was registered against the convict.
Molestation, assault and rape are serious crimes that end up impacting the entire life of the survivors and this is exactly why the punishments legislated against the crimes are very harsh. Expulsion from workplaces, few slaps or expletives are not a substitute for criminal punishments especially since the former leave offenders remain free to abuse other victims.
The important lesson for us to learn as a society is that the religious clergy should not be viewed as a sacred cow that is above legal repercussions. Religion needs to be separated from those who preach it. The religious clerics in positions of influence and power need to step forward and condemn these activities in support of the victims that fall prey to such hideous abuse. The government needs to bring changes in the madrassa systems so the government can also monitor what goes on behind closed doors.
Awareness campaigns around child abuse, good touch and bad touch need to be conducted in all schools across the country, regardless of what school of thought they belong to, while it should be ensured that children have access to protection services. Education is the right of every child as per Article 25-A of the Constitution of Pakistan which states
“The State shall provide free and compulsory education to all children of the age of five to sixteen years.”
The state needs to take steps to make schooling accessible for all children so that parents do not feel inclined to send their children to seminaries for basic education. Keeping in mind the magnitude of influence clergy exerts on not only society but also on government factions, the culture of abuse and rape of students in seminaries will only halt once we break our silence and speak up for our children.