Breaking the Silence: Pakistan’s First Conviction on Marital Rape and its Implications

The recent groundbreaking case in Pakistan, which marked the country’s first conviction for marital rape, has ignited profound discussions on legal precedents, women’s rights, and broader societal implications. As a researcher who has conducted her PhD study on marital rape perception in Pakistan, I would like to offer comprehensive insights into the significance of this precedent-setting case within Pakistan’s socio-political landscape with reference to some relevant sections of my study.

In Pakistan, there existed a legislative gap concerning coercive sexual conduct, leaving women vulnerable to rape by their intimate partners without legal recourse. The absence of explicit legal provisions specifically addressing coercive sex perpetuates a systemic failure to protect women from sexual violence within marital relationships. This deficiency required a critical need for comprehensive legal reforms aimed at addressing the complexities of sexual violence and ensuring the legal recognition and protection of women’s rights to bodily autonomy and consent.

A man has been sentenced to three years in prison for sodomising his wife, marking Sindh’s first conviction for marital rape. It is noteworthy in this instance that the accused was not solely convicted for engaging in non-consensual intercourse with his spouse but rather for an act of sodomy, which was medically verified. Advocate Bahzad Akbar from the Legal Aid Society, representing the complainant, argued that sodomy constitutes rape, following an amendment to Section 375 of the Pakistan Penal Code(PPC) introduced in 2021, which criminalises ‘unnatural offences’. While the ruling was based on charges of unnatural offences, it establishes a fresh precedent for the prosecution and conviction of individuals for marital rape, especially in light of recent legislative revisions to the PPC. This effort to enact legislation specifically targeting coercive sex is essential to bridging this gap and providing women with the necessary legal protections against intimate partner violence.

By recognising this case as a criminal offence, the judiciary has not only delivered justice to the survivor but also paved the way for future legal reforms, fostering social awareness towards this violent act against women. The legal implications of this case are far-reaching, as the verdict sets a precedent that prioritises the protection of women’s rights and bodily autonomy within marriage, aligning with international human rights standards and conventions. It sends a clear message to perpetrators of gender-based violence that they will be held accountable for their actions, regardless of their relationship with the survivor.

The judiciary has not only delivered justice to the survivor but also paved the way for future legal reforms, fostering social awareness towards this violent act against women.

Beyond its legal implications, the case carries profound social and cultural significance. Marital rape, long a taboo topic in many societies, is a form of violence against women that has historically been overlooked and even normalised in Pakistan. In Pakistan, where patriarchal norms have deeply entrenched gender inequalities and perpetuated a culture of silence around issues of sexual violence within marriage, the recent conviction represents a seismic shift in legal and societal attitudes. The significance of this landmark case cannot be overstated. It marks a critical juncture in Pakistan’s legal history, challenging entrenched notions of marital immunity and affirming the rights and autonomy of women within marriage.

Data from my study showed a pattern of denial towards the acceptance of marital rape while defending the system of marriage. For most participants, marriage seemed to be a fairy tale, especially for unmarried young participants, married older participants and those who are content with married life. For them, it was difficult to accept the fact of a man raping his wife due to the dominant cultural beliefs on the piousness of the holy institution of marriage. The participants associated marriage with religious commands that must be followed to confirm the divine laws. For them, it was impossible that a relationship that was commanded by the supreme power to form could have such impurities. The major section of participants stated marriage as a command ordained by God that should be fulfilled and protected at any cost. Because of this belief, some participants gave recommendations and advice for the victims to compromise and bear with these situations by quoting it ‘as ups and downs in a marriage’. They declared it as a temporary situation that passes away with time. Few related it to the financial and mental strains of men and advised victimised wives to support their husbands in challenging times by not complaining about their undue demand for sex.

In a society where patriarchal norms have long dictated gender roles and behaviour, the conviction challenges the mentioned prevailing attitudes that have enabled marital rape to go unchecked. It will empower survivors to speak out against abuse, shatter the stigma surrounding sexual violence, and foster a culture of accountability and justice.

Despite the landmark nature of the verdict, significant challenges remain in ensuring the effective implementation of laws and policies aimed at combating marital rape and protecting survivors. Cultural barriers, institutional biases, and societal attitudes continue to obstruct justice and accountability. However, the case also presents opportunities for collaborative efforts between government agencies, civil society organisations, and the media to raise awareness, provide support services, and advocate for systemic reforms. In Pakistan, there are no institutions or organisations which work formally on the issue of marital rape. Some Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) work under the slogan of ‘rape’, but they also do not cater to the issue of marital rape. These bodies aim to eliminate rape from society but do not work to address forms of marital rape that should also be a point of concern. There are no standard rules of conduct to deal with the issue of marital rape, nor this form of rape is documented in any legal book of the state. Cases of marital rape are documented under the heading of sexual or domestic abuse, which does not allow for recording of the cases of marital rape. The lack of legal platforms where this issue could be discussed is a primary reason why victims of marital rape do not dare to fight back face from this issue. This ruling will compel pertinent organisations to initiate discussions and document matters under the heading of ‘marital rape’.

This groundbreaking verdict has far-reaching effects beyond its legal realm, igniting significant societal changes. It emphasises the crucial need for employing intersectional approaches to promote awareness of this issue, acknowledging the various forms of discrimination faced by women in married life, including those related to their sexuality. This case is poised to establish a precedent for social consciousness and can serve as an inspiration for local human rights organisations, victims and their families.

Huzaifa Sarfraz

Dr. Huzaifa Sarfraz is an Assistant Professor at Iqra University. She earned her PhD in Sociology from the University of Karachi. Her research interests include gender and religious studies.

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