KASUR, Pakistan – The brutal rape and killing of Zainab Ansari, a 7-year-old girl whose body was left in a garbage dump, has unleashed a wave of revulsion around Pakistan, revealing a string of child abductions and killings by a suspected serial predator and generating outrage at a culture of silence surrounding sexual abuse.
Zainab’s death has even given birth to a nascent Pakistani version of #me_too movement.
A number of prominent Pakistani women have come forward with their own stories of sexual assault, saying they want to change traditions that consider abuse as a mark of shame for the victim. Those traditions, they say, help predators get away with abuse and encourage an already corrupt police force to ignore such crimes.
Maheen Khan, a legendary Pakistani fashion designer, tweeted that she had been sexually abused as a child by an Islamic cleric who taught her the Quran. “I froze in fear day after day,” she tweeted. At 73, Khan has spoken publicly only once before of the abuse.
“We are now saying enough is enough. We should have woken up long ago,” she said in a telephone interview from her home in the southern city of Karachi. “I am ashamed to say it has taken this one little girl’s death.”
“What disturbs me the most is the silence when a little girl gets raped,” she said. “It has to do with the honor of family. Parents tell their daughters: ‘Don’t talk about it. Don’t tell anyone.’ Our silence is saying it is all right to sexually molest a child.”
The horror of Zainab’s killing was brought home for Pakistanis by a photo of her that went viral on social media, showing the smiling girl in her favorite bright pink coat, with a pink barrette holding back her hair. TV channels aired the photo alongside pictures of her lifeless body abandoned on a heap of garbage in her home city of Kasur.
Across Pakistan, thousands protested, condemning police inaction and blaming the government for failing to protect children.
“Whenever anybody saw her picture on social media or on electronic media everybody started weeping,” said Waqas Abid, a lawyer in Kasur who heads an activist group called the Good Thinkers Organization. “Everybody was self-motivated to come out from his or her house and ask for justice for Zainab.”
The Senate’s Standing Committee on the Interior, which oversees policing, launched an inquiry this week into the sexual assaults in Kasur, as well as into another recent attack in another part of the country — the rape and killing of a 4-year-old named Asma, whose body was left in a field near her home in Kyhber Pukhtunkhwa, in northwestern Pakistan.
Kasur is a congested district of around 2.5 million people in eastern Pakistan, near the border with India. The city of Kasur is surrounded by brick kilns and tanneries and has hundreds of small factories making shoes and embroideries, all of which employ children — making them vulnerable to abuse. In 2015, an extensive child pornography ring was uncovered in the city; it had been flourishing for nearly a decade and involved nearly 250 children, some of whom were forced at gunpoint to have sex.
Zainab was snatched in early January as she walked to a Quran class. Her parents were away on pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia, and the girl and her two sisters and brother were watched over by her aunts and uncles who all live in the same house in an impoverished neighborhood of narrow lanes on the outskirts of the city.
“I told Zainab often to be careful,” her mother, Nusrat Ansari, said. Wrapped in a large shawl obscuring her face, she held Zainab’s photo, describing how she loved to play games with her cousins. Her favorite was hide and seek.
Her father, Mohammed Amin Ansari, denounced police for failing to warn residents about a serial killer in the city. “People don’t talk about sexual abuse,” he said.
It was only after the shock over Zainab that news emerged of other children abducted and raped in Kasur. Amid the uproar, police did testing on the victims and found the same DNA on eight of the children, all but one of whom was killed. Police now say they are hunting for a serial rapist-killer.
Among the eight victims was 5-year-old Ayesha. Her father, Mohammed Asif, said he pleaded with the police to find her after her abduction last year.
“They had no interest. They were more interested in keeping it quiet,” he told The Associated Press. Her body, showing signs of rape and torture, was found two days after her disappearance.
The sole survivor among the eight was a 6-year-old girl found by a homeless man rummaging through a garbage bin outside a vegetable market. She had been kidnapped for 15 hours, during which she was tortured. Cigarettes were put out on her feet and legs, and she suffered a serious head injury. Now at a hospital in the nearby city of Lahore, she can’t sit, hold up her head or speak, and her father Mohammad Ahsan, says all she does is cry.
Ahsan said his daughter’s attack was ignored in the media until Zainab’s killing.
Abid, the lawyer, said there have been at least 20 cases of children abducted, raped and killed over the past year in Kasur district. At his office, he showed the AP the police reports he has collected on 15 of the cases.
Among them were 7-year-old Laiba whose battered body was dumped in a partially constructed building; Imran, an 8-year-old boy whose body was stuffed in a plastic bag and dumped in a wheat field; 11-year-old Rehman Ali, found in stagnant water near a graveyard; 5-year-old Tehmina, abducted when she went to a nearby store to buy sweets; 7-year-old Sana, whose desperate father shouted her name from loudspeakers atop local mosques during his search for her; 11-year-old Fauzia, snatched from outside her home; and 7-year old Noor Fatima, her body found in a partially built house.
There were 4,139 cases of child sexual abuse reported in Pakistan in 2016, according to Sahil, an organization documenting child abuse in the country. It collects its figures by tracking reports in Pakistani media. But most cases go unreported, said Sahil’s executive director, Munizae Bano.
Zainab’s case, however, sparked a moment of openness. A number of well-known women hope that telling about their own experiences will prompt others to speak out.
Actress and child activist Nadia Jamil said anger and frustration at the silence prompted her to tweet about sexual abuse she suffered as a child.
“I just lost it when I went personal on social media, openly on social media,” she said.
Frieha Altaf, an events manager, model and actress who tweeted about abuse she suffered as a 6-year-old, said Zainab’s death is a catalyst to challenge shame and fear that silence victims and their parents.
“There is no stopping now,” she said. “For me, there is no stopping now.”
But Abid cautioned that change isn’t necessarily unstoppable. Frank language about sexual assault will likely bring a backlash from religious conservatives and many parents who oppose discussing sexual issues and hold tight to traditions that ban mixing of the sexes, consider girls responsible for the family “honor” and even forgive killing a girl who marries for love.
Ahsan and Asif, whose children were among the victims in Kasur, say their priority is to capture the serial predator.