The extended family members all lived within yards of each other, in a small village near a river bank in Pakistan’s largest province, Punjab.
It was in this village in Muzaffarabad, a suburb of the city of Multan, where the first of two rapes took place.
A daughter of the family, around the age of 12 or 13, was cutting the grass in nearby fields on July 16 when a teenage boy covered her with a cloth and raped her, police said. The boy was a 16-year-old relative of hers.
In the days that followed the girl’s rape, the family’s elders gathered together in shock and anguish, seeking to resolve what had happened.
But mourning soon led to vengeance. The elders – who effectively served as the family’s “panchayat,” or village council – decided that justice should be served as revenge. They instructed the victim’s brother, who is about 16, to rape the teenage sister of the attacker in return for his crime, Ahsan Younis, head of the Multan city police, told The Washington Post.
So the 16-year-old brother followed suit, assaulting the teenage girl in his family’s home and effectively carrying out what Younis called a “revenge rape.”
Two rapes, within two days, all in one extended family. It turns out the first assailant’s father is a brother of the second assailant’s grandfather.
“They are victims and accused at the same time,” Younis said in an interview Thursday morning with The Post. “It’s barbaric.”
Indeed, the case was shocking. But it was 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 individual rapes were reported to the Violence Against Women Centre in Multan, and authorities pursued the arrests of the two men accused. But as they investigated the cases, police learned there were dozens of additional family members involved, Younis said.
Authorities ordered the arrests of 29 people – all members of the extended family. Of those, 25 have already been taking into custody, including the first of the accused 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 families.
A representative from the Violence Against Women Centre told the Pakistani newspaper Dawn that the mother of the first accused man had offered either of her two married daughters to settle the score, on the condition that the first victim’s family would not take legal action against her son. But the family elders, the panchayat, demanded that she hand over her unmarried teenage daughter to be raped as punishment.
The two men 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 the country’s chief justice early Thursday to order the inspector general of Punjab police to submit a report regarding the case, according to Dawn.
It has shed light on the continued prevalence of the panchayat system, an informal village governance system in which village leaders have been known to settle disputes over women with forced marriages, stonings and other punishments.
This was a very distinct type of a panchayat comprised entirely of elders in the same extended family. Most panchayats take the form of a village council with leaders from different, unrelated families in the neighborhood.
Human rights lawyer and activist Asma Jahangir on Wednesday urged the government to take further action 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 horrific story also underscored the problem of violence against females 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 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 new law that criminalizes all forms of violence against women, whether domestic, psychological or sexual. It also mandated the establishment of womens’ shelters and of a toll-free abuse reporting hot line, Reuters reported.
The case also had several parallels with the most high-profile case of its kind, which took place 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 to her family after her brother was accused of a having an affair with an older woman.
Mai did what many in Pakistan do not have the courage to do, due to stigmas against sexual assault: She reported the attack and challenged her assailants in court.
After a lengthy, re-traumatizing and humiliating investigation and court case, judges acquitted most of the 14 men accused in her gang rape.
She became an international symbol of women’s rights, won awards and founded a private school. Her story even inspired an opera, Thumbprint, which opened in New York in 2014.
But despite all this, she stayed in her poor, native village of Punjab.
“I have so many students and poor women turning to me,” she told The Post in 2011. “I cannot leave them.”