This story ends in rat poison

Why did no one help this Chitrali teenager who was the only woman to ever go to the police over assault?

This story ends in rat poison
Women in Chitral tend not to go to the police station when they have been raped or sexually assaulted. It is even more rare for a woman to do this in a place so far up north that Tajikistan is closer than Peshawar. If that is not rare enough consider that an 18-year-old second-year student decided to seek justice. On her own. An orphan.

Government High School Harchin Laspur in upper Chitral was about to go on recess on August 2, when 18-year-old Tahira entered its premises. As tends to happen in many isolated parts of northern Pakistan, her arrival did not arose any curiosity as there are no separate girls school in these areas and both genders study at the same institutions. She briskly walked to the headmaster’s office burst inside and beseeched those present to appear before a local court to testify on her behalf or else she would commit suicide there and then. No one listened and the school day ended.

The teenager did not leave. She took an hour or so to die after she ingested rat poison and drowned in her own vomit and excrement at the school. One of the teachers staying on campus because they were not a local, later saw her body and covered it with a curtain torn from the school office.

This was what the end looked like for Tahira.
As far as memory serves, no teenager from this part of Chitral has ever gone to the police. Her case also stands out because of her vulnerability; she was fatherless. It is small wonder that women do not have faith in the authorities?

The case

Her ordeal started on December 3, 2015, as she made her solitary daily walk from Phurat village to Harchin, where she studied at a private college. A peon at the government boys high school tried to sexually assault her. According to her family, Tahira fought back and hit her attacker with a stone, forcing him to flee after a passerby noticed the commotion. Tahira went to the high school authorities, where the peon, identified as Deedar Ali, was employed. She demanded they take action against him and one of the teachers wrote an application. They approached the police post of Mastuj police station.

“As Tahira was an orphan and had no brother, she had gone with her mother to live with her maternal uncle following her father’s death,” said Sharifuddin, her father’s cousin and a former member of Laspur union council, in a phone interview. “The school authorities showed an unholy haste in referring her to the police.” Sharifuddin feels that they could have settled this issue through a jirga by marrying Tahira and the peon.

After they received the report, the police arrested Deedar who was kept behind bars for about three weeks before being released on bail. The First Information Report, number 145, is dated December 3, 2015 and was filed under sections 303 (Qatl committed under compulsion if death is caused by putting a person in instant fear of death) and 506 for intimidation of the penal code. Once out on bail, though, Deedar was subsequently transferred to another government school in the district headquarters.

This was not the end of the trauma for Tahira. “On one hand, all the people in the village came to know about the incident but on the other hand, her effort to get justice was going nowhere,” said Sharifuddin.

The school teachers who had helped her approach the police were now refusing to appear before a judge to testify on her behalf. “On three occasions the civil judge issued summons to the teachers but they did not budge.”

Zar Ahmed, a local, said that Tahira had argued with the teachers against going to the police in the first place, as she feared no one would keep their word. Similar concerns were raised by the police, he added. But the teachers had promised her at that time that they would not leave any stone unturned to get her justice. He said that school headmaster Syed Ali Dinar Shah and another teacher identified as Suharwardi were the first people Tahira had talked to after the attempted sexual assault and they had urged her to go to police. But when it came down to it they did not turn up when the court asked. “They should also be punished for this criminal negligence,” Zar added.

As the days passed, the pressure piled up on Tahira. “She was forced to commit suicide by the deafening silence of those around her as someone daring enough to raise her voice in a conservative society easily lost hope,” Sharifuddin said. He added, however, that they want punishment for the assailant, compensation for her family, and punishment for the teachers who did not testify on her behalf after egging her on to speak to the police.

The day she committed suicide, her mother came crying to him that Tahira had yet to return from school. They went looking for her and found her dead. Tahira’s body was taken to the tehsil headquarters hospital at Booni for an autopsy and she was buried the next day. Deedar Ali was arrested the next day and is behind bars, while one of the teachers was transferred to another tehsil. However, the transfer of the teacher only took place after the people of Laspur staged a protest on August 15, demanding justice for Tahira, saying that if she did not get justice then nobody would be able to allow their daughters to leave home to go to school or work.

A police official said that they registered a case under section 322 of the Pakistan Panel Code at the Mastuj police station on August 5 on her mother Zariaf’s complaint. He said that Tahira committed suicide because she had been threatened by Deedar Ali with dire consequences for pursuing a sexual molestation case. “The accused is currently under arrest,” the official said.

Tahira’s case is unique. As far as memory serves, no teenager from this part of Chitral has ever gone to the police. Her case also stands out because of her vulnerability; she was fatherless. It is small wonder that women do not have faith in the authorities. Tahira was let down by the very people she had asked for help and the police and justice system.

Female suicides are on the rise in the district, warns the chairman of the Human Rights Foundation and a local himself, Niaz Niazi. Tahira’s was the tenth so far this year. Niazi points out how everyone—the village, the school, the teachers, the police—knew about her case but no one helped her. “Her suicide reflects the apathy of society and systemic injustice.” He demanded the District Police Officer of Chitral and the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa police chief ensure a transparent investigation and punish those responsible for pushing Tahira to the brink. “If the police fails to do a fair and free investigation, then the chief justice of the Peshawar High Court should order a judicial inquiry.”

Shah is a reporter based in Chitral