Pakistani Cleric Who Led Anti-Blasphemy Rallies Held For Sexual Abuse

In Mianwali, Pakistan, on Saturday, 19 June, cleric Aziz-ur-Rehman was arrested by Punjab provincial police forces. The authorities released a statement detailing his “charges of sexually abusing a student at a religious school,” in the nearby city of Lahore.

The police reported that Rehman “had promised the student passing grades in exams in return for sexual favours,” and the student revealed, “the cleric had been abusing him for the last three years.” In addition to the official accusation by the student, the abuse was further evidenced by videos taken and posted on social media.

According to Al Jazeera, Rehman has since pleaded guilty to the charges, which he initially denied, “after widespread public outcry following the allegations.” When the student first reported the abuse to seminary authority Wafaq-ul-Madaris, the group dismissed the accusations, leading him to go to the police. Reuters has also noted that Rehman “has been leading anti-blasphemy rallies over cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad.”

It is first critical that Rehman, and other perpetrators, are appropriately penalized for their harmful actions. Yet, the pattern of abuse demands further systemic reformation. Considering the vast amounts of abuse rampant across Pakistan, it is apparent that structural change must happen to bring justice to the survivors.

Stronger, more protective legislation should be enacted and consistently implemented. In addition, better support systems and services need to be provided for survivors, and corrupt institutions that continue to favour abusers must be eradicated or adequately rectified.

Rather than dismissing or delegitimizing reported accounts, authorities must advocate for the survivors. Such destigmatization would pave the way for conversations around sexual abuse. Unfortunately, while some of these reforms have been proposed, they have not been effectively enforced.

Child abuse has long been a widespread issue in Pakistan, especially in its religious schools or madrassas. Based on a report from the group Sahil, 2960 cases of child abuse in Pakistan were reported in 2020 alone; yet, many cases continue to be unreported. Even when reported, cases often do not result in persecution of the abuser. Furthermore, 62 percent of the 2020 cases were based on some form of sexual abuse, and these numbers continue to increase every year.

According to the Associated Press, these madrassas are often started by local religious clerics, or mullahs, in poor Pakistani neighbourhoods. There is “no central body of clerics that governs madrassas,” so it is difficult to hold the institutions accountable by a higher body.

Moreover, because clerics hold a large amount of societal power, they are seldom punished by authorities. Many evade charges through corrupt connections. Perpetrators manipulate survivors into dropping charges or use the stigmatization or principle of Islamic hierarchy to claim religious blasphemy and influence actions accordingly.

Because being a survivor of sexual assault is a taboo subject matter and often carries a strong negative cultural connotation throughout one’s life, many affected families choose to deny the allegations altogether. Additionally, fellow clerics and right-wing leaders claim the allegations are part of a movement aimed at “[discrediting] Pakistan’s religious leaders and [challenging] the supremacy of Islam.”

According to Al Jazeera, these issues are exacerbated by Pakistan’s weak state institutions, making it difficult to enforce laws. Moreover, due to the patriarchal conservative culture stigmatizing and shaming sexuality and the subsequent lack of adequate sex education, “many children do not have the tools to recognize predators, nor do they have the language to speak out about it if something happens.” As a result, the endemic of child sexual abuse continues to be a largely stagnant issue.

Rehman, who has been ordered to remain in custody, has been expelled from the seminary he was a custodian. In the meantime, police forces have announced they will be conducting further investigation and gathering additional evidence in preparation for Rehman’s prosecution. Such efforts persist in reaching justice for the survivor and the thousands of others impacted by similar acts.