By Daanika Kamal
MARCH 19, 2019
A few years ago, I was meant to have lunch with a friend in Lahore. He was a Resident at a hospital in the area. Running late at work, he asked me to come wait for him at the hospital while he tied up loose ends. As I sat in the waiting room, browsing through menus of potential restaurants to eat at, two male nurses walked up to me asking for my assistance. They asked me to follow them to the emergency room, where a female patient had arrived in visible pain, refusing to speak to a male doctor and requesting for a female attendant. As I looked around me, I realized I was the only female in sight.
The lady was dressed in a colourful Kameez paired with a red Shalwar, despite which blood stains were evidently visible. She had covered her face with a black Dupatta and asked for us to go somewhere more private. Once behind closed doors, she revealed the cause of her bleeding. A small padlock had been pierced into her private parts. In broken Punjabi, she explained that she was from a nearby village, and her husband had left town for work – but not before ensuring that she kept her chastity intact while he was away. She begged me to find a way to get rid of the pain, but to not let the doctors remove the padlock. After all, she had to return back home to him, she had no other choice.
Estimates edge up to ninety percent of women in Pakistan who have suffered some form of domestic abuse and violence. Majority of cases are perpetrated by husbands and in-laws and range from emotional and psychological abuse, to violence through means of acid throwing, burning, and honour killing. Domestic violence and intimate partner abuse are typically part of an on-going pattern of patriarchal control, rather than an isolated act of physical aggression. Acts of violence in marital relationships are almost always accompanied by psychological abuse, and in thirty to fifty percent of cases, it is also accompanied by sexual abuse. No one is expected to intervene on behalf of the victim as ‘domestic issues’ are seen to be ‘private matters’ and under the sole discretion of men in the household.
At 17 years of age, Maha* had an arranged marriage to a man two decades older than her. On the first night of their marriage, Maha’s former husband subjected her to extensive sexual violence. While watching a violent pornographic video, he proceeded to imitate the violent acts seen on video upon his (then) wife. After many months of abuse and a miscarriage resulting from physical trauma, Maha finally reached out to her maternal family and asked them for support as she initiated divorce proceedings. Her family refused to support her, shunned her for bringing dishonour upon the them and warned her of the detrimental repercussions of her ‘western’ mindset.
Divorce is widely considered to be a western ideology. It is seen as an attempt to rupture the sanctity of families, disrupt the propriety of reproduction mechanisms and ultimately contaminates the virtue of communities. In countries where divorce is less stigmatized, it is justified based on the equal right of both men and women to choose to leave a contract-bound relationship that makes them unhappy, due to infringement upon their basic human rights and dignity, or simply due to irreconcilable differences.
With honour being the backbone of all patriarchal relationships, marital duties lie solely on women. Divorce is therefore seen as the shameful inability of women, not men, to fulfil their obligations. It is seen as the woman’s inability to compromise, her lack of patience and her failure to adjust to the ‘norms’ of marital life.
When Sana* left the house to go to a salon nearby for waxing and threading, upon her return, her mother in law at the time took a razor blade and slit her arm with it, asking her why she dared to leave the house for waxing when there was a razor available for her to use at home. An argument ensued, and Sana was forcefully kicked out of the house. At receiving divorce papers, her father went to Sana’s then father in law, and asked for the families to sit down and resolve the differences. He responded by asking Sana’s father for 5 million rupees, as retribution for the dishonour brought upon the family due to Sana’s lack of subservience.
To be a divorced woman in Pakistan is to live with a stigma, synonymous to shame, dishonour and disgrace. A picture of three women holding a placard stating “divorced and happy” at the Aurat March last week took social media by storm. These women were ridiculed for ‘glamorising and celebrating divorce’, for ‘turning it into a fashion trend’, were called ‘immoral’, were told they were ‘lacking tolerance and compromise,’ and accused for having a ‘mental illness’. Apart from the deeply problematic use of mental health to dismiss the validity of women’s opinions in these comments, there was also complete disregard for the symbolism behind this poster. While it served as a means to break the incorrect stereotype that divorced women can never be happy in Pakistan, it actually ended up acting as a grand reflection of the pervasive stigma that continues to be associated with divorce in our society.
The ‘divine duty’ of women to continue to compromise, adjust and tolerate abuse and violence for the ‘sanctity of marriage’ has been passed through generations in patriarchal societies, where their existence is defined merely as extensions of their male relations. In our society, a woman is considered ‘parai’ (stranger) in her maternal home, and an outsider in her marital home. Her rights are seen as invalid unless granted to her by her male counterparts. She is told to censor her words, to silence her voice and to lower her gaze. Her independence is seen as a threat, her opinions are dismissed as unfounded, and her pain is deemed invalid.
With greater financial independence, levels of education and better support systems, women are able to take steps to change their circumstances. Instead of being ridiculed by their communities, they should be given legal and societal support. Every woman has the right to live a life free from domestic violence and abuse. Her rights are valid simply by virtue of her being human.
*Names have been changed to protect anonymity.
Daanika Kamal is a human rights lawyer based in Islamabad. She is the Founder and CEO of The Colour Blue, a social enterprise working to empower those facing mental health challenges