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Islam, Women and Feminism ( 6 Dec 2011, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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A Shelter to Protect the Honour of Women

By Meena Menon 

Won't take any more: Girls who have sought refuge in the Panah shelter home in Karachi. Photo: Meena Menon

In Sind province alone, 1,652 cases of violence against women were registered

Some years ago, a young married girl was hounded by her family which tracked her down in Lahore and killed her husband who was from another tribe. The girl was shot and left for dead. She was taken to a hospital and finally ended up at Panah, a private shelter for women in Karachi.

Narrating this story, Uzma Noorani, trustee of Panah, says the girl was five months pregnant when she was referred to them. She survived despite receiving two or three bullets in her body. Her mother used to visit her, even though it was her grandfather who got her husband killed.

The girl filed a case and managed to get two people arrested. She remarried and changed her identity for survival. In the fortress-like shelter, a 16-year-old girl is opposing her proposed marriage to a man from the Swat region since he will not let her study. “I ran away from home and found this place,” she says. She plans to annul her “Nikah” and hopes to study further.

Another woman has left her violent husband and three children. ”My husband even tried to kill me once and sold my dowry. He doesn't know where I am. I am not scared now,” she says. Some girls have come here because they have no place to stay and another woman, a victim of domestic violence, has sought refuge for the second time.

In 2010, there were 229 women and 82 children. Of this, 66 women had sought protection and 33 came due to domestic violence. Ninety-seven women wanted a divorce while 29 left to marry men of their choice. There were four cases of rape.

According to statistics compiled by the Aurat Foundation, in its annual report for 2010, Sindh province, with 266 honour killings, reported the highest number for any province. As many as 1,652 cases of violence against women were registered, including 246 cases of abduction and 308 murders. The killing of a youth who allegedly had an affair with a girl (who was later reported to be missing) sparked off violence in the Shikharpur area of Sindh, leading to the death of three Hindu doctors last month. There were protests in Hyderabad and other areas after the attack and no one really knows if the incident was related to the “honour” of the girl in question.

Honour killings mostly occur in the tribal belts bordering Balochistan. Tribal traditions and the word of the archaic “jirga” (a tribal council) and panchayat systems hold sway. There is a practice of declaring any women a “kari” and the man involved “karo” meaning those who have brought disrepute to the family and this provides a “culturally condoned reason” for killing them, according to the report.

The report's analysis of the cases in Sindh province reveals a sorry state of affairs like the rest of Pakistan. Of the 1,652 reported crimes, police registered first information reports (FIR) in only 39.50 per cent or 653 cases. The majority 937 were not registered and no information could be obtained on 62 cases. Some 8,000 cases of violence against women were recorded in 2010 all over the country with 557 honour killings. The 2010 Global Gender Gap Index ranks Pakistan at 132nd place just above the last two countries Chad and Yemen.

Domestic violence

Mahnaz Rahman, resident director of the Aurat Foundation, says that the data is mostly collected from print media in the absence of reliable official records. The recent passing of the Prevention of Anti-women Practices Bill in the National Assembly was widely welcomed, but there are fears that it will be opposed in the Senate as in the case of the Domestic Violence Bill of 2009 which lapsed. Domestic violence is a major category of crime with a total of 486 cases reported in 2010 as against 608 in 2009.

Ms. Rahman says the Foundation helped a young woman who was about to be killed by her family for refusing to marry a person of their choice. The girl who wanted to study, escaped to Karachi where she met someone from her village. They ended up getting married but the families found out and she was harassed. Finally, the couple moved out to a foreign country.

She says the lack of land reforms is adding to the problem. Sometimes the threat of an honour killing is used for extortion. “As you go into the interiors, you go back in time,” she points out. Class is also an issue, poorer girls drop out early and get married. Many couples come to Karachi where the urban sprawl allows anonymity. ”We can't see women's issues in isolation — there is poverty, illiteracy and a feudal system of land holding. Unless the overall system is changed, women will bear the brunt,” she adds.

At Panah, Ms. Noorani explains that the shelter is geared towards giving women free legal help, dealing with trauma and rehabilitation. The majority of women who come here want a divorce or are escaping a forced marriage. Many are also under the threat of honour killing. The women from interior Sindh who want to marry of their own choice face death threats and have nowhere to go. “Once they leave the shelter to go to court, they have local police escort. Families turn up in court and try to attack them. There is a big risk factor,” she says.

The earlier shelter had a huge ground and people used to come there and even fire at it. “One husband ransacked our cars in 2002. I remember a retired army Major using all his clout to get his wife released from the shelter. I was threatened by him and once he confronted me and stalked me for years. There was no law under which he could be arrested,” she says.

Politicians aver their opposition to honour killings but as Naheed Begum, member of the Sindh Provincial Assembly says, low literacy and a male-dominated society don't help. “A girl can be killed for talking to her male cousin,” she adds. There is opposition from feudal landlords too on any law to protect women.

Anis Haroon, chairperson of the National Commission on the Status of Women, says there is so little importance attached to the security of women and it is considered a domestic issue. The rate of conviction is not even 5 or 6 per cent in all crimes. There is always a material basis for honour killings — money, enmity or land.

The class system is also responsible. “We are now focused on making as many laws as we can and mainstreaming women into policy. The major resistance is from the bureaucracy and when it comes to women they are conservative,” she adds.

Source: The Hindu, New Delhi