By Yalda Hakim
January 19, 2015
In a country fighting to preserve patriarchal and tribal traditions, Pakistan’s women can face brutality – and even death – if they fall in love with the wrong person.
Arifa, 25, dared to stand up to her family, running away with the man she fell in love with and secretly marrying him. The following day in a busy street in Karachi, Pakistan’s most populous city, her male family members surrounded the newlyweds and, at gunpoint, dragged Arifa away. After great difficulty her husband, Abdul Malik, managed to establish that she was alive and had been hidden somewhere. Fearing for his life, he has lived in hiding for three months.
“In Pakistan, love is a big sin. Centuries have passed, the world has made so much progress – men have reached the heavens. But our men are still following age-old customs and traditions from the dark ages,” he explains. It is these traditions and customs – which focus on denying women freedom – that have growing acceptance in Pakistan and are encouraged by hard-line religious scholars.
Rule of law is often ignored. This is a world where a woman has few rights in practice – she is the property of her family until she marries. Then ownership passes to her husband’s family, with the risk of death if she brings dishonour to the family. Last year alone, more than 1,000 women were murdered for so-called honour crimes – and these are just the ones of whom the authorities are aware.
In May 2014, the case of the young, pregnant woman Farzana Parveen shocked the world. She was stoned to death by her family for marrying the man she was in love with, rather than the man they had chosen for her. This happened outside Lahore’s high court, in front of policemen and passersby.
In November, following worldwide media attention, Parveen’s father, brother, cousin and former fiancé were all found guilty of murder and given the death sentence. But more often than not, those who commit these brutal acts against women are never charged, protected by tribal laws.
Some hard-line religious scholars believe that only through the killing of an offending family member – usually a woman – can honour be restored to the rest of the family and tribe. Few people in Pakistan nowadays are willing to challenge these tribal traditions and customs. In fact, according to a recent survey, an overwhelming majority of Pakistanis support the full implementation of Sharia law – Islam’s legal system.
At a Karachi madrasa where thousands of boys and young men receive their religious instruction, I find little sympathy for women who stray. “The punishment is what is prescribed in Sharia, which is stoning and lashes,” the mullah tells me.
But what does the country’s law say? In 1979, General Zia-ul-Haq, Pakistan’s military dictator, introduced the so-called Hudood Ordinance – a controversial set of laws that attempted to Islamise Pakistan. Among other things, it made adultery punishable by stoning and lashing. In 2006, the then President Pervez Musharraf tried to liberalise some of these laws to protect women, but the enforcement of his reforms has been limited and adultery is still a crime.
Karachi’s central prison for women is where many of those accused of adultery end up. Sadia is 24. “My husband divorced me, beat me and then kicked me out of home,” she explains. “Then he went to the police and told them that i’d run away with another man. In reality he and his family beat me and kicked me out.” Sadia tells me she does not have access to a lawyer and is not sure when she will be able to leave. At the time of my visit, there are 80 women in the prison – many end up languishing in jail for years without trial.
Some of the more lucky women end up at a handful of shelters across the country. I travelled to the Edhi shelter for women, a heavily guarded compound in one of the most notorious and dangerous neighbourhoods on the outskirts of Karachi, known for its Taliban sympathies. Most of the women here have run away from abusive relationships or have been thrown out on to the streets by their families.
The women live at the Edhi shelter peacefully, sharing chores, helping with the cooking, cleaning and taking care of each other’s children. There are never any questions asked about why a woman has sought refuge at the home. There is one strict rule that everyone abides by – nobody is allowed in without the say of the women, including the authorities.
“If she is having an affair outside of here, we don’t care, we don’t ask. She can stay as long as she likes,” Samina, a volunteer at the shelter, tells me. “If her family comes to take her and she goes willingly, then she is free to go.” What if the police are after her for adultery charges? “No, we won’t hand her over to the police,” says Samina.
Despite a growing middle class, attempts at modernity and secular condemnation, combating ingrained institutional misogyny has become increasingly difficult in Pakistan. In a society fighting to preserve patriarchal and tribal traditions, women face brutality and gender-based violence in both urban and rural districts. And as religious fundamentalism continues to gain ground, the freedoms of women are increasingly attacked.