Case pending: Pakistani women’s lives in the balance

08 Mar 2015

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The only appropriate commemoration is an illustration, through some women, how all Pakistani women, are suspended.—Reuters
The only appropriate commemoration is an illustration, through some women, how all Pakistani women, are suspended.—Reuters

International Women’s Day is a day for honouring women; marked on the calendar as a commemoration for sisters and mothers and daughters and wives. Most such occasions are instances of stock taking and reckoning when the successes of the past year can be touted, their accomplishments polished and primed as indicators of progress.

This would be the case for Pakistani women as well; certainly five or six can be unearthed from the hapless millions and plastered out as posters of just how great things are.

As individuals, their accomplishments may be real, even meaningful, but as a collective they would be a misrepresentation – a convenient way for the men of Pakistan to continue the pretense that things are alright with the country’s other half.

They are not. In law and culture, social life and public life, international stature and local esteem, Pakistani women face a daunting set of challenges.

For those that must venture out, for school or work or anything at all, there is no safety on the streets. For those who stay within the intimate sphere of their homes, there is similarly little peace, their lives driven by unceasing burdens of child-bearing and domesticity.

One Pakistani mother dies every 40 minutes of complications in childbirth.

In sum, Pakistan seems unsure as to what to do with its women, whether to permit them freedom, whether to imagine them as equal citizens, or to deem them worthy of anything more than the task of breeding a new generation.

In keeping with this condition of crisis; this moment of avoided choices, the only appropriate commemoration is an illustration, through the lives of some women, how the lives of all Pakistani women, are suspended in the balance, are cases pending.

The Four Women from Kohistan

It has been almost three years since the grainy video that condemned four women from the Azadkhel tribe, Bazigha, Begum Jaan, Sereen Jan and Amina fell victim to the intrusive eye of a cell phone camera.

The grainy cell phone video that circulated, showed them singing and dancing at a wedding. This is not a liberty permitted to Pakistani women of the Azadkhel tribe.

Its elders convened a jirga of only men, and condemned the women, along with a young minor girl named Shaheen to death for this crime of mirth.

Some newspapers reported that the sentence was carried out and the women killed on May 30, 2012. The Supreme Court of Pakistan took suo motu notice of the case and sent a fact-finding mission to the area. On June 4, 2012 the court received the report of the mission and concluded that the women were alive.

True or false, this is where the matter would have ended, but for some members of the National Commission on the Status of Women, that felt that the truth had not been told in the case.

In hearing after hearing since, the Sessions Court judge in Kohistan, where the case was remanded, asked for the production of these girls or at least their corpses. In March 2014, another written statement was produced saying that the girls were alive and well.

They never appeared.

Since then, the father of one of the women has filed a petition in the Abbottabad bench of the Peshawar High Court.

It seems impossible to discern whether the women from Kohistan are dead or alive. There are cases and hearings and judges and hearings; but no clarity and no truth and no outcome.

The men who condemned them are known, and most are alive and well. A few were arrested and imprisoned, but a final outcome in the case, a judgment and punishment, is still pending.

Kaneez Fatima

Kaneez Fatima was only 17 and committing the crime of walking down one of the streets of her neighbourhood when a motorcycle sidled up to her.

The two men on the bike, Ghulam Mustafa and Asif splashed the young girl with acid. And so on the otherwise ordinary April day in 2014, Kaneez Fatima’s life was changed forever.

The men were thugs hired by a man from a well-to-do family whose marriage proposal for Kaneez Fatima had been rejected by her parents. The jilted suitor decided that if he could not have her, she deserved a disfigurement that would mark her forever. The man’s name was Rizwan-ul-Haq and even after Kaneez lay burned and disfigured, he was not sorry.

In the days since, Kaneez Fatima, her scars marking her suffering, has endured hearing after hearing in her case, her female presence an anomaly in the criminal court where her case is pending. Despite the fact that the attack was carried out in broad daylight, that she can and has testified against her assailant, that his identity and even those of the attackers is known; there has been no final judgment in her case.

She, along with 42 other acid attack victims, in just Punjab continue to await justice.

The Lady Health Workers of Pakistan

They get their media moment only when they are shot and killed; and in these days, where the war against polio has merged inextricably with the war on terror, this happens often.

One month it is a team whose van was accosted as it made its way into an urban slum, in another, a rural settlement on the margins between Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

Whatever the setting, the outcome is bloody and tragic; lady health workers whose task was going door-to-door administering vaccinations, the basic and only healthcare that millions of Pakistanis ever receive have been dragged into war.

In the days since the first attack years ago, until today after tens of them, no specific security measures have been implemented to prevent future attacks.

Moreover, the lady health workers that are left behind must contend with other issues; their postings are not regularised and made permanent Government jobs and often salaries are delayed for months.

Even lesser attention is paid to what they are saying about the mothers of Pakistan; in the words of one, the Government is focused only on eradicating polio and not saving mothers.

The Unmarried Woman

In 1996, a case came before the Supreme Court of Pakistan. Zubaida Bibi v Incharge Darul Aman Lahore dealt with the situation of a young woman who had run away from home and taken up residence in the Darul Aman Shelter in Lahore.

The woman, Meraj Bibi, told the court that she wished to accompany the man she loved and who was waiting outside the court so she could marry him. Her parents, however, had petitioned the court to order Meraj Bibi to go home with them. In reaching the decision, the court said the following:

“We have to take into account the social environment prevailing in a Muslim community. A young, unmarried girl cannot be allowed to live with a person who is completely a stranger to her. Our society is definitely not a society where young girls are allowed to move freely with their paramours.”

The Court was not making new law, in reaching the decision it relied on precedent in which unmarried women had in previous years been compelled to return to their fathers or prevented from leaving with men they wished to marry.

Today in Pakistan, an adult unmarried woman, can be forced to return to her father’s guardianship by law.

However, where the rights of an adult woman to leave her father’s home and live either independently or marry someone of her own will; the law is clear. Not only can a woman be prevented from living independently and alone, or marry of her own choice, the burden of being morally compromised is immediately pinned to her.

To want to make decisions for herself; to want to live her own life is not a right that is available, legally to Pakistani women.

This last case then is not pending but clearly decided.

The Pakistani society it seems is not irked or troubled enough by acid attacks, random killings and terror, but deeply concerned with insuring that women remain the property of men. On this then, there is clarity, even if there is no justice.