MARRIAGE is, at least according to the prevailing cultural propaganda, the beginning of a new life. This new life, it follows, will be one of beauty and bounty — a loving relationship, new family members, and of course the birth of progeny.
As far as women are concerned, it is also a transfer of guardianship. A woman who marries is considered the responsibility of her husband. It is this last bit that can encompass all the circles of hell. What happens when the man to whom a woman, a cherished daughter, is married, exploits the mores of guardianship to perpetrate cruelty and abuse? To whom can the woman turn? To whom can her family turn and what recourse to protection or justice is available to them?
Here is one such story from Mingora in Swat. In 2006, a woman — we can call her R. Bibi — was married to a man who her family had chosen for her. Both families took part in the traditional wedding festivities at the end of which R. Bibi left for her new husband’s home.
Why must they turn to these ‘guardians’ who may be capable of forcing them into illicit relationships?
Instead of the loving home she had hoped for and expected, the newly married woman entered hell itself. Her husband — we can call him A — was unemployed at the time; he beat her regularly and subjected her to cruel words and privation whenever he could. When R. Bibi told her family, there was little that they could do to put an end to her ordeal. In the hope of making things better for the couple, they provided financial support to her husband. But that did not change his behaviour towards his wife.
In 2010, A got a job in Saudi Arabia. Hoping that this would be a new start for the couple, R. Bibi’s family managed to arrange for the finances to pay for her husband’s airfare and travel costs to Saudi Arabia.
Around this time, R. Bibi complained that not only was A subjecting her to regular beatings and cruelty but that he was also pushing her to have illicit relations with other men. When her father heard about this, he told his daughter to stay home and to not return to her husband. As a result, A got angry and matters deteriorated further for the couple, with A hurling threats at the family.
It was now 2012, a time when the Pakistani Taliban were active in Swat. R. Bibi’s husband had connections with the terrorist group that rendered his threats to the family particularly frightening. That same year, R. Bibi’s brother was killed; her father alleged that A had admitted to the murder in a phone call. He continued to demand that his wife be returned to him and eventually the family gave in. R. Bibi, who was now a mother of two, joined her husband in Saudi Arabia. The family, exhausted by the repeated threats and conflict, hoped that this would be the beginning of a better time for R. Bibi, her husband and their children in Saudi Arabia.
Unfortunately, that was not to be. Before long. R. Bibi called and said that A was forcing her to have illicit relations with his boss in exchange for a luxury car, job and other perks. Somehow, R. Bibi managed to return home to Pakistan with her children. Her husband threatened to kill her and her family for R. Bibi’s disobedience. His brothers, with all their Taliban connections, the family knew, had the ability to carry out his threats. The family lived a terrified existence in Mingora while A remained in Saudi Arabia.
Around this time, R. Bibi’s grandmother passed away. On the day of her grandmother’s funeral, and allegedly at the behest of her husband, R. Bibi was killed. The family was stunned and terrified. They went to the police and filed a case against her husband and his family members who had allegedly carried out the killing. This made A even more angry and he vowed to kill the entire family when he returned from Saudi Arabia.
While the names have been obscured, the story of this couple is true. The police have not been able to investigate her death or the continuing threats against her family. At the end of July this year, A returned from Saudi Arabia and when he did so he went straight to the deceased R. Bibi’s house and allegedly pulled out a pistol and threatened the whole family. Since that day, R. Bibi’s family and her children live in fear for their lives and their future. Despite reports being lodged, no action has been taken against her killers or her husband.
The story poses all the questions that Pakistan (and Pakistanis) refuse to answer. Why are women considered the property of men, either fathers or husbands? Why must they turn to these ‘guardians’ who may be capable of forcing them into illicit relationships? In this case, R. Bibi had a supportive family, a father and brothers who tried to protect her against her husband. Despite this, she is dead and her children are motherless. Her family lives in terror because they did not look away from what was happening to their daughter.
Unlike many disasters that are discussed in Pakistani newspapers, this one is not yet over. R. Bibi is dead but if the state, specifically the legal and law-enforcement authorities in Mingora, do not take immediate and urgent action, there may well be more dead bodies of women who faced similar trauma in their life. The cases have been filed, there are witnesses and there is evidence; the question is only whether an abused woman’s family can get justice and protection. Pakistan’s law hardly supports abusers; then why do the law-enforcement agencies not take action against them?
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.
Published in Dawn, October 9th, 2019