“SHOULD violence be suffered or vocalised?” wrote the now deceased Sadaf Zahra in January of this year. This was just one tweet from a long Twitter thread about domestic violence. As Sadaf wrote: “Ever since I gained consciousness and life acted as an eye opener for me, I have been keenly observing that words ‘patience’, ‘tolerance’ and ‘adjustments’, ‘compromise’ are solely associated with women.” Sadaf alluded to the fact that she too was now a victim of such violence; the thread was perhaps a cry for help, an act of desperation of a woman who felt she had absolutely no other options.
Now Sadaf Zahra is dead. On June 29, her body was found hanging from a ceiling fan. According to her sister Mahwish Zahra, the deceased’s husband, identified as Ali Salman Alvi, called her and said that Sadaf had “done something to herself”. Mahwish Zahra rushed to her sister’s house where she found all the doors inside the house closed. When she went into the room where Alvi said Sadaf was, she found her sister’s bruised body hanging from the ceiling fan. A ladder was found against the wall of the room. Mahwish Zahra asked Sadaf’s husband to bring the body of her sister down from the fan.
In shock, Mahwish then proceeded to file a police report against the suspect. Her brother-in-law, she told the police, was used to torturing her sister for the smallest reason. Her sister lived in a world of terror never knowing what would make him lose his temper and begin beating her. Sadaf Zahra’s family repeatedly urged him to stop beating his wife but he allegedly continued to do so. When Sadaf Zahra’s body was finally taken down there were reportedly bruises and possible torture marks on the side of her face. The accused said that he had nothing to do with Sadaf Zahra’s death. She had become upset and killed herself.
The final forensic results in Sadaf Zahra’s case have not yet been released but one is uncertain if she committed suicide. Men who abuse women and commit acts of domestic violence often rely on this ruse to cover up their crimes. After torturing and murdering their victims, it is easy for them to allege that the women were unhappy and chose to end their life. If the first tragedy is the death of the woman, the second one is that the police and courts often believe this lie and file the case away.
No one is willing to open up their homes, no one is willing to mediate, no one is willing to watch out and report that there are continuing signs of abuse.
This has not happened yet in the present case. The victim’s husband was arrested on the spot based on police suspicions that he may have murdered his wife. He has since been held in Adiala Jail, but it is unclear whether he will still be kept in prison following the end of the remand period. Even if the police have good reason to believe that he killed her, it is unclear whether they will be able to gather enough evidence to show that it was indeed a planned and orchestrated murder, which is a crime that is difficult to prove anyway — more so when the killer may be the person who is closest to the victim.
Sadaf Zahra’s case is different because unlike so many women who are killed by their spouses owing to domestic abuse, she actually chose to speak out about what she suffered. Her Twitter thread is an indictment of a society that diligently pushes issues involving domestic violence under the rug. Even when people know what is occurring, they choose to keep quiet under the pretext of non-interference in other matters. It is a joke as Pakistanis are experts in interfering in other people’s lives all the time. They just choose not to do it when it’s a matter of men beating up women.
In this case, the suspect worked as a producer on well-known news anchor Asma Shirazi’s current affairs programme. On July 8, the day the news of Sadaf Zahra’s death came to light, Shirazi put out a statement on Twitter: “I was shocked & numbed the moment I got to know abt incident & FIR, not just myself but media group I’m working with strictly condemned & terminated accused. Read Sadaf’s thread in morning whom I never met but am heartbroken. #RIPSadaf Justice must prevail #JusticeForZahra [sic]”.
Abusers are notoriously adept at covering their tracks and ensuring their victims are isolated, undermined and unable to leave or seek help. But there are always signs. The question is, had no one noticed her Twitter thread before her death — no family member, colleague or friend? Had no one seen any warning signs and sought to help? Her safety should have been the primary concern of anyone who was aware of or suspected her to be a victim of domestic violence.
Pakistan had plenty of laws against domestic violence, the act is routinely condemned all the time and every day. Yet neither the government nor private citizens are interested in delivering the sort of help that abused women need. No one is willing to open up their homes, no one is willing to mediate, no one is willing to watch out and report that there are continuing signs of abuse.
Without a social and cultural transformation, a liberation of Pakistani women from the curse of judging other women and the censure of Pakistani men for refusing to condemn such acts, nothing will change. Sadaf Zahra died a cruel and painful death, but is its cruelty enough to soften the hard hearts that look away from the abused woman begging for help? If past cases are any evidence, the answer tragically is absolutely not.
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.
Published in Dawn, July 15th, 2020