The most dangerous time

Published May 25, 2022
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.

THE Commons At Vintage Park in the Houston suburb of Spring, Texas, is the kind of apartment complex you can find all over the United States. The sedate two- and three-storey apartment buildings are surrounded by trees and manicured bushes. There is plenty of parking for residents and a measure of extra security, in that the entire complex is gated. Only residents or those with the gate code can gain access.

None of this was enough to protect Sadia Manzoor. A Pakistani-American woman, Sadia worked as a teacher. On the morning of May 19, she was getting ready for work. Also in the apartment were her mother, Inayat Bibi, and her four-year-old daughter Khadija. Within minutes, all of them would be dead. That morning, Sadia’s estranged husband, also a Pakistani-American, barged into the apartment and opened fire, killing his ex-wife, his young daughter, and his ex-mother-in-law. Then he turned the gun on himself.

Read more: Tough for women

Since the murder, it has been revealed that Sadia had filed for divorce from her husband because he was abusive towards her and their daughter. The divorce had gone through, and Sadia was trying to build a new life for herself, her mother and her daughter. Having wrangled her way out of an abusive relationship, Sadia did not know that the time when an abused woman leaves a man is the most dangerous moment in her life.

According to the US Department of Justice, the time when a couple separates is the most lethal moment. An abused woman is 500 times more at risk for violence, according to some estimates. Many abused women are hurt or killed during this window of time as the abuser begins to realise that he no longer controls them. In Sadia’s case, it seems that her former husband had decided that if he could not keep his family, then there would be no family.

Then there is the other story of two Pakistan-origin sisters from Spain. A day after Sadia Manzoor and her mother and daughter were slain, the two sisters Aneesa and Arooj Abbas were murdered in cold blood in Gujarat. According to reports, the sisters had been forcibly married to cousins in Pakistan a couple of years ago and were trying to get a divorce. When their in-laws and their own family learned of their intentions, they were tricked into returning to Pakistan. Here, they faced torture and abuse. The six men who have been arrested in connection with the murder include two of their brothers and an uncle, amongst others.

Such is the normalisation of violence against women that no one is bothered even when they know someone is being abused.

These are harrowing and tragic deaths. Both involve abused Pakistani women living in diaspora. Both involve men who, on finding out that they could not exert complete control over their victims, killed them. Sadia Manzoor’s murderer killed himself, so he cannot be punished for the mayhem he unleashed. The suspected killers of the Abbas sisters have been arrested, but it’s unclear whether they will actually be punished. The general routine in cases involving the death of abused women is to make arrests while media attention is on these cases, and grant bail to the suspects as soon as the attention wanes.

The stories also illustrate how living in countries like the United States or Spain or any other Western nation exposes the masculinity crisis that confronts Pakistani men who migrate to other countries. In Pakistan, control over women is complete. Such is the normalisation of violence against women in the country that no one is bothered even when they know a woman is being abused. Otherwise incessantly nosy Pakistanis are experts at looking the other way when it comes to abused women. One of the cruellest depredations of a hyper-patriarchal society is that even women, whom one would expect would support their own, smugly blame the victim.

Such all-encompassing dominion over women is not available to men in other countries. Pakistani men living in diaspora in this or that Western country suddenly discover that they can no longer exert complete control over the women in their family. Relationship dynamics change when their wives discover that it is not very difficult to obtain a divorce. In Texas, as in other American states, a divorce is granted if either party wants it. Legally, at least, no one can force a woman to continue to stay married to a man. Unlike in Pakistan, a husband’s consent is simply not required to obtain a divorce. Some men, like Sadia Manzoor’s killer, cannot believe that they no longer command their families in the way they used to.

Read more: Violence against women increased in 2021: report

It is important for all Pakistani women to learn from the stories of Sadia Manzoor and the Abbas sisters. The three women had been trying to live a life free of abuse; a life where they could make their own choices. Their lives were destroyed because of the male ego: their killers’ insatiable desire to control transformed into a desire to kill. Such was the bloodlust of Sadia Manzoor’s killer that even a four-year-old child was not spared. According to their autopsy report, the Abbas sisters were severely tortured before they died.

Women leaving abusive relationships need to take the threat that they face very seriously. Sadia Manzoor may have been doing just that by living in a gated apartment complex. Unfortunately, it was not enough to save her and her small family. The lesson is clear: the raving and ranting abusive man can easily transform into a killer. Brothers and uncles can undergo similar transformations, egged on by their lurid desire for complete control. Lurking beneath the thin veneer of normalcy, all abusive men are potential murderers of women; aided and abetted in their plans by conspiring family members, misogynistic laws and societies that choose to look the other way when men kill.

The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.

rafia.zakaria@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, May 25th, 2022

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