ISLAMABAD: Azim Mai’s husband allegedly threw acid in her face last year after she refused to sell their two boys to a man in Dubai to use as camel racers. The 35-year-old mother of five can no longer find work as a maid because her deeply scarred face scares potential employers.
Acid burnings are among the most horrific crimes against women in Pakistan that are now criminalized in a landmark set of laws passed by the parliament. They stand to protect millions of women from common forms of abuse in a conservative, Muslim country with a terrible history of gender inequality.
Rights activists praised the laws Tuesday while stressing their passage was just the first step, and likely not the hardest one. It could be even more difficult to get Pakistan’s corrupt and inefficient legal system to protect women’s rights that many men in this patriarchal society likely oppose.
“This is a big achievement for the women of Pakistan, civil society and the organizations that have been working for more than 30 years to get women friendly bills passed,” said Nayyar Shabana Kiyani, who has lobbied for the legislation as part of The Aurat Foundation, a women’s rights group.
“We can’t really get good results until the laws are implemented at the grassroots level,” she added.
The two bills containing the new laws, which received final approval from the Senate on Monday, stiffened the punishment for acid attacks and criminalized practices such as marrying off young girls to settle tribal disputes and preventing women from inheriting property.
Mistreatment of women is widespread in Pakistan, a nation of some 175 million where most people are poor, only half the adults can read and extremist ideologies, including the Taliban’s, are gaining traction.
In 2010, at least 8,000 acid attacks, forced marriages and other forms of violence against women were reported, according to The Aurat Foundation. Because the group relied mostly on media reports, the figure is likely an undercount.
Women are discriminated against in other ways as well. Pakistan ranked third to last in 2011 in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report, only beating Chad and Yemen. The report captures the magnitude of gender-based disparities in things like health and education.
The new laws explicitly criminalized acid attacks and mandated that convicted attackers would serve a minimum sentence of 14 years that could extend to life, and pay a minimum fine of about $11,200.
Other new laws mandate a minimum prison sentence of three years for forcing a woman to marry, including to settle tribal disputes; five years for preventing a woman from inheriting property; and three years for a practice known as “marriage to the Holy Quran.”
Feudal families in rural areas of Pakistan engage in this practice so that women won’t receive marriage proposals and their share of the inheritance will stay in the family, said Farzana Bari, head of the gender studies department at Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad.
“This legislation addresses the patriarchal traditions that have been used against women to violate their rights,” said Bari. “People have been doing these kinds of things for so long that they don’t even think it’s unjust.
Past bills aimed at protecting women have met resistance from Islamists and other conservatives in parliament. But the latest measures were passed unanimously by both the Senate and the National Assembly and will go into effect once the president signs them.
Mai, the acid attack victim who also has three daughters, was happy with the passage of the laws but favored even harsher punishment, including for her husband, who she said was in jail awaiting trial. It was unclear whether the new laws would affect her husband’s case, since the alleged crime occurred before their passage.
The couple was living in Rahim Yar Khan, a very conservative city in Punjab province, when he attacked her for refusing to sell their children, she said. Many South Asian children have been trafficked to the Gulf to work as camel racers.
“I lost my job, I lost my face, and I have been facing hunger and poverty,” Mai said during an interview at the offices of the Acid Survivors Foundation, a charity in Islamabad treating acid attack victims. “I am happy over the passage of this bill, but I will only be satisfied when authorities throw acid in the face of my husband.”
Previously, victims had to prosecute attacks as attempted murder or disfigurement and were largely unsuccessful, said Valerie Khan, head of the Acid Survivors Foundation.
“This is a clear message that impunity will not exist anymore,” said Khan. “It’s a strong deterrent message.”
Activists said it will take more work to change people’s attitudes and get the laws implemented, but they were prepared.
“It might take another 10 to 20 years to change society’s mindset and public will,” said Kiyani from The Aurat Foundation. “That’s a challenge for both the government and civil society.”