“Kahaani tou bohat lambi hai,” says Arifa* as she works up the courage to share an account of her life. For a woman in her late 20s, she looks weak and haggard. Slightly fearful and wary, she gradually opens up.
Raised in Hyderabad, Arifa decided to come to Karachi when she couldn’t deal with the raging problems at home caused by her father’s demise. She lived in a hostel and worked at a fashion store for nearly two years till the inevitable question was posed to her: ‘Log kya kahenge?’ “You should get married. You need a man’s support,” she says she was advised.
A lady she knew from her neighbourhood got her married to a man, who she later discovered was part of a criminal group. He was an alcoholic, a womaniser and batterer. “He even asked me to indulge in wrongful activities,” which she refused, she shares.
“After two years, God gifted me with a beautiful daughter,” Arifa says, and for her daughter’s protection, she turned to a human rights organisation. “I asked for assistance in filing for khula (right to seek divorce) and assurance that I’ll get my 15-month-old daughter’s custody.” But Arifa’s husband threatened the institution with violence. This turned the tables on her and the organisation began fighting for him instead. “I could have either saved our respect, or our (her and her child’s) lives.”
Disillusioned, she took matters into her own hands and decided that both her child and she should die. “I finished her life and tried to take my own. We were rushed to the hospital; my daughter died on the way and after being in critical condition for six days, I survived… only because I had to bear more sufferings.”
When she regained consciousness, she was interrogated by the police. She told them what had happened and was jailed for years. Her husband sent divorce papers to her during her time in prison and when she was released, all her relatives shut their doors on her. Her family got her admitted to a mental hospital where she stayed for two years and was given electric shocks and sedatives.
After the dust settled, she began a new life. Once again, she was pestered by people to remarry. And so, she did. She was directed to a man through a marriage bureau. She openly told him about her past, which he readily accepted. But after just ten days of marriage and for no apparent reason, her husband informed her via a mere text message that he cannot live with her. On this unsettling note, she separated from him as well and till today, awaits the divorce papers.
In a span of over 10 years, Arifa’s world turned upside down. Not only was she physically and emotionally abused by the first husband and psychologically jolted by the second, but also labelled as depraved by a ‘morally upright’ society.
Till this day, Arifa repents the loss of her daughter, who she thought at the time, be it rightfully or wrongfully, deserved to die than to live a life devoid of respect. It has been seven years since this dreadful occurrence, but Arifa still struggles to sleep. “Every time I close my eyes, I see my daughter’s face. I curse myself and regret that even if my husband had given her to the bawds, at least, she’d still be alive.”
Arifa is just one example of the trials faced by women in Pakistan. Samira*, who holds a Masters degree in International Relations, shares that her in-laws and husband of ten months consider beating the daughters-in-law and wives as a display of ‘manhood’. In fact, her husband’s family aids and abets the thrashing. “Once, over a petty request, my brother-in-law beat me up like mad,” she says.
As far as her intimate relations with her husband are concerned, Samira’s husband sometimes uses force on her. “Once, when I refused, he twisted my hand so badly that it became swollen,” she shares. But in spite of having experienced physical, psychological and sexual abuse, Samira is willing to reconcile and so is her family.
Both women are presently getting assistance from the Sarim Burney Welfare Trust International.
The phenomenon of domestic violence is complex, to say the least. But we can attempt to understand its legislative and legal implications, and the probable solutions, so that more Arifas and Samiras out there can seek solace.
Are men in Pakistan victims of domestic violence?
Domestic violence is often viewed as a woman-centred issue, but it must be acknowledged that men are also susceptible to it. “While the prevalence of domestic violence in patriarchal societies is mostly perpetrated against women, as they have reduced rights, that is not to say men don’t face it,” says Hera Hussain, founder of chaynpakistan.org, a website devoted to supporting women experiencing domestic violence.
She informs that there are various cases where men are forcibly married to women they don’t want to be with or face extreme emotional abuse from their wives and in-laws. “It’s just easy to get out of an abusive situation if you are a man because society allows you to have control of assets, and it’s less taboo,” she adds.
Domestic violence in law and legislature
In the absence of specific laws against domestic violence in Pakistan, the wide-ranging Sections 332 to 337 of the Pakistani Penal Code cover merely one aspect of domestic violence — physical abuse. But Sindh and Balochistan’s Domestic Violence (Prevention and Protection) Acts of 2013 and 2014, respectively, accommodate other forms of domestic abuse as well.
While the level of implementation of the Act in Balochistan remains to be seen, the Sindh Act has not been executed even a year after its enforcement. “Neither a Commission nor a Protection Committee (as prescribed by the Sindh Act) have yet been formed,” says Maliha Zia Lari, a human rights activist and lawyer, who helped frame the bill.
In some cases of domestic violence, both persons can inflict physical injuries on each other. This happens when a victim acts in self-defence. In such instances, identification of the ‘predominant’ aggressor or the one with the most ability to commit a violent assault is often tricky. Police officials mostly make arrests on the basis of visual evidence, which could be misleading. Political pressure also influences them to remain silent on the matter.
Not only do these factors let perpetrators off the hook, but also unearth a serious pitfall in the process of conviction. “Questions such as whether the act of domestic violence is physical, emotional and sexual, or a mixture, will all be major factors in determining who the predominant aggressor is,” says Lari. ‘The Stop Violence Against Women’ project by The Advocates for Human Rights, a non-profit organisation that works globally to fight injustice, suggests that factors, which should be taken into consideration include whether the injuries are offensive or defensive in nature and their level of seriousness.
Both men and women should be evaluated using a standard procedure, so that justice can be done instead of shunned.
Governmental and non-governmental organisations
With the increasingly potent role of human rights and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in Pakistan, efforts made by the government are often deemed to be insufficient. The government and concerned NGOs share the common goal of safeguarding the vulnerable, but often fail to complement each other in attaining it.
So, should the two entities work hand in hand? “Why not?” says politician Sharmila Farooqi, who is one of the two members of the Sindh Human Rights Commission. “Everyone should be brought together on the same platform. However, there is a lack of communication between the government and NGOs.”
Conversely, Sarim Burney, Chairman of the Sarim Burney Welfare Trust International, believes that the government and NGOs are different entities and “it’s better if they don’t collaborate.” According to Hera Hussain, “The government needs to recognise the plight of women and support ventures that wish to establish institutions, which aid abused women.”
What can be done?
One way of curbing domestic violence is to simplify its reporting process. The procedure of launching a complaint against domestic abuse is so daunting that many women don’t even consider it a viable option. Hussain feels, “The system is so unjust and cruel that it is better if women don’t report it. We need a system where women are not treated as ‘guilty’ for coming forward.” Meanwhile Farooqi suggests, “Victims should be provided with a single-window operation where all the facilities are available in one place. More women crisis centres need to be initiated at tehsil and district levels.”
Hussain, Farooqi and Burney agree that the police have the most important role to play in alleviating domestic violence. According to Hussain, women need to be physically safeguarded by the police because the time a woman leaves an abusive home is the most dangerous for her. And Farooqi suggests that the police need to be sensitised. “They should have the authority to recover victims who contact them and safely take them to their parents or a shelter home. After a week, the same police officials should follow up on the case. The day this happens, women will feel secure,” assures Burney.
*Names have been changed to protect privacy
Published in The Express Tribune, Ms T, April 20th, 2014.