March issue 2002

By and | News & Politics | Published 2 years ago

Zahid, 36, drags his wife Gulrukh into a room and with the help of his two brothers ties her hands with rope and starts to beat her.  Then, pulling out a razor from his pocket, he proceeds to cut off a piece of her nose.  The razor is blunt, so Gulrukh’s ordeal is prolonged.  Her screams and pleas for mercy are ignored.  The job done, Gulrukh is left bleeding, and soon faints with the pain.  Discovered by her daughter, 12, whose cries alert the neighbours, Gulrukh’s life is saved by timely medical intervention.  Subsequently, the Ansar Burney Trust is contacted and Zahid is apprehended.  He is sentenced to five years in jail and is awarded a fine in excess of five lakh rupees to cover Gulrukh’s medical costs.  If he fails to pay, he will receive a life sentence.  Meanwhile, Gulrukh’s life has irrevocably changed.

Zahid is no psychopath.  He joins the ranks of thousands, possibly millions of men who make wife abuse a routine feature of their marital life.  There can never be a valid justification for such crimes.  Often, no reasons are offered either.  In Gulrukh’s case, her error was refusing to give her husband the money she earned as a maid to buy the drugs he was addicted to.

There are other forms of abuse.  A renowned industrialist sends his wife to assorted business associates to gain contracts in exchange for services provided.  When she refuses to comply, he beats her up.  Usually she gives in.  Thirty years into the marriage, she continues to live with her husband, and remains a stock member of local high society. Shakeela belongs to a lower middle-class family.  She was physically abused by her husband for five years, including being hit on the face on numerous occasions and having her body kicked, which resulted in two miscarriages.  Cigarette burns were also common.  But it was when she was burned with a hot iron and had acid poured over different parts of her body and face, that she finally decided to leave her husband.  Her parents were not supportive, so Shakeela made her way to the Ansar Burney Trust, which organised medical treatment for her and helped her obtain a divorce from her husband.  The Trust also secured her a job to enable her to support herself.  Shakeela still bears the internal scars of her physical torment, but she is a survivor: she saved up enough and is now virtually scar-free.  Many others are not as resilient.  And some pay with their lives.

These are just three cases of the rampant domestic violence in Pakistan.   According to Madadgar, a joint venture between Lawyers for Human Rights &  Legal Aid (LHRLA) and UNICEF, during the last year the numbers of reported cases of domestic violence against women has dramatically risen.  The quarterly breakup reveals that during the first quarter of the last year, 426 cases of physical abuse against women were reported, in the second quarter there were 753, in the third quarter 830, and in the last quarter 908.  This does not necessarily imply that such incidents are on the rise, but rather that more women are speaking up.  However, while that is a welcome sign, the irony is that despite the fact that numerous cases of domestic violence are brought to public notice through the media, there has been no sea change in the situation.   A well-known sociologist comments, “The torture of women is rooted in a global culture which denies women equal rights with men, and which legitimises the violent appropriation of women’s bodies for individual gratification or political needs.”

Domestic violence can take many forms – emotional, verbal, sexual and physical abuse.  It is a proven fact that abuse usually escalates in scale – going from emotional or verbal abuse to physical abuse.  And often victims are trapped in a vicious cycle whereby they are abused twice over – by their spouses and the very people they turn to for help.  “We have dealt with women who have not only been battered by their husbands, but who have gone on to be abused emotionally or sexually by policemen, judges and even mullahs,” says attorney Ansar Burney, founder and chairman of the Ansar Burney Welfare Trust .

In one such case, 30-something Parveen, who was a regular victim of physical abuse, finally gathered the courage to take action against her husband seven years into her marriage.  Her conservative middle-class family, who believe divorce is taboo, told her she should remain with her husband and made it clear that no help would be forthcoming from them if she decided otherwise.  However, determined to find justice, she sought out a lawyer who filed a case on her behalf.  One evening the lawyer called Parveen ostensibly to discuss the technicalities of the case with her.  However, at his chambers she was gang-raped by him and his colleagues.  Parveen felt she had no choice but to return to her husband, and remains his victim to date.

According to renowned human rights activist Zia Awan, there is a victim of domestic violence in every second house in Pakistan, and ironically, particularly in upper-class society.  “Basically our judicial system is not child or woman-friendly,” says Zia Awan.  “It takes years to decide cases of domestic violence and during this process the torture these women go through is completely intolerable.  One woman who filed a case against her husband on charges of violence, while leaving the court after a hearing, was mercilessly beaten on the court’s staircase by her husband who was under police custody at the time.  When I approached the judge and complained against the husband, I was completely shocked by his response.  He told me that as long as she was his wife, he could treat her in whatever way he chose, and added even the Quran gives the man this right.  A woman is humiliated, her honour is trampled upon, but how can she retaliate if even those with judicial powers harbour this kind of an attitude?”

A renowned clinical psychologist practicing in Karachi believes that domestic violence stems in part from standard perceptions about women.  “Domestic violence is basically caused by how a man looks at a woman.  One cannot imagine a woman beating up her husband or any man for that matter due to the obvious difference in size and strength between the genders.  Men see women as children who do not have the wherewithal to retaliate even if abused.  In our society particularly, neither the child nor the woman are treated as equals.  More extreme cases, such as murder, burning or acid-pouring, however, owe more to pathological or mental disorders,” she says.

A recent survey conducted by the doctor’s students on domestic violence produced some eye-opening results.  The students travelled to various parts of the city and asked women and men – mostly from low income groups – to fill out forms comprising questions concerning domestic violence.  One question asked whether hitting or abusing women was justified.  Amazingly, while virtually all the males responded affirmatively, almost 80 per cent of the women respondents agreed with the men.  These women contended that they believe their husbands have a right to beat them if they do not obey their orders, clean the house, cook food or displease them in some other way.  Thus one may ask, do women perpetuate their own victimisation?

Certainly conditioning has a great deal to do with women’s self-image as inferiors in the male-female equation.  And often religion is erroneously used to perpetuate this myth.  “Women have no choice as they aren’t aware of their rights or social status.  Girls need to be taught about their fundamental human rights from a very early age, and how not to allow any one to humiliate them.  As an adult, it gets more difficult to convince them.  Schools could help in this respect by holding discussions on the issue,” says an analyst.

domestic-violence-2-mar02The obvious question is why so many women spend years in torment, sometimes at the risk of their lives, rather than breaking free.  The fact is, particularly in societies such as ours, this is easier said than done.  Because of lifelong conditioning and socio-cultural diktat, women believe their fate is sealed once they are married.  ‘Doli say kafan tak’ is a common local proverb.  And since parents are usually not very welcoming of a daughter who has a failed marriage, and the authorities are far from cooperative, women often have no recourse but to remain tied to their hearths of hell.

What is more horrifying is that despite the numerous cases of crimes against women that are reported in daily publications, according to Zia Awan, 80 per cent of such crimes go unreported, especially cases of domestic violence.

“To fight against men who inflict such horrific and painful forms of abuse on their wives, the law of the country needs to be on their side,” says Ansar Burney.  Pakistani law, however, is inadequate in protecting female victims of domestic violence and penalising perpetrators of the crime.  Not explicitly prohibited by a specific, targeted, and distinct set of laws, most acts of domestic violence are encompassed in the Qisas and Diyat Ordinance of 1990-92, a body of Islamic criminal laws dealing with murder, attempted murder, and the crime of causing bodily “hurt” (both intentional and unintentional).  In the absence of explicit criminalisation of domestic violence, police and judges have tended to treat it as a non-justiciable, private or family matter or, at best, an issue for civil, rather than criminal courts.

If a domestic violence case does come before a criminal court, it may be punished either by qisas (retribution) or diyat (compensation) for the benefit of the victim or his/her legal heirs.  In qisas and diyat crimes, the victim or heir has the right to determine whether to exact retribution or compensation or to pardon the accused.  If the victim or heir chooses to waive qisas, or qisas is judicially held to be inapplicable, an offender is subject to tazir or discretionary punishment in the form of imprisonment.  In these instances, judges not only have the power to determine the extent of punishment, but also to decide whether to punish the offender at all.  Commentators have noted that the qisas and diyat laws have, in many respects, converted serious crimes, including murder and aggravated assault, into crimes against the individual rather than the state.  One Pakistani researcher has written, “By vesting the primary right of forgiveness in the individual for such a serious crime as murder, the state has exposed the most susceptible sections of society to pressure from the powerful.”

The “privatisation” of crimes by the qisas and diyat laws has particularly damaging consequences in cases of intra-family violence, the majority of which involve domestic abuse or spousal murder.  As a result of the law, not only are women victims of domestic violence and their heirs susceptible to pressure and intimidation to waive qisas, but the concept of monetary compensation can be meaningless in a situation where payments flow from one member of the nuclear family to another.   Furthermore, murder (Qatl-e-Amd) is not liable to qisas “when any wali [heir] of the victim is a direct descendant, no matter how young, of the offender.”  Thus, cases in which a woman has been murdered by her husband would be exempted from qisas or capital punishment for the murder, if the couple in question have children, since in that case, a child or heir of the victim would also be a direct descendant of the offender.  Diyat in such cases, entailing compensation flowing from a father to his (motherless) children, would be a mockery.

Although courts can impose tazir punishment in a spousal murder case, the maximum the court can award is 14 years’ imprisonment.  Moreover, courts are directed to weigh the decision to impose tazir punishment by “regarding the facts and circumstances of the case,” which grants them a large measure of discretion.  In light of the male bias of the courts with respect to domestic violence, and the fact that punishment in such cases of spousal murder has been left entirely to the discretion of judges, this often translates into total impunity for the perpetrators of even the most extreme form of domestic violence.  In the words of one commentator, “Although it is still unclear how the law will be applied in practice, it may be a means by which the state abdicates its responsibility to control violence in the most common type of intra-family murder – the killing of a female member by the male head of the family.”

A case recently handled by Zia Awan indicates how the system works.  Amina Bano was burnt to death on account of her persistence to settle in Karachi.  Amina met Dr. Altaf Sarwar during their respective house jobs at Lyari General Hospital in 1995, and they fell in love.  Amina was under the guardianship of her brother, Badar Jameel, also a doctor, to whom Altaf Sarwar went with his proposal of marriage with Amina.  Initially Badar rejected the proposal because Altaf was settled in Bahawalpur, and he did not want his sister shifting to a city so far away from him.

The proposal was, however, later accepted on the condition that Dr. Altaf would settle permanently in Karachi.  On February 23, 2000, Altaf even signed an affidavit stating he would shift permanently to Karachi within four months.  The two were married but after four months lapsed, there were no indications that Altaf would make good his word.  Amina’s persistent entreaties to her husband to honour his pledge resulted in him severely torturing her, and eventually compelled her to leave her husband’s house and make her way to Karachi.  An ostensibly humbled and profusely apologetic Altaf arrived in Karachi and succeeded in taking his wife back to Bahawalpur with him.  However, soon it was back to business, as Altaf again started to batter and torment his wife.  On January 27, 2001, he set her on fire.  Amina was shifted to Ziauddin Hospital in Karachi in critical condition, where she breathed her last on February 9.  Law minister Shahida Jameel ordered an enquiry into the case, and Altaf was caught.  Allegedly, Dr Altaf had many contacts with men in influential places and was subsequently acquitted.   He remains a free man.

Dowry, or the lack of it, often features as a cause of domestic violence.  A case in point: Aisha and Ataullah were first cousins; he was an ostensibly devout Muslim.  Aisha was only 16 years old at the time of her marriage and within a year became the mother of a daughter.  However, Ataullah began to abuse her, and soon thereafter threw her out of the house, contending she could only return if she brought along a substantial dowry.  Shaheen Khatoon, Aisha’s mother, arranged to cobble together a few items in order to salvage her daughter’s marriage.  Sending her daughter home, she secured a written statement from Ataullah that he would not torture Aisha again.  The promise wasn’t worth the paper it was written on.  On October 3, 2000, Ataullah burnt Aisha to death.  Shaheen Khatoon filed a case against Ataullah and sought Zia Awan’s assistance to gain custody of her grand-daughter, Hifza.  She succeeded in the latter endeavour and Ataullah was sentenced to 14 years of rigorous imprisonment.   However, Ataullah appealed against the verdict and was acquitted.  He remains a free man.  Shaheen Khatoon, meanwhile, continues to be threatened and harassed by him and lives in constant fear.

A psychiatrist comments, “Men beat up their wives for numerous reasons: it can be because they are frustrated with their own lives or careers, or have been forceably married to a woman who is not of their choice and thus release their frustration on their wives.  Also, narrow-minded men, who are often guilty of infidelity themselves, suspect their wives of disloyalty, and beat them.  A woman is also often seen as the victim of her spouse’s own complexes; if she is better looking than her husband or he discovers she was involved with or engaged to someone else before marriage, this can engender real anger, and anger is momentary madness.  Men can lose control and this results in a major cause of domestic violence.”

“A man can also be violent with his wife because of a deep-rooted hatred for that woman due to certain past experiences,” explains another psychiatrist.  She cites a case as an example: Sameera was Javed’s cousin and he had a soft spot for her in his teenage years.  Sameera was, however, arrogant about her good looks.  When Javed proposed to her, she refused, and got engaged to someone else instead.  Later, her engagement broke and she was forced to marry Javed.

Javed was brutal to her from the outset: from frequent beatings to force feeding, Sameera was subjected to various kinds of torture.  In depression she gained a huge amount of weight and lost the one asset she had prided herself on: her looks.  One of the most horrific instances she recalled was of him placing her hands under the legs of a charpai and then sitting on it, fracturing her fingers.  She has still not recovered the full use of her hands.

Perhaps the most painful form of domestic abuse is acid throwing. During eight months of last year in Karachi, alone  206 women died of severe burns inflicted by acid having been thrown on them by their spouses.  There are endless stories.  Hajira bibi from Badin had acid poured over her body and face by her husband, on account of supposed ‘disloyalty.’  Hajira bibi had long been abused by her spouse, but since her younger sister is married to her husband’s younger brother she felt she could not abandon her marriage, no matter what the provocation, lest it endanger her sister’s marriage.  After she had acid thrown on her, Hajira bibi was taken to hospital, and eventually, due to unprecedented police involvement in the case, the Ansar Burney Trust was drawn in.  However, despite their intervention, Hajira 22, could not be prevailed upon to file a case against her husband.  Hajra survived, but is scarred for life.  Although the Burney Trust’s intervention enabled her to leave her husband, her ordeal continues.

“Not all violent men appear like monsters with horns,” says psychiatrist Reena Singh.  “They’re often likeable and charming.”  Asad, 32, currently a resident of the UK does not fit the stereotype of an aggressor.  He is a successful lawyer, makes enough money to live a lavish life, entertains  frequently, is not a drinker or an addict and on the whole appears a man of impeccable conduct.  His relationship with his wife Sehrish indicates a blissful union.  But, their life is far from perfect.

Sehrish has been married to Asad for seven years and has been physically and mentally abused by him ever since.  She is a perfect example of how a wife-beater can fool everyone, and why escaping him can be so difficult.  Asad never strikes Sehrish on the face, always on the body where it does not show.   “I never knew what would provoke him; it could start with the fact that I cooked something not of his choice, or maybe just the fact that I had left the bathroom light on,” recalls Sehrish.

At first she thought he had a hidden drinking problem or was stressed due to overwork.  But as time went by, the beatings became more violent.  Still Sehrish continued in the marriage, trying hard to do nothing to aggravate Asad.  “I didn’t think of myself as a helpless victim; I had become a survivor; a terrific strategist capable of pre-empting his every move.  I used to hide all the sharp objects in my house and whenever I saw him beginning to lose his temper, I would call the neighbours over,” says Sehrish.  Besides, she had become pregnant in the second year of her marriage and hoped having a child would ease the situation.  Certainly the beatings abated during her pregnancy, but after her son was born the violence resumed.  After some particularly gruesome incidents, her neighbours intervened and summoned the police.  Sehrish, six months pregnant, had just miscarried after being kicked by Asad in the stomach and locked out of the house in the dead of night in a bitterly cold winter.  Asad managed to convince the police that it was only a minor domestic brawl and they left.   He exhibited no sign of remorse.  “He didn’t see the loss of the baby as his problem.  He said it was enough that we had one child,” says Sehrish, a UK born and bred citizen who says her family did not want to know what she was enduring.

Things came to a head again a few months ago when Asad held a knife to Sehrish’s neck, threatening to kill her.  Sehrish panicked and managed to escape and call the police.  But he got away by telling them that Sehrish was on drugs and her behaviour could be unpredictable.  His statements were further corroborated by his friends who testified that he was a perfect gentleman, and Asad showed the police officials the slashes on Sehrish’s forearms which he had himself inflicted with a piece of broken glass, as proof of the fact that Sehrish was neurotic and suicidal.  With nowhere to go and her spirit broken, Sehrish says “Leaving him is not an option – he would take my child away.”  She remains in the marriage.

Sehrish is not an exception.  Even in the ‘civilised’ developed world, cases like hers proliferate.

Domestic violence is prevalent globally and every section of society is affected by the menace.  According to a welfare trust based in the UK, one in four women has been hit by her partner and research shows that on average, a victim is beaten 35 times before she seeks police help.  Two women are killed by their current or formal partner every week in England and Wales.

Perhaps the only mitigating factor in the west is that there is some degree of accountability for crimes of this nature – even if not anywhere near what it should be.

In Pakistan however, other than a few human rights activists and welfare trusts working towards eliminating the evil of domestic violence, there is little recourse for victims.  In the 21st century, women still continue to live in a society where physical abuse is an accepted concept.