February Issue 2019

By | Interview | Law | Published 9 months ago

Khadija Siddiqui, currently a London-based law student, was stabbed 23 times by her ex-boyfriend Shah Hussain, in Lahore, in 2016. Since then, her quest for justice has been an uphill struggle, especially after the Lahore High Court’s (LHC’s) June 2018 verdict in which Hussain was acquitted despite having been found guilty of attempted murder. Siddiqui’s legal battle finally bore fruit on January 23, 2016, when the Supreme Court accepted her appeal, overturned the LHC’s verdict and ordered the arrest of Hussain. Newsline interviewed Siddiqui about her experience, as a woman in Pakistan’s legal system and the wider implications of the SC’s verdict in her case.

Your attacker targeted you in broad daylight. Why do you think it took you so long to get justice? 

The reasons are multi-faceted and the judgement covers them in detail. It took me so long mainly because of the fact that the perpetrator’s father is an influential lawyer who has a say in bar politics. So he was backed by the legal fraternity – not the entire legal fraternity, but a few black sheep in it. They manipulated the case in his favour. 

Another reason was the fact that I am a woman. Women face these barriers where they are not allowed to go to courts and are told to remain silent. Whenever a woman raises her voice they try to settle the issue through a back-door channel.  

Do you feel that your case is evidence of the fact that there is a shift in the offing?

The shift is definitely there, even if it’s not too big. This has been a milestone case which awakened the conscience of the country. The nation has been united over this case, which has established that silence is not the answer to violence.

Your case underlines the positive impact that digital media can have. How big a role did social media play in bringing you justice?

The role of social media and mainstream media has been phenomenal in my case. Thanks to social media, my articles were shared and my voice was heard. 

Many people raised their voices on social media. They were jubilant after the trial court verdict, which was then taken up by the mainstream media. Similarly, after the [Lahore] High Court’s verdict, it was the public outcry that reached the Supreme Court and the chief justice.

As a law student, how do you view the role that the judiciary played in your case?

The Supreme Court took suo motu action in my case. Before that, I was fighting the case alone – it was a lone war for me. The judiciary’s positive role was reflected in how the previous chief justice, Saqib Nisar, took up the case himself and then how the present Chief Justice, Asif Saeed Khosa, conducted the proceedings. 

Justice Khosa examined everything in detail, especially the misreading and non-reading of evidence by the Lahore High Court. It was like a mini-trial itself. He wanted to make sure that there was no injustice towards either party. 

Justice Khosa is known for upholding acquittals, so to reverse the verdict was a major decision on his part. But this was because the high court’s judgement was so perverse that it just had to be reversed.

In recent years the judiciary has become controversial for many reasons. How do you foresee its role as a national institution under the new Chief Justice?

Justice Khosa is an institution. He is an authority on criminal law. He will definitely have a positive influence on the judiciary. He has already said that there is a dam of cases that he wants to address.

My case is an example of the justice one can expect in the future. Let’s not forget that one major aspect of the case is that it was a human rights appeal. Hence, this is one case that is going to influence many cases in the future. This case will be used as a precedent in the years to come.

What about the case’s impact outside court?

The impact of the case has been wide. It wasn’t just about me. I won on June 29, 2017, when the trial court said that yes, [the attacker] is guilty and he was convicted for seven years. So the case wasn’t going to impact me, because I am here in London, doing my bar at law, ready to enter the legal profession. The case will impact our society and Pakistan’s image around the world. It will show everyone that Pakistani women can speak up for themselves and can fight for themselves. Not every Pakistani woman is a helpless victim.

Women’s rights and gender equality are still a far cry in Pakistan, as exemplified by the violence against women. What reforms, in your view, are needed to address that?

Violence against women is indeed a pressing issue. But the fact of the matter is that change is gradual – it cannot be sudden. A major course for reform is through case law. My case has set the precedent for cases involving violence against women, especially by breaking the social stigma surrounding it.

Another means of reform would be judicial overhaul. Amendments are needed in the Penal Code so that they can protect women and allow them to take up cases without external pressures and threats.

How does one address the discrimination against women within the judiciary?

When my case was in the sessions court and was fixed before a female judge, the opposing council used their influence, as a result of which she withdrew from the case, saying, “I cannot deal with this pressure.” The case was then sent to a male judge. For a year, I searched for a female criminal lawyer who could take up my case, but I couldn’t find anyone. 

Females, be it as victims, survivors, litigants, or lawyers, face pressure from society. Whenever we take to the court, we are told that we will be discriminated against and harassed. This is why many women opt out of going to court. This is a huge barrier that needs to be broken, which is only possible if we go to the courts and fight our cases. Gender discrimination in the legal setup can only be overcome the day women stop fearing setbacks and fight in courts.   

What are your views on the much touted judicial reforms expected under Chief Justice Asif Saeed Khosa?

A major pressing issue is the delay in providing justice. I feel there needs to be a proper time-frame, especially for criminal cases. Adjournments are often used as a tactic to settle cases outside the court, through backdoor channels.

There are certain crimes which are non-compoundable offences, where parties can’t settle the matter out of court. Most of the cases settled out of court are due to pressure and owing to the influence of the guilty party. Hence, in such cases the state should certainly intervene.    

You were supported by a young team of lawyers. Do you feel they are representatives of Pakistan’s judicial future? 

My lawyer, Hassaan Niazi, deserves a lot of credit for fighting tooth and nail to get me justice. He is a young, budding human rights lawyer. He actually took it upon himself to spread awareness about the case among other lawyers, asking them for support. The young lawyers played an extremely important role in my case to challenge the orthodox mentality. They actually broke it. I would like to salute them and definitely feel they are harbingers of a progressive future for Pakistan.