Podium has always been a place where we feature stories that do not receive the attention or space they deserve. Today we begin a new four-part series exploring domestic violence and the justice system, in particular how women in Pakistan are navigating a system designed to silence them.
We have partnered with a phenomenally talented journalist on this ambitious project – Sanam Maher. Sanam is a seasoned reporter whose work has appeared in The Guardian, Al Jazeera and many other publications. In 2020, she published her book, “A Woman Like Her: The Story Behind the Honour Killing of a Social Media Star”, which was named one of the best non-fiction books that year by The New York Times and The New Yorker.
Over the next four months, Sanam will delve deep into the issue, writing about it from various perspectives to understand the insurmountable challenges women face in their search for protection and justice. I know it is a difficult topic to read about. But I do find it encouraging to learn about the women and networks who are still fighting to make this world safer for their sisters and daughters – and themselves.
I hope you feel the same after reading Sanam’s reporting and continue to come back each month to read more of her wonderful work.
On March 8, 2013, a small group of women stood on the steps of the Sindh Assembly in Karachi and handed roses to the lawmakers heading inside. They hoped to persuade them to pass a law codifying, for the first time in Pakistan’s history — penalties for domestic violence. The bill had stagnated in the system for years, but that morning it was finally being presented to the Assembly. Please support the bill, the women – all activists – urged the parliamentarians.
In 2009, the law was tantalisingly close to being passed nationally, before an amendment to the Constitution delegated power to the provinces to form their own laws. Sindh was the first of Pakistan’s four provinces where the legislation had moved to a vote. While laws on violence against women existed, including ones that addressed sexual harassment or acid attacks, there was no provincial or national legislation specifically addressing domestic violence. By 2011, 610 cases of domestic violence had been reported – an increase of 25% from the previous year. And the activists on those steps knew that number was likely higher, as this form of violence is one of the most concealed and under-reported. In every strata of society, at every level of power in the system, domestic violence was largely seen as a private matter, its shame corrosive enough that women endured it rather than bear the repercussions of reporting it.
“The state continues to perpetuate the public-private divide, i.e. whatever happens in the home should not be brought into the public realm,” said Maliha Zia Lari, one of the lawyers who had shaped the bill. Domestic violence was an ‘invisible crime’ in Pakistan, she said. No one wanted to acknowledge it. “There is an unwillingness to recognise offences committed in the home as ‘crimes’ as this would be a ‘violation’ of the privacy or the ‘sanctity’ of a household.” Right-wing religious parties underscored Lari’s point, as they criticised any legislation as a “Western agenda” to destroy the “family system”.
But on that day, International Women’s Day, a majority of Sindh’s lawmakers drew the curtain back on homes across the province, passing the first – and to date, the most comprehensive – law against domestic violence in the country.
The scope of the Domestic Violence (Prevention and Protection) Act, 2013, is remarkable. It acknowledges emotional, economic, psychological, sexual and verbal abuse, including threats to cause pain, accusations of immorality, threats of divorce, taunting a spouse who cannot have children and threatening to remarry, insults, stalking, and obsessive possessiveness or jealousy that leads to an invasion of privacy or risk to a person’s security.
The law enables women or children to approach a court magistrate to file a case rather than deal with the police. The first hearing must be held within seven days of a petition; if they are forced out of their homes, they will be provided with a safe residence. Perpetrators are liable to pay for medical expenses, damage to property, loss of earnings, or child maintenance; protection orders prevent an abuser from communicating with the aggrieved party. The government is required to constitute committees of welfare workers, psychologists, court officials and female police officers to provide legal advice, counselling, assistance with medical treatment or relocation, and maintain records of any violent incidents. All court proceedings, the Act states, will be completed within three months. Penalties include imprisonment up to two years and fifty thousand rupees (about $250 USD).
“It will bring results,” said one police chief on the day the law was passed. It was easy to imagine the number of cases that would flood in, the women who would seek relief under the law.
Four years would pass before the law was used.
As one lawyer said, this was a “dead law”.
Until one morning in February 2017, when a young woman in Karachi named Rukkaiya had an argument with her husband.
The medical report noted a shaky tooth. Eighteen-year-old Rukkaiya’s lip was swollen. She had abrasions on her neck, cuts on her face, and, the doctor wrote, a headache from being struck against a wall. “We quarrelled over money that morning,” Rukkaiya, now 23, tells me. Her in-laws were unhappy she would not share earnings from her teaching jobs. But the fighting was not new. She had been married to a relative, an arranged marriage, when she was 16. For two years, she endured assaults and drunken verbal abuse. On that morning in 2017, she was convinced her husband would kill her. She fled to a neighbour’s home and called her mother.
While the violence Rukkaiya faced is disturbingly common, her case is not. In many ways, she was lucky.
Rukkaiya’s mother worked as a cleaner at the home of Dr. Asha Bedar. Since she was four or five, Rukkaiya had played at Dr. Asha’s home. Dr. Asha and her family put the little girl through school. Dr. Asha is a clinical psychologist with more than two decades of experience with victims of sexual abuse, violence and trauma. She conducts trainings for the judiciary, police and prosecutors, often with her sister – Maliha Zia Lari, the lawyer. “I immediately called Ashi baaji after my mother came to get me,” Rukkaiya says.
Rukkaiya visited a hospital and was examined the day after the fight. Unlike many survivors, she did not wait days or months to see a doctor – her wounds were fresh, undeniable. Even so, the police did not register a case against her husband.
She did not want to just run away from her husband. “I was angry and I needed him to know what he had done was wrong,” she explains. Dr. Asha and Maliha connected her with Sara Malkani, a lawyer who works on cases involving domestic violence and workplace harassment, amongst others. “Rukkaiya’s case is definitely not the norm,” Sara tells me. “Rukkaiya knew the right people and more importantly, she had medical evidence, which was unusual and really key. It’s the one thing that I felt gave us a reasonable chance, as in many cases I’ve seen women may have been beaten months ago, but as they didn’t document it or visit a doctor, they don’t have proof.”
Sara took on the case pro bono. Dr. Asha employed Rukkaiya to care for her daughter, ensuring she would earn income, have a safe space to work in and seek refuge if needed, and more importantly, Rukkaiya would receive counselling or support. Sara provided transport for Rukkaiya when they went to court, and on days when she was away from work for hours for hearings, Rukkaiya had Dr. Asha’s understanding. “This case had everything working for it,” Dr. Asha points out.
As the first case brought to court under the law, it became a litmus test, and led me to wonder: if a survivor had everything she needed for a successful case and conviction, how would she fare under the law?
“None of the judges we appeared before knew the law existed,” Sara says. “That’s not unusual,” she adds wryly. While the law promised speedy trials no longer than three months, Rukkaiya’s hearings continued for two years.
They would sometimes have to wait up to six hours for a hearing. There were adjournments by the other side or the lawyer would simply not show up. One witness’s cross-examination took place over eight hearings simply due to delays. As Sara points out, they were lucky this witness kept taking time off from his job to appear in court. Often witnesses back out because they cannot do so. It took nearly five months to verify the doctor’s report.
The delays took a toll. Dr. Asha recalls that Rukkaiya would come home shaken and disoriented after being face-to-face with her ex-husband in court. “Theoretically, I knew how these things played out,” Dr. Asha says. “But I see my clients for an hour during sessions. Now I was witnessing what a survivor goes through on a daily basis.” At one hearing, Sara informed the judge that Rukkaiya’s ex-husband was harassing her family – he was violating the protection orders under the law. The judge summoned him. He asked him to recite the kalma (a declaration of faith in Islam) and promise that he would refrain from such behaviour. “I saw how survivors are re-traumatised when they see a judge behaving in this way,” Dr. Asha says.
Rukkaiya’s ex-husband is also a relative, and there was pressure from her family to drop the case. Her father was a violent man, and often Rukkaiya would stay at Dr. Asha’s home to avoid him. “In many cases with women, it’s not just abuse from one person that they’re contending with,” Sara explains. But Rukkaiya refused to drop the case. I ask her what she was feeling at the time. “It was not easy to go to court,” she says. “My ex’s lawyer would ask me vile questions, sirf mujhay nanga karnay ke liye (to humiliate me). Like, ‘What positions did your husband like to sleep with you in?’. I was the first woman in my family who would be divorced. People would shame my parents, saying a courtroom is no place for a respectable woman. But I wanted that man to fear ever treating another woman in that way.”
She would tell Dr. Asha that she would be happy if her ex-husband even spent a week in jail. “Because he’ll know it was me – I put him there for what he did to me,” she said.
After two years, the judge finally ruled. Rukkaiya’s ex-husband was sentenced to six months and a fine of Rs45,000 (about $230 USD). She had won.
He appealed instantly. That process took another year. “I remember the judge complaining in those hearings, ‘How can you be punished for simply hitting your wife?’” Sara says. Despite his misgivings, he denied the appeal. Rukkaiya’s ex-husband did his time in jail, and he never paid the fine. He is out of prison today.
By 2018, an official survey found 27.6% of Pakistani women experience domestic violence from the age of 15. Violence committed by husbands is the most common, and of those numbers, 56.4% of women never sought help or told anyone. Four years later, stories of violence against women are covered more extensively in the media through high profile cases, such as the gangrape of a woman stranded on a highway with her two children in 2020 and the murder of Noor Mukadam, the daughter of a diplomat, by a former partner in 2021. Every year, the annual Aurat (Women’s) March on International Women’s Day grows, and young women across the country take to the streets with placards demanding security, bodily autonomy, and freedom. But do Pakistani women still remain silent about violence in their homes?
Kanwal Ahmed is the founder of a Facebook group for women, Soul Sisters. In its ninth year, the group has more than 300,000 members in 90 countries. Kanwal and her two moderators sift through more than 1000 private posts every day. Of these, she says, more than half are about domestic violence. This year, she was taken aback by the number of messages and pleas for help on Eid. One woman attached a photograph of her hand after a beating from her husband. The image was too graphic to pass Facebook’s controls.
A scroll through the posts reveals the extent of abuse in homes across Pakistan, with women sharing stories about everything from marital rape to being denied permission to visit their parents after marriage. Members offer advice, prayers, or encouragement in the comments. In some instances, they provide practical support. In one case, a member shared that she needed help for a girl trapped in a village in her home with an abusive husband. She was connected with local law enforcement and the girl was rescued. Ahmed maintains a list of sympathetic police and lawyers, and many times, has requested support for members who need to get out of high-risk situations. The group is also connected with a law firm that offers pro bono advice to any member.
Kanwal tells me that while she cherishes the group, the stories affect her to the point where she sometimes wishes she could shut it down. “Why is it that women still need a Facebook group for these problems? How is it that there is still nothing else out there for them, no support or assistance?” she says. “The laws exist, but who is implementing them?”
In 2019, a Sindh High Court order noted that the law had largely been ignored. Only four protection officers (of 29) had been appointed to date in the whole province, no protection committees existed, in Karachi, the province’s largest city, only one 24/7 shelter home existed, and only 5 female MLOs catered to more than 7.6 million women. In smaller cities, police stations lacked furniture, phones, police vans and computers, and some female police officers were ordered to cover two districts while living in cities far away and without provision for transport or fuel. Of 19 government and non-government hotlines, only one operated 24/7. A commission tasked with executing the law had been given the budget for 22 posts – thus far, only a driver and security guard had been hired.
In Conversations with Kanwal, a talk-show series whose latest season was funded by members of Soul Sisters, Kanwal sheds light on the issues Pakistani women have to contend with. In the very first episode, she spoke with a survivor of domestic violence. “Many of the women I’ve heard from do not even know that what they’re experiencing is violence – we see this a lot with marital rape,” she says. She wanted to make that episode for women who may realise that they’re being abused, but they may not be able to just walk out of their homes. Many of them have children, no financial or family support, access to their passports, identity cards or even a bank account. That first episode detailed how one woman made a plan to escape more than decade of abuse with her three children. “I believe we have to teach women to be their own shelter,” Kanwal says. “A woman has to use herself to get out of these situations. Governments only pay lip service to the issues, none of them are interested in actually doing something.”
While Soul Sisters represents only a fraction of Pakistani women who have access to the internet or a phone, Dr. Asha and Sara agree that they’re seeing a shift in how women are acknowledging domestic violence. “While the change is not nearly enough, some of the conversations we’re having now weren’t taking place 10 years ago,” Dr. Asha says. Sara points to a generational difference, as she has clients who are motivated to visit her because of their children. “Many of them have been tolerating abuse for 30 or more years, and they don’t understand the impact of verbal or emotional abuse,” she says. “Previously they may have only considered it violence if it was physical.”
Rukkaiya is the first in her family to be divorced. She says her case encouraged the women around her, even if they may not be able to follow her path. Two of her cousins recently sought a khula (annulment) to leave their abusive husbands.
Rukkaiya was remarried, once more against her will, and she is now nine months pregnant. “Even though my husband is a lot better than my ex, I warn him that I could leave him too,” she says. Her in-laws, she says, treat her better because they know about the case. “I think it makes them a bit nervous,” she says with a laugh.
She tells me she is going to have a baby girl. She has a name in mind. Mishal: the one who lights the way.
Top photo credit: Arif Ali / AFP via Getty Images