Mariam*, 30, is a house-help, working at three different houses to fulfill her duties as the sole bread-winner of her family consisting of her three children and husband. Her husband, roughly 70, hasn’t financially contributed to the household since the day they got married seven years ago. Instead, he physically and verbally abuses Mariam.
“As soon as I reach home, tired from a hard day’s work at different households, before I have even stepped foot inside the house, he starts with his tyranny and starts beating me,” recounted Mariam.
Mariam isn’t Razzak’s* first wife. Razzak married Mariam through the custom of watta-satta, a tradition of marriage exchanges common in rural areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Razzak’s daughter from his first marriage was wedded off to Mariam’s brother, in exchange for Mariam who was married to Razzak. This arrangement is one of the reasons binding Mariam in her physically abusive marriage. If she tries to leave Razzak, she would risk being socially shunned, as her brother’s marriage too will break.
“I have pleaded with my brother to help me. He says he can’t do anything to help me because he’s happily married with four children and ready to welcome the fifth. He says he isn’t ready to ruin his married life by raising his voice for me with my husband, who happens to be his father-in-law,” explained Mariam.
Mariam is not only physically abused by her husband. A few weeks ago, her step-son abused her too after a dispute between Mariam’s son, Ibrahim, 4, and his son, Mustafa, 7. When Mustafa repeatedly bullied Ibrahim, Mariam scolded him and raised her hand against him when Mustafa misbehaved further. This was a reason enough for her step-son to beat Mariam “to the extent that my clothes were soaked with blood.”
“My husband didn’t say even a word in my defense and watched over. He did not rescue me,” said Mariam while wiping her tears from her cheeks.
Mariam’s tale isn’t an isolated story. She is one of the thousands of women in Pakistan who face gender-based violence and crimes but are missing from the statistics, as they never officially report their abusers for various reasons.
A Horrific July
Pakistan witnessed several cases of gender-based violence in the month of July, shedding light on the deplorable state of women rights in the country.
Saima Ali, 23, was badly injured along with her brother when her father, Raza Ali, a police constable, opened fire on his family on July 3 in Peshawar city. Saima’s mother, Bushra Raza, died of her wounds and the sibling duo was seriously injured.
Raza Ali had a history of drug addiction and domestic violence. Saima can recall a childhood filled with abuse at the hands of her father, who stopped financing her and her brothers’ education. A case against the suspect was lodged at Machni Gate Police Station in Peshawar but weeks later, the suspect is still on the run.
On July 15, Qurat-ul-Ain Baloch, a mother of four, was allegedly tortured and murdered by her husband in Hyderabad in Pakistan’s Sindh province.
Both women had reportedly been victims of frequent domestic violence for years before they were murdered.
Social media in Pakistan was already trending with hashtags demanding #justiceforQuratulain and #justficeforSaima when the brutal murder and beheading of Noor Mukadam, the 27-year-old daughter of Pakistan’s ex-ambassador to South Korea and Kazakhstan, at the hands of Zahir Jaffer, son of a business tycoon, in the capital city Islamabad shocked the country.
With the wave of horrific murders, Pakistan may finally be awakening to endemic gender-based violence.
“Noor Mukadam’s murder, along with a multitude of other recent instances of gender-based violence, is an indicator of the deepening unrest, insecurity, and inequality in Pakistani society,” Alia Amirali, a Pakistani feminist, academician, and political worker, told The Diplomat.
Zahir Jaffer was arrested by the police and later confessed to the murder. Also under arrest are Jaffer’s parents and two household staff – including security guards present at the house who were aware of that Mukadam was being held captive but chose to inform the parents of the accused in Karachi instead of informing the area police. On August 5, a bail plea by the parents of the suspect was rejected by the court.
The brutal murder of Mukadam and the recent cases of violence against women paints a bigger picture: The Pakistani state has failed to protect its women.
Pakistan ranked 153rd out of 156 nations on the Global Gender Gap 2021 index by the World Economic Forum. In the South Asian region, it ranks seventh among the eight countries, with Afghanistan ranking the lowest. The report commented that “progress has stagnated,” thus increasing the estimated time to close the gender gap to 136.5 years.
Cases of gender-based violence are grossly underreported in Pakistan and there is no way to make a correct estimate. However, the few cases that make it to social media are a representation of the state of affairs of women rights in the country. The list of women facing violence, being killed and raped, is unending and tragic.
A Failure of Justice
Victims, especially those from lower-class backgrounds, can spend years fighting for justice in Pakistan’s infamous judicial system, but cases plod along seemingly endlessly, with no end result. It took decades for the country to close a loophole that allowed perpetrators of “honor killings” to seek forgiveness for the murder from the family members of the victim and escape punishment – a easy condition to fulfill, as many victims and perpetrators are part of the same family. The change in the law came after the murder of social media star Qandeel Baloch at the hands of her brother on the pretext of defending the family’s “honor.”
The early release of Shah Hussain, who stabbed Khadija Siddiqui 23 times in 2016, is further testament to the failure of Pakistan’s judicial system to provide justice to the women of the country. Hussain was sentenced to a mere five years for his gruesome crime but was released after serving only 3.5 years of his sentence.
“Each day when a victim doesn’t get justice or when a perpetrator walks free after adding to the haunting toll of women being killed or violated in this country should be a watershed moment” for Pakistan, Rimmel Mohydin, South Asia campaigner at Amnesty International, told The Diplomat.
Unfortunately, too often the people in power have proven to be part of the problem. Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan has been criticized for his victim-blaming remarks. When asked in an interview with the BBC about the rising sexual assault cases in the country, Khan replied that sexual violence was a result of “increasing obscenity” and that women should cover themselves to prevent “temptations” in society.
“Unfortunately, the prime minister’s statements belie the true nature of the crime and send the message to victims that they are somehow responsible for what happens to them. That can turn hesitation about coming forward into refusal to come forward, which in turn distances perpetrators even more from accountability,” explained Mohydin.
This is not the first time that Khan has blamed women for the crimes committed against them. His comments are a reflection of Pakistan’s culture of sexism and misogyny. When the prime minister of the country states that women should dress a certain way, he is essentially giving oppressors of women a narrative that they can use to justify their behavior.
Pakistan’s parliament passed the Domestic Violence (Prevention and Protection) Bill, 2021, recently. In July, the advisor to prime minister of Pakistan on parliamentary affairs, Babar Awan wrote a letter to the speaker of the National Assembly asking for the review of the passed bill against domestic violence and said that it should be sent to the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII).
Women’s rights activists criticized the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) government for sending the bill to the CII, which has previously stated that “lightly beating” a wife is permissible.
It is noteworthy that CII does not have any woman on its board of members and hence women’s perspectives are not taken into account while making decisions that have an impact on the lives of the women in Pakistan. Another point that remains unanswered is why is there a need to send legislation related to women’s rights to the CII at all, when these measures, like all other bills that are discussed and passed, have been debated and approved by elected members of the National Assembly.
The Most Forgotten Women
While many cases of violence against women in Pakistan go unreported, some cases that are particularly neglected and, even when reported, fail to reach the same level of outrage as other cases: women who are victims of state-sponsored violence.
As Pakistani Twitter trended with hashtags demanding justice for Saima, Quratulain, and Noor, one name failed to spark the same kind of activism – that of Keghad Baloch, a woman roughly in her early 50s, who was allegedly tortured and murdered by security forces in Kech, in Pakistan’s insurgency-ridden province Balochistan.
According to Mahrang Baloch, a student leader, brutality and violence against women in Balochistan have increased over the last few years.
“Entering her [Keghad Baloch’s] house, torturing her and murdering her is testimony to the increased state brutality against Baloch women,” said Mahrang Baloch.
In 2020, Maliknaz Baloch was gunned down at her home by three armed men during an armed robbery that also injured her 4-year-old daughter, Bramsh. The men had been sent by the alleged local leader of a locally known “death squad,” a private militia reportedly supported by the establishment to counter Baloch separatists.
Protests were held throughout the province and the “Bramsh Movement” started, but the movement didn’t get the same kind of support elsewhere in the country. Mahrang pointed this out, stating that “no more than five people showed up at the protest in solidarity for Bramsh in Lahore.”
Mahrang recalled the difficulties she has had raising the plight of Baloch women, even among those who support women’s rights in general. “In 2019, I was a part of the first Women Democratic Front (WDF) Convention, where WDF added some points regarding Baloch women, but they were not addressed. When I would interact with these women activists and ask about those points, I would be told they were receiving threats. For me, threats are an excuse in activism.”
Mahrang sees her and other Baloch women rights activists’ struggle as different from the rest of the feminists in the country. “We think we can’t talk about women rights in Balochistan without talking about state oppression, because the biggest oppressor of women is the state.”
All of this points toward one thing: The Pakistani state has failed its women. While there are different layers, nuances, and subtleties to the feminist movement and demands in different parts of Pakistan, all women in the country collectively want the state to do better to ensure that they are safe.
Pakistan has seen enough hashtags and cries for justice; it now must focus time and resources toward taking preventative steps.
Alia Amir Ali said that the first hurdle is that people have come to accept violence in general, and violence against women in particular, as part of everyday life. Violence has become naturalized, acceptable, and even glorified, over time. Though there are spurts of outrage on social media, these die down as soon as the news cycle shifts and each incident is replaced by another trending topic or a different horror story. And even that short-lived outrage only appears on social media in particular instances – the cases that the people who are most vocal and visible on Twitter can relate to, possibly due to their own class and ethic/regional backgrounds.
“Solutions require an acknowledgement of the problem, and an openness to discovering uncomfortable truths about ourselves and others. I do not know how many people are willing to do this. Our collective dehumanization is something that all of us in Pakistani society must accept as a reality if we are to step towards transforming it,” said Ali.
*Names have been changed at the interviewee’s request.