Repressive social norms and traditions continue to stand in the way of Pakistani women´s rights and liberties, even those guaranteed by the Constitution. And when narrow-minded interpretations of religion are brought forth as arguments to reintroduce archaic ways, the fight for justice becomes that much more difficult.
There are hundreds of cases to illustrate the point, thanks to a generally pervasive psyche that refuses to accept women as equal humans—even though lip service may be paid to the principle. This was recently illustrated by a case before the Lahore High Court, which captured public imagination and made it to the front pages of Pakistani papers.
Saima Waheed, 22, an articulate MBA student and award-winning debater of a Lahore women´s college, secretly got married to Arshad Ahmed, a young lecturer at a government college. She was hardly the first purdah-observing woman from a conservative family to marry against her parents´ wishes, but the case gained prominence due to the position of Ms Waheed´s father as leader of the highly conservative Ahle-Hadees sect.
When her family learnt about the marriage, claims Ms Waheed, she was beaten and confined to her room for two weeks. Managing to slip away, she sought the help of well-known activist-lawyer Asma Jahangir (see Profile, page 53), who had the young woman admitted into Dastak, a shelter for women run by the lawyer and progressive-minded colleagues. Abdul Waheed Ropri moved the Lahore High Court for his daughter´s custody and won an order to transfer Ms Waheed to the Darul Aman, another shelter for women in Lahore, run by an NGO called the Anjuman-e-Himayat-e-Islam. A bailiff and a police party were assigned to execute the order, and they went accompanied by Mr Ropri and relatives. What followed was drama. When Ms Waheed refused to go with them, Mr Ropri tried to physically drag her away. Ms Waheed and her lawyer managed to get into the latter´s car. Chased by the Ropris in two Pajeros (the bailiff was left behind and had to follow in a taxi), they rushed to the nearest police station.
Following the incident, an application was moved before the Lahore High Court challenging the decision to remove Ms Waheed to the Darul Aman, which was said to function as a sub-jail. Ms Jahangir contended that this was illegal custody, because the women, who are not criminals, are kept forcibly confined. The High Court justice who heard the case upheld the previous order, but ruled that Ms Waheed´s parents could not meet her without her consent.
The case of Ms Waheed and how it will be decided is significant in relation to the fundamental rights and freedoms of Pakistani women, including their very freedom of movement. One of the arguments of the counsel for the petitioner Mr Ropri was that although Ms Waheed was legally an adult, “she cannot be left to roam around the Mall Road at will”. The question women rights activists are asking is, why not?
The issue of the legality of Ms Waheed´s marriage to Mr Ahmed, which has been raised by the petitioner, has no bearing. Even if she is not married, the question is whether a woman who is over 18, legally an adult, can be forced to live in her father´s house against her will.
Mr Ropri´s counsel has argued that the religious sect of Islam that Ms Waheed´s family adheres to, the Ahle-Hadees, disallows a woman, even if she is legally an adult, to leave her father´s “custody” until she has been married off—by the father—to a Muslim man (“even if she is 60 years old”). The father, he argued, is duty-bound to maintain and protect a daughter until he has contracted and participated in her nikkah. If he fails in this duty, the father will be committing a grave sin, for which he will be punished in the hereafter.
At the close of the twentieth century, such arguments have to be listened to, and the heritage they represent respected. But counter-arguments must prevail. The religious authorities cited by Mr Ropri´s counsel are countered by others which hold that a Muslim woman who is legally an adult is free to contract a marriage of her own choice, with or without her father´s consent and knowledge. The matter, indeed, should be left open to individual interpretations and beliefs.
One should certainly sympathise with parents whose children rebel against them. However, as traditional values of unquestioning obedience to unreasonable or repressive authority are eroded with exposure to democratic ideas, the sympathy gives way to indignation when a parent goes to the extreme of threatening a child´s life and liberty.
Ms Waheed´s rebellion is a threat not just to her father, but to all parental authority in the traditional, conservative milieu, just as it is a threat to all those families who want their women to conform to values that are becoming increasingly outdated in a fast-moving world.