The Fate of Pakistani Women
Yasmeen Hassan
International Herald Tribune
The author, a  Pakistani working at an American law firm, has published "The Haven  Becomes Hell: A Study of Domestic Violence in Pakistan." She  contributed this comment to the International Herald Tribune.

     On Feb. 18, the Lahore High Court ruled in the case of the  "Pakistani Romeo and Juliet" and upheld a marriage contracted by a  woman of 30, Humaira Abbas Khokhar, with Mehmood Butt. Humaira's  father, an influential legislator, who opposed the marriage, had  filed a complaint for abduction against Mehmood and asked the police  to find the couple. The police imprisoned Humaira in a state- sponsored shelter for women and had Mehmood and his mother held in a  jail. Humaira and Mehmood were allegedly beaten by the police.  Humaira's family also forcibly married her to her cousin and filed a
 complaint for adultery against her and Mehmood.The unusual aspect of  this case is not the extremes to which Humaira's family went to  recover her or the role of the police in filing a false case against  the couple and physically assaulting them in custody. Rather, what  is unusual is that the case reached the Lahore High Court and that  the judge ruled in Humaira's favor, going so far as to reprimand the  police officers for their actions. However, the court could only do  so much  Humaira's lawyer pointed out that the couple were in greater  danger after the favorable verdict because her family's "desire for  vengeance and personal vendetta was apparent." Recognizing that the  state would be unable and unwilling to protect them, the couple left
 the country.

    Situations like Humaira's are common in Pakistan, where  women are viewed as the property of their male relatives, and the  "honor" of the family is tied to women. This perception makes  violence against women by their own families possible  including  "honor killings" where a woman is killed for her actual or perceived  immoral behavior, and "stove burnings" and "acid throwings" where a  woman is set on fire by her husband or his family who want to get rid  of her.The concepts of women as property and honor are so deeply  entrenched in the social, political and economic fabric of Pakistan  that the government, for the most part, ignores the daily occurrences  of women being killed and maimed by their families. Responding to a  human rights report released this month which pointed out that 888  women had been killed in 1998 in Punjab Province alone, the  government said that such problems were outside its control as they  were "a feature of a feudal society" and, as such, it was wrong to blame the government for these human rights violations.

    Because of  such attitudes and apathy on the part of the state, a woman in a  violent domestic situation generally has nowhere to turn. If she  complains to the police she runs the risk of being raped and abused  by them and then returned to her family. If she runs to a state- sponsored shelter, she is imprisoned in the shelter and cannot leave  without either a court order or her family's concurrence. If she  appears before a court she is often chastised for her behavior in  leaving her home and is frequently imprisoned in a shelter.Remedying  the situation of Pakistani women involves a sea change in attitudes  toward women. For such change to be successful, it must come from  within Pakistani society. As a first step, the state should enforce  laws already on its books to protect women and punish those who kill  or maim them. The state should also encourage education for men and  women and provide economic opportunities to women so that they are  not dependent on their husbands or their families.

    The international  community can play a critical role in applying pressure on the  Pakistani government to protect women against abuse. Foreign  governments, especially those like the United States that have  political influence in Pakistan, should raise their voice about the  government's responsibility in this regard. In addition, since  Pakistan is heavily dependent on foreign assistance, aid could be conditioned on enforcement of laws that protect women.International  media attention to the plight of Pakistani women will also be  effective in shaming the government into enforcing its own laws. No  government wants to appear tolerant of brutality that has no  rationale  and the forms of violence against women in Pakistan are  not sanctioned by either the state or Islamic law.It is also  important for the other Muslim countries to condemn these retrograde  practices in Pakistan. Western concern or condemnation, especially  on women's issues, is vehemently opposed by fundamentalist groups  (which, although a small percentage of the population, have a  disproportionately loud voice) as Westernization, spread of  immorality and a threat to the Muslim family. Muslim countries  should join in the chorus in condemning the treatment of women in  Pakistan, to demonstrate that the abuse suffered by Pakistani women  is not sanctioned by Islam.Notwithstanding this bleak picture, many  women's and human rights groups are educating Pakistani women about  their rights, providing them with legal and psychological help and  running private shelters as alternatives to state-subsidized ones.  This work is generally on a small scale due to lack of resources.

    Foreign governments and international organizations should support  the efforts of such groups.Pakistan has openly abdicated  responsibility for half of its population by dismissing the abuse  suffered by women as an unchangeable feature of feudal society.  Domestic and international pressures should be applied to prod the  government toward fulfilling its sovereign responsibility to enforce  existing laws to protect women from such abuse.