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.