External Affairs

Uzma Ahmed’s Case Is Not an Isolated One for Women in Pakistan or South Asia

Conversations with women from Pakistan have shown that domestic violence is the main deciding factor in their views on marriage.

Uzma Ahmed in a press conference with external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj in New Delhi. Credit: PTI photo

On May 25, 2017, Indian national Uzma Ahmed, married to a Pakistani citizen, Tahir Ali, returned to India from Pakistan. She had filed an appeal against him in the Islamabad high court, accusing her husband of domestic violence and torture, both physical and mental, and of “taking away her travel documents to stop her (from) leaving Pakistan”, according to media reports. She told the court that “he had not told her that he was married with four children”.

The government of India intervened in the matter and succeeded in bringing Ahmed back from what she called a “death trap”.

Ahmed’s five-year-old daughter from an earlier marriage suffers from thalassaemia and needs daily blood transfusions.

Ahmed’s case, more than being an India-Pakistan issue, is a gender one, of which many women in Pakistan (and India and the rest of South Asia) are victims. Pakistan, like all other South Asian countries, has a patriarchal society. A number of notable works by scholars, including Ayesha Siddiqa, highlight such instances of injustice.

Daniel Moniudeen’s In Other Rooms, Other Wonders has sketched the social behaviour of feudal lords, and life in the feudal society of Pakistan. Nicolas Martin’s Politics, Landlords and Islam in Pakistan is another important work. Tehmina Durrani’s My Feudal Lord locates the relationship between feudalism, politics, patriarchy and domestic violence.

It was a mix of religion, feudalism and patriarchy that led to the ‘honour’ killing of Pakistani model, Qandeel Baloch in 2016.

Madre Millat – Fatima Jinnah. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

In the post-General Zia-ul Haq period, especially after Benazir Bhutto became prime minister, there was hope that issues of patriarchy would receive attention. But she too had to make many compromises to remain in power. She even ignored taunts by male members of the national assembly when she was pregnant. The patriarchal values made her look more feminine and Islamic. Political compulsions also led her to not touch upon the draconian Hudood ordinance passed during Zia’s military regime. Before her, Madre Millat Fatima Jinnah, dental surgeon, biographer, stateswoman and considered one of Pakistan’s leading founders, had had to live a reclusive life in Mohatta palace. The only time Fatima’s service to the nation was remembered was when the opposition parties were looking for a potential candidate who could defeat General Ayub Khan in the 1965 presidential elections.

Describing the position of women in Pakistan, Afiya Sheherbano in an op-ed for The News in 2015, wrote, “According to the Citizenship Act of Pakistan and the legal process for applying for citizenship, women in this country have no sovereign status and single women seem to be just fictive not authentic kin unless validated by men. Discriminatory property laws and distribution practices are a whole other discussion.” She further adds, “Obviously then, Pakistani women can only be affinities to the Nation through marriage and birth, rather than directly related sovereign subjects or representatives. Is that a western liberal goal or can Muslim women be allowed to step out of their infantilised marital roles and pietist desires and just be recognised as direct, independent, active and equal citizens of their nations?”

During my personal interactions with female friends from Pakistan, who were mainly from the middle and upper-middle classes, the issue of domestic violence in feudal society, they had agreed, were the main deciding factors in their views on marriage. A few of them accepted that they would not marry because of it, while those who were married said that such violence does take place, though they did not accept that they faced it themselves. Some divorced women said that the reason for their divorce had been regular beating and abuse from their husbands.

The increasing grip of religion and religious institutions over secular spaces have smothered the chances of addressing domestic power relations, manifested through violence, by political means. In an attempt to address the the issue of physical abuse, a Domestic Violence Protection Bill was proposed by Yasmeen Rehman of the Pakistan People’s Party in 2009.

The National Assembly passed it, but the Bill got stuck in the Senate. In 2010, with the coming of the Eighteenth constitutional amendment in Pakistan, the matters included in the bill came under provincial jurisdiction. In February 2012, the Domestic Violence (Prevention and Protection) Act 2012, was passed by the Pakistan Senate for the Islamabad Capital Territory.

In 2016, the provincial government of Punjab passed the Punjab Protection of Women Against Violence Act 2016. This bill has been called un-Islamic, and been regarded as incompatible with the ideology of the Koran. Fazlur Rehman, chief of Jamiat-i-Ulema Islam, was quoted by local media to have said, “This law makes a man insecure. This law is an attempt to make Pakistan a Western colony again.”

In Pakistan, as in other South Asian countries, patriarchy, mainly finds oxygen from the existing feudal order. Unless the existing social structure is readjusted or replaced by other modes of social relationships, any change in domestic power relations remain a distant dream.

Amit Ranjan is a Visiting Research Fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore.