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Wednesday, May 24, 2017
- A young Muslim woman’s decision to marry a man of her choice has snowballed into a test case for the rights, freedom of movement and liberty of women in Pakistan.
Saima Waheed is from a well-to-do family in Lahore, Pakistan’s richest city. A 22-year-old student of business administration, she got married without her parent’s consent.
Instead of eloping with Arshad Ahmed, she returned home and told her family. “I knew that they would be angry, but thought they would come around sooner or later,” she told IPS.
But Saima had underestimated the extent of her father’s anger. Abdul Waheed Ropri, a leader of the very conservative Muslim sect Ahle Hadees, beat and locked up his daughter, starved her and forced her to put her signature on some documents, Saima said in the Lahore High Court where her case is now being heard.
Saima’s story hit the front-pages of newspapers in April when she escaped from home on hearing that her family had arranged her marriage to a wealthy doctor, having forced her husband to sign at gunpoint a statement freeing her from the marriage contract.
“I had decided that I would leave my father’s house, but when I accidentally found out that the date for my ‘nikkah’ (Muslim marriage contract) had been arranged for that weekend, I knew I had to escape because I was already married,” she said.
Jumping over the wall of her father’s house in Lahore’s upper class Model Town, she took a taxi to AGHS, the legal aid office of prominent Supreme Court advocate and human rights activist Asma Jahangir, about whom she had read in the papers.
The subsequent confrontation between father and daughter has brought to the fore the long-running albeit silent tussle in Pakistan between the views of the extreme right and liberals. It has exposed the clash of old and new values in a traditional society which is slowly changing particularly in the urban areas.
“The case is particularly significant because it brings up the issue of the liberty and freedom of movement of Pakistani women in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan,” declares Jahangir, one of Pakistan’s best known lawyers.
Under Pakistan’s Constitution an adult female (above 18 years) of sound mind can make her own decisions, a right guaranteed even by Islamic law which says a person who reaches puberty is to be considered an adult.
But Saima’s father has challenged her marriage on the grounds that the Ahle Hadees, the sect of Islam he adheres to, does not allow a girl to marry unless her ‘wali’ (guardian) is present and consenting — nor can a woman, even if she is legally an adult, 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 Ahle Hadees believe the father “is duty bound to maintain and protect a daughter until he has contracted and participated in her nikkah. If he fails in this duty, he will be committing a grave sin, for which he will be punished in the hereafter.”
In the ensuing debate in court, the issue of Saima’s marriage has become secondary to the larger concern of the right of adult Pakistani women to decide how they choose to live their lives.
Saima’s lawyers armed with various Islamic and constitutional case laws according to which a woman can legally be her own ‘wali’, are pleading that the validity of her marriage should be decided first, because if it is deemed legal there can be no further dispute on the right of Pakistani women to choose.
The case is being followed with tremendous interest across Pakistan. Ropri moved the Lahore High Court in mid-April to secure the release of his daughter from Jahangir’s “custody”. Saima was then staying at an AGHS-run shelter for women.
The prosecution won an order from Justice Ihsanul Haq Chowdhry transferring Saima to the Darul Aman, another shelter for women in Lahore which works like a sub-jail, where her parents would be free to meet her whenever they pleased.
A bailiff and a police team went with Ropri and other members of his family, some of them armed, to the AGHS office (where Saima had come to meet an uncle) on the afternoon of Apr. 18 to implement the order.
What followed was pure drama. When Saima refused to go with them, Ropri and his relatives tried to physically drag her away, despite the protests of the police and the bailiff.
Meanwhile, Jahangir moved another application before Justice Malik Mohammad Qayyum of the Lahore High Court, at his residence, challenging the decision to remove Saima to the Darul Aman.
Justice Qayyum’s order upheld the previous one, but ruled that Saima’s parents could not meet her without her own consent. He also directed that she be provided security at Darul Aman, as she feared that her family would kill her.
The case is in court, and a decision on the sensitive issue of parental authority will take time. Opinion is divided on the outcome: while there is a genuine sympathy for parents whose children rebel against them, there is also a feeling that Saima’s father should not have tried to prevent her marriage to Ahmad.
“That is very wrong,” said a policewoman who accompanied Saima to court. “Islam gives a woman the right to choose her own husband.”