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Searching for Freedom, Chained by the Law

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In Pakistan, women charged with adultery face the possibility of being sent to prison. New shelters are being opened to house the accused women, often for their own protection. Video: Mary Jordan/The Washington PostEditor: Francine Uenuma/washingtonpost.com

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By Mary Jordan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, August 21, 2008

RAWALPINDI, Pakistan -- Naheed Arshad, her bright green head scarf framing dull, brown eyes, had just endured nine months in prison on a charge of adultery.

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"My husband accused me of having an affair," said Arshad, 35, her hand covering her mouth as she spoke quietly of the serious criminal charge that has disgraced her.

After a judge acquitted her in May, she joined thousands of other women living in a growing network of government and private shelters. She spends her days cooking, sewing and sad; despite the judge's verdict, the shame of the charge has narrowed her already-limited options in life.

It is rare for a Pakistani woman accused of having illicit sex to talk publicly or allow herself to be photographed. But Arshad spoke freely about once taboo subjects, saying repeatedly, "I have done nothing wrong."

"Why do I suffer?" Arshad asked. "It is just not fair."

Increasing numbers of Pakistani women are becoming aware of gender inequities, a trend emerging in many other parts of the developing world as the communications revolution brings cellphones, satellite television and the Internet to the poorest villages. In this South Asian country of 167 million, a key issue is laws and customs governing sexual conduct that sometimes date back centuries.

"More women are aware of their rights," said Naeem Mirza, program director for the Aurat Foundation, a leading women's rights organization. As more women join the workforce and assert their independence, he said, there is growing conflict between men and women.

The friction is especially evident in the use of laws that criminalize sex outside marriage. Husbands angry at wives who want a divorce, and parents angry at daughters who reject their choice of a husband, are yearly filing hundreds of criminal complaints of illegal sexual behavior, according to legal aid lawyers.

"Husbands and brothers are using these laws to take revenge on women" who are not behaving as they want, said Noor Alam Khan, a lawyer who represents prisoners in Peshawar in northwest Pakistan. "Maybe one in 100 charges are true," he said.

A recent study by the Aurat Foundation found that about three times a day somewhere in Pakistan, relatives file complaints with police alleging that a daughter or wife has been "abducted with the intent of illicit sexual relations," one of the various laws governing sexual behavior. Mirza said that in many of these cases, the woman in question has left the house on her own free will.

Men are also arrested on illicit sex charges, but human rights lawyers say that the laws' impact is typically harder on women. The stigma attached to having an affair is far greater for a woman, and even an accusation of such behavior can mark her for life.

The aim of these charges is often not a successful prosecution, said Hina Jilani, one of the nation's leading female lawyers and founder of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. Rather, she said, "it's to harass and intimidate women."


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