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Searching for Freedom, Chained by the Law
As Pakistani Women Assert Rights, Families Use Legal Means to Get Revenge

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.

"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."

"Even if a woman is finally acquitted," Mirza said, "the price she pays through social retribution and honor is heavy."

'I Should Have Choices'

Farazana Zahir, a 20-year-old woman from Lahore, said she was forced to marry her cousin -- a common traditional practice -- and now wants a divorce.

"I strongly believe I should have choices -- of whom I marry, how I spend my time," she said in an interview.

After seeing a television ad placed by a local female legislator offering help to women, she called the woman's office and was put in touch with legal aid attorneys.

Zahir needed a lawyer because her family told police she was "abducted" for sex by a man she met at a family party.

Zahir calls the charge a sham, retribution for her asking for a divorce, something women are traditionally not supposed to demand.

Men are allowed four wives in Pakistan, but women can have only one husband. Getting a divorce is harder for women. A wife must petition the court while a husband can end his marriage by simply saying "I divorce thee" three times.

"If I were a boy, this wouldn't be happening," Zahir said, an olive-colored head scarf pulled over her young, determined face. "But I am going to divorce."

As she sat in the busy Lahore law offices of Jilani and her sister, Asma Jahangir, two dozen other women waited in the corridor. Many were seeking divorces; others were fighting criminal cases they said arose from conflicts with husbands or parents. Some were older and wore black veils; most were young and wore head scarves in bright oranges, reds or floral patterns.

Women interviewed there said men complain they are being influenced by promiscuous Western ideas. But the women say they are hardly looking for the lifestyle depicted in Hollywood movies. One young woman mentioned "Sex and the City" -- available on the black market here -- with obvious horror.

"Why can't I talk to a boy?" asked Rashida Khan, 17, a student interviewed in Islamabad. "Why are my brothers allowed outside in the evenings and I am not? All I want is more freedom."

Traditional Laws

The Muslim clerics and conservative politicians who most vocally support Pakistan's laws governing sexual morality argue that they are protecting traditions and guarding against what they call the "free sex" culture of unwed mothers and widespread divorce in the United States, Britain and other countries.

Maulana Rahat Hussain, a senator in the Pakistani Parliament from the religious party Jamiat e Ulema e Islam, said in an interview that the laws criminalizing extramarital sex also defend God's will: "Islam has its special laws about adultery and extramarital sex, and nobody has the authority to bring any sort of change in those laws."

When asked if the laws came down harder on women than men, the senator said, "Many good laws can be misused."

He dismissed critics of the laws as "nonprofits and Westernized women working for so-called women rights." These people, he said, were motivated by "getting funds from international donors and invitations for free foreign trips."

Nazir Afzal, a top British legal expert on "honor" crimes in which men have killed daughters and sisters for flirting or dating, said it is not only older people who believe that women must hold to a different standard in sexual conduct. He said a young man had explained his reasoning this way: "A man is like a piece of gold and woman a piece of silk. If you drop gold into the mud you can polish it clean, but if you drop silk into mud, it's stained forever."

In 1979, military dictator Gen. Mohammed Zia ul-Haq enacted the Hudood Ordinance, a set of laws based on a strict interpretation of the Koran that included laws on rape, adultery and sex before marriage. By 2006, under pressure from human and women's rights groups at home and abroad, Parliament amended the laws. The most notable change was that women alleging rape were no longer required to provide four male witnesses, a virtually impossible task.

But at the same time, conservative religious factions succeeded in inserting into the penal code laws against "fornication," including the "abductions for sex" charge.

"These laws opened up abuses against women that we were trying to close," said Jilani, who has argued cases before Pakistan's Supreme Court.

Confined

In a busy, noisy neighborhood of Rawalpindi, Arshad, the woman jailed for adultery, now lives in a shelter with guards out front and bars on the doors and windows.

Judges send women here after their court proceedings to make sure they have a place to live that keeps them safe from enraged husbands or brothers. But the women can be virtual prisoners, forbidden to go out.

More than 1,000 women live in these provincial government-run shelters, many of which have opened in the past two years.

Last year, more than 3,000 women sought help at a separate network of facilities, the national government's Benazir Bhutto Women Centers, recently renamed after the late female former prime minister who was assassinated in this city in December. In 2005, there were 10 of these centers for women fleeing abusive homes. Today, there are 25, and the federal government said it plans to raise the number to 55 in coming months.

Arshad is from a village outside Rawalpindi, a busy city of about 3 million people best known as headquarters of the Pakistani army.

Even if she could get out, she said, she could not visit her home village because she feels threatened by her husband and brother. So she spends her days sitting on the shelter floor learning embroidery, peeling vegetables for dinner, watching TV and worrying about the future.

She said her misery began at 14, when her mother insisted she marry her first cousin, who was five years older. "My mother said he had no one to make bread for him, no one to look after him," she said.

She said she protested that she was "too small" to be a wife but was given no choice. They married. He complained that she was not working enough and was going out of the house too much, and beat her, she said.

As the years passed, she said, she grew less tolerant of him. Then one day, he accused her of having an affair with their children's teacher, which she denies.

Her home village is located at the end of a narrow, zigzag path in lush green fields. Her husband, Arshad Mehmood, 40, lives with their three children in a small house made of mud and bricks.

In an interview, he insisted his wife did have an affair with the prayer leader of the village mosque.

"She has committed a mistake, and she has been punished for that," he said. Mehmood said he, his brothers and his wife's brother all searched for her with the police, and when his wife and the teacher were found together, they were jailed.

"I am even now ready to accept her and allow her to live along with her children in this same house," he said. "But she is not willing to return."

A tall, slender man with a mustache, he interrupted a game of netball -- a sport similar to basketball -- to speak to a reporter. He said he has treated her fairly and did not beat her. Men and women are equal, he added, but women have a duty to manage their homes and "stay within the four walls."

Back within the worn shelter's walls where she is now confined, Arshad cried when shelter director Tallat Shabbier asked whether she was considering returning to her husband for the sake of her children. "I will never go back to him," she said, dabbing her eyes with her green scarf. "Jail was better than being with him."

She has no way of seeing her young boys unless she returns to her husband, no money and little opportunity to start over at 35. Most people in Pakistan do not deem it socially acceptable for a woman to live alone outside the home of their family or husband.

According to shelter rules, women can be released only if they return to their husband, marry another man (often in ceremonies held inside the shelter) or are turned over to a blood relative.

"But my family is so cruel, and I will not marry again," she said. She has initiated divorce proceedings.

Sounding in turns defeated and defiant, Arshad said she would like to find a job, perhaps living in a house where she could clean or sew. But Shabbier shook her head. That was not option; women are to live with husbands or family, she said, reminding her of "social constraints."

As a fan whirled overhead in stifling summer heat, Arshad sat and repeated the one thing that to her was certain: "I will not go back to my husband."

Special correspondents Shaiq Hussain in Islamabad and Imtiaz Ali in Peshawar contributed to this report.

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