Sheba has been married for 15 years into a wealthy business-industrialist family. She has two children, a 7-year old daughter and 14-year old son. Not long ago, her husband took on a second wife without so much as a by-your-leave. The unhappy Sheba wanted a divorce and to live elsewhere with her children, but, as with most women, she had nowhere to go, nor did she have the means to support herself independently let alone her children who her husband would not allow her to take anyway.
Forced to stay on as a dependent, she found herself in no position to demand her dowry or maintenance and settlement whereby to live separately. Her in-laws required that she stay on to look after the children. Her future, after the children grew up and left, was left in doubt.
She accepted her fate for the moment but took a commonsense step towards her future. She returned to her studies so that some day she could find a job adequate to her needs. Her in-laws objected but she persisted until finally they told her to either give up her educational pursuits or get out of the house. They did not see her as an abandoned wife with an identity and needs of her own but expected her to be grateful for the shelter they gave her. Furthermore, they took it as an affront to their ‘status’ and image in their ‘society’ —which was based more on money than respect for others rights – that a daughter-in-law should have to work for her living.
Sheba chose to leave them and took temporary refuge with relatives. She quickly found a teaching job at a school, which enabled her to work while leaving enough time to study.
Everything seemed fine. But all too briefly things changed.
Recently, on her way home from school one day, her father-in-law, who was waiting nearby, intercepted her and physically forced her into his car. He took her to his home where he and his son beat her black and blue. Later when she was able to withstand the worst of the pain, she managed to escape and went to the police. Anticipating she might at some point do just this, the concerned SSP of the area appeared to have been already briefed and he refused to record a First Investigation Report (FIR) on the grounds that there were no witnesses — although women in this country are routinely arrested on accusations of Zina without any witnesses.
The attitude of the medico-legal department was not much better. A female medico-legal officer was conveniently not ‘available’, so her medical investigation by a male could not be complete or satisfactory. Besides, not all forms of torture leave physical evidence, a fact that the judicial system chooses to ignore.
By now Sheba‘s in-laws demand was that she either submit unconditionally to their authority and whims or leave the city never to return — something they had no moral or legal right to expect – so as to cover up the scandal which was beginning to leak out into various quarters.
In the standard procedure adopted to harass a wife, her husband has filed a case against her accusing her of ‘that’ of which there was no proof either, and accused her of being of bad character and having `sat’ – also standard accusations.
Sheba‘s harassment took a difficult turn that cost her, her job, when her husband began to stalk her on the streets. The school would not have been able to tolerate for long any public scenes deliberately provoked right outside their premises, so she simply gave up voluntarily. That also brought on a financial crisis. Money sent to her through a relative by her parents was not handed over to her. Her parents live abroad, but they have immediate troubles of their own as her mother suffers from cancer.
As she desperately roamed from one institution to the next seeking help, Sheba luckily happened to meet a member of the Women’s Action Forum which came to her rescue. With their intervention through higher authorities, the same wayward SSP was compelled not only to record Sheba‘s statement but also to execute an FIR. Her husband was arrested but he quickly got himself bailed out which was to be expected.
That cooled the in-laws family but only momentarily. They got into action by getting people high up in government — including a very senior judge — to bring pressure on the authorities for having taken the right action! What the victim’s fate would have been had this judge ruled in a court that she might have ended up in, is not difficult to surmise. He personally vouched for the integrity and respectability of the father-in-law and husband of the victim who supposedly lacked such qualities! – again without proof – although he would not say as much publicly or want his name quoted. He demanded the matter be ‘dropped’ somehow. But the law had already taken its course, although minimally but publicly, and he could not be obliged.
The father-in-law and husband thereafter sent word saying they would like to settle matters amicably – something they could have done in the first place without outside intervention – and met with intermediaries. However, cocksure about the power of is own wealth and connections, the father-in-law started out aggressively with the vilest and most unfounded of character assassination – which was standard procedure – nothing about his son’s and his own behavior though.
When that was met with coldly, he claimed she was of unsound mind and erratic behavior. That was how they interpreted her outrage over being beaten up and denied her rights! ‘Good’ wives are supposed to accept uncomplainingly the worst from their husbands, no matter how unjust, perverse or cruel, as expected and part of a woman’s life. Furthermore, if she were truly of unsound mind, it made their behavior even more offensive and unacceptable and called for far more sympathetic treatment. Nor would she have been able to be a working woman.
When the implied threats did not work, a direct meeting with Sheba was asked for to come to a settlement. This was accepted conditionally, the presence of a Women’s Action Forum representative, the pro bono lawyer and an autonomous intermediary that worked with the government, also necessary for Sheba‘s physical safety. A date was sent, but the genuineness of their intentions became evident when neither her father-in-law nor her husband or their representative turned up after having kept everybody else waiting.
Their ploy, judging from countless such cases, appears to be to keep Sheba in limbo and exhaust her in her penniless state until she succumbs or does something drastic that will remove her nuisance value to them.
The most tragic reflection on good men, however, is when some of them intervening for the female victim, are easily convinced by the well-dressed and educated appeals of the perpetrators of violence, and then ask the victim to compromise and return home to her tormentors. As if a promise to outsiders holds more weight than the experience and knowledge of the victim.
What has the state done to curt marital violence?
Still nothing whatsoever.
When the police refused to extend protection to the victim even to the extent of executing an FIR, Women’s Action Forum (WAF) sent a letter detailing the Sheba case to the Chief Executive and — the Federal Ministers for Law, and for Women; and the Chairperson for the National Commission. WAF asked for intervention stating they were resorting to moral pressure and conscience of the public towards forcing a change.
“Let the state demonstrate that Pakistani women are equal citizens with equal rights by ensuring equal protection. It was expected that the traditional demeaning and abuse of women that was legitimized and institutionalized into a disgraceful culture by Ziaul Haq would be strongly curbed. It is yet to happen. There appears to be no shame over Pakistan’s image as a country with scant respect for women.
When governments consistently turn a blind eye to wrong, it encourages people to violate others rights because they know they can get away with it.
Governments are therefore responsible. The police and a convoluted law are routinely used to thwart women victims from seeking relief or justice.53 years on, there are still no state-financed shelters/ e houses where
women victims can seek refuge so that most endure battered, abused lives till the end.
Official disapproval is not enough. Bad laws must be changed for just laws. Character assassination must not be admissible to deny a wife’s due. The police and justice system is not to be the purchasable stronghold of the wealthy and must uphold not just the law but basic human decency.”
The government and leaders have always been notoriously slow to act in the public interest. And virtually not at all in women’s interests. Things have not changed much. Women tend to be more effective outside government.
This article was published in The News – May 22, 2001