Abused and Disempowered: How Traditions Set Up Pakistani Women for Violence, or Worse
Social and legal traditions set up Pakistani women for brutality, discrimination, and even death.
by Alisha Meghani
Alizah believed she had met the love of her life when she was completing her Islamic studies degree.
At just 19 years old, Alizah, whose name has been changed for her safety, is a Pathan girl who had met Naseer (also an alias), a Bengali boy who lived in the same neighborhood. As the two got to know each other during their Alimah course, a comprehensive study of Islamic culture, their relationship became serious, and soon, they were toying with the idea of getting married. There was only one problem: Alizah’s family.
Alizah attempted to convince her family to allow her to marry Naseer. She was in love, but her parents resisted. She tried running away with Naseer, but her parents brought her back home and promised that after she completed her Alimah degree in four years, she would be able to marry Naseer.
Four years later, they denied Alizah’s right to marry Naseer again. Alizah realized that her parents were never going to agree. So, she took the next best option; she eloped with Naseer.
After their nikkah, or Islamic marriage ceremony, which took place in a courthouse, Alizah and Naseer lived in a hidden place, away from her family. However, Naseer would visit his family every week. A month after they were married, Alizah’s family confronted Naseer when he came to visit his parents. They demanded that he hand over their daughter. When Naseer attempted to play dumb, acting as if he didn’t know anything about Alizah’s whereabouts, her mother invited him into their house to negotiate and talk things out. Right before going to their house, Naseer had called Alizah to let her know.
That phone call was the last time they ever spoke.
At Alizah’s home, Naseer was beaten with hammers, tortured with nails, and ultimately shot dead in a scheme planned by Alizah’s family. Multiple bullets were found in Naseer during the post-mortem.
After two hours of no contact with Naseer after he left for Alizah’s home, his family began to worry and Naseer’s sister went to check on him. The door was open and Naseer’s sister found his dead body lying in the middle of the house. It was the last thing she expected to see. Alizah’s family was nowhere to be found.
Both families belonged to tribes in Mansehra Swat, a remote and rural area of Pakistan, with little government. Police were only able to arrest Alizah’s family around four to six months after Naseer’s murder. They were unable to determine exactly who from Alizah’s family killed Naseer.
Alizah’s extended family continued to issue threats against Naseer’s family, demanding they hand Alizah over or else they’d murder another member of their family.
When Alizah found out about the murder of her husband, she experienced immense trauma. Initially, she wanted to stay with her in-laws. But they were hesitant, given that their lives were on the line. Alizah knew she could not go home, or else her family would murder her as well. Through the courts, she was able to avoid going back home to her family and was instead sent to Panah Shelter Home, a women’s shelter in Karachi, Pakistan.
Zar Bano Kohyar, the shelter manager at Panah, still remembers the day Alizah arrived. It was a Thursday in July 2022, and Alizah walked in right before noon, standing at just 4-foot-7 inches, wearing an off-white colored shalwar kameez with mirror embroidery and casual slippers. Alizah had her head covered by a black dupatta, a contrast to her fair-colored skin, and she was carrying a plastic bag with a few clothes. She managed herself well, but Kohyar could tell that her mental state was precarious.
“I got goosebumps when she was narrating her husband’s murder, giving the details of [her] brutally killed husband’s body,” said Kohyar.
Kohyar was one of the first people Alizah met and talked to at Panah, where she had been admitted through a court order. As she’s telling me this story over Zoom, Kohyar is looking down despondently, fidgeting with her headphones. Kohyar admits victims of violence to Panah every day and hears harrowing stories. But the jarring brutality and complexity of Alizah’s story were not routine and shocked her, which explained her solemn mood as we discussed Alizah.
“It all sounded strange,” said Kohyar. “The way she was telling [the story] with flat expressions didn’t seem fine to me. I immediately asked her ‘How you feel about it,’ and she burst into tears.”
During her stay at the shelter, Alizah began exhibiting symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), recurrent fainting, hallucinations, and disassociation. In the first two months of her time at Panah, Alizah also had an episode of delusional pregnancy and then began having episodes of being possessed. After her family was released from jail for Naseer’s murder, her mental health problems got worse.
“The Privatization of Murder”
Alizah’s family has been allowed to leave jail because of Pakistan’s qisas and diyat laws, a legal tradition that quite literally allows people to get away with murder.
Under Pakistan’s criminal law, serious offenses like murder and domestic violence are treated as private disputes. Through the diyat law, victims, or legal heirs of the victim in cases where the victim has died, are allowed to pardon those convicted of serious offenses, including domestic abuse and murder.
These laws are rooted in the Islamic concept of Qisas, or retributive justice, which means “an eye for an eye.” However, there is an alternative option: Diyat, which allows the accused to be pardoned by the victim or their family. This can be based on true forgiveness in the name of God or by an exchange of financial compensation. Although these laws are known as ‘blood money laws’, pardons can be granted without compensation, like in Alizah’s case.
“What I find problematic is the way they are applied,” said famed Pakistani women’s rights activist, Khawar Mumtaz. “The way these laws are in principle, that is not how they play out.”
In principle, the qisas and diyat laws can be an example of restorative justice as it is thought of by Western systems of jurisprudence, writes Absar Aftab Absar, in the Journal of Victimology and Victim Justice. Yet, in practice, these laws fall short in Pakistani society, which is marked by hegemony and a rigidly patriarchal society and system. Furthermore, the foundations of the blood money laws in Pakistan do not align with the principles outlined in the Quran, as the qisas and diyat laws can be used at any point from when an individual is accused. This differs from the Quran, which requires a trial and conviction before any form of compromise can take place, thereby safeguarding individuals’ rights and ensuring justice is served, rather than creating a pipeline for its exploitation, especially against women.
“The qisas and diyat laws are what I call the privatization of murder and bodily hurt,” said Sohail Warraich, a freelance researcher at Pakistan’s National Commission on the Status of Women (NCSW) and self-proclaimed “male ally” whose been working on legal and policy reform related to issues of violence against women for 25 years.
Alizah’s mental health issues spiraled out of control after she, as well as Naseer’s family, was pressured by her family to pardon them through the qisas and diyat laws.
“Like in so many cases, they start pressurizing the victim’s family to have a compromise,” said Justice Majida Rizvi, the first woman to ever be appointed to a High Court in Pakistan, former Chairperson of the National Commission on the Status of Women, and Chair of Panah’s Board of Trustees. “Otherwise, they play havoc with people’s lives: kidnapping people, torturing people, murder, and no evidence at all.”
Eventually, both Alizah and Naseer’s family could not tolerate the pressure anymore and landed on a compromise to pardon Alizah’s family.
“We were against it obviously,” said Kohyar, as she nervously chuckled, referring to Alizah’s decision to pardon her family. “We tried to counsel her a lot, but she didn’t get influenced.” Alizah’s parents were released from jail, and after nine months at Panah, she decided to live with her paternal uncle, whom she trusted more than her own parents.
Alizah is one of the thousands of women who have suffered abuse because of the qisas and diyat laws in Pakistan. Pakistan’s cultural and patriarchal norms make women the most vulnerable to both physical and mental violence, paving the way for the exploitation of legal loopholes and traditions, like the qisas and diyat laws.
Pakistan ranks 145 out of 146 countries in the World Economic Forum’s 2022 Global Gender Gap Report. The only country ranked lower is Afghanistan. According to the Thomson Reuters Foundation, in 2018 Pakistan was the sixth most dangerous country in the world for women. In the past year, a wave of femicide has ravaged Pakistan.
“Violence against women is not a mental health issue, it is a belief system,” said Mumtaz.
Getting Away with Murder
“Mujahid Afridi, Mujahid Afridi, Mujahid Afridi,” Asma Rani murmured, gasping for air as she named her killer.
She was lying on a stretcher in Kohat, a city in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan. Rani was a 3rd-year medical student at the Ayub Medical College in Abbottabad. On Jan. 17, 2018, upon arriving home in a rickshaw with her sister-in-law, she was shot three times on the steps of the front door, in broad daylight.
Still conscious, Asma Rani was taken to the closest hospital. As she lay on the hospital bed, she was filmed by her brother naming the man who murdered her during her last moments. “Mujahid Afridi,” were her final words.
Afridi was the son of a powerful Dubai-based business owner and nephew of Aftab Alam, the district president of Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), and allegedly was having an affair with Rani while married. Despite it not being reported in the news about Rani’s murder, multiple sources have confirmed the affair. Afridi financially supported Rani’s family during their relationship, providing them with a luxurious lifestyle, including a home in Kohat Development Authority Area and trips to Dubai.
“Such a relationship is not morally acceptable in our society,” said Shabbir Hussain Gigyani, who is acting as an amicus curia (an impartial advisor to a court) for Rani’s case in the Peshawar High Court. However, because Rani’s family was largely benefitting monetarily through Rani’s relationship with Afridi, her parents allowed her to continue her affair. “It shows how many moral issues they have,” said Gigyani.
Afridi and Rani’s affair grew more serious, leading to Afridi proposing to her (marrying multiple women is legal in Pakistan). His marriage proposal was ultimately rejected, with Rani’s family claiming that she was engaged to someone else. However, they continued to live in Afridi’s Kohat home. He would threaten her family and harass her siblings after the rejection, until he ultimately murdered her, with the help of his brother, Sadiqullah. Afridi’s cousin, Shahzeb, was also indicted as an accomplice. (Gigyani previously represented Sadiqullah and Shahzeb, who were both ultimately acquitted, prior to becoming the court’s amicus curiae for Rani’s case).
“The murder was considered almost as a revenge, not only for the rejection of his marriage proposal but also for all the money Rani’s family took from Afridi,” said Gigyani.
Since the inception of the qisas and diyat laws in 1990, the state no longer remains a primary party in murder cases. Instead, the power lies with private parties who can decide on a pardon. The courts retain the power to approve or deny these pardons, including a 2016 amendment to Section 311 of Pakistan’s Penal Code allowing judges to assess if a compromise was made under duress. Yet, this assessment process is informal and lacks concrete criteria, leading to ambiguity and the potential influence of a judge’s personal beliefs in deciding the validity of a pardon.
“In these cases, those things hardly get checked,” said Warraich, referring to how judges examine the circumstances in which a pardon is granted.
Soon after shooting Rani, Afridi fled Pakistan, where he was found six months later in the United Arab Emirates and was extradited with the help of Interpol. He was then arrested when he landed in Islamabad and given a death sentence in 2021. Now, five years after the murder, he might be allowed to walk away, scot-free without any more prison time.
Rani was only 19 years old when her life was tragically cut short. She wanted to become a doctor and was in her fourth semester of completing her Bachelor of Medicine and Surgery (MBBS). Rani’s sister, Safia, revealed in an interview with local news that Afridi would frequently issue threats to her family after his marriage proposal was rejected. “We told police about these threats, but no action was taken because he belongs to a rich family and we are poor,” Safia said.
Safia’s claims shed light on how socioeconomic disparities in Pakistan have subjected poor and middle-class families to violence from wealthy individuals, enabling affluent individuals to evade punishment for murder, and undermining the justice system. Yet, in press conferences, Rani’s family has omitted disclosure of Afridi’s affair with Rani, the house he gifted her, or their continued stay in that house despite his murder of their daughter.
When news organizations revealed that Rani’s father, Ghulam Dastagir, had pardoned her killer, some speculated that he did so under duress, given how powerful and influential Afridi’s family is. Other newspapers claimed that her father pardoned her killer in the name of God.
For Afridi’s pardon, Gigyani confirmed that Rani’s family received approximately 40 million Pakistani rupees (around $140,000) in compensation. When the compromise was reached, Gigyani witnessed Dastagir hugging members of Afridi’s family. More recently, Gigyani disclosed that the exchange of financial compensation for Afridi’s pardon was facilitated by a local jirga: a council of tribal elders in Pakistan that works to resolve disputes, acting as an unofficial justice system.
In 2019, jirgas were banned from taking part in criminal cases after a landmark ruling by the Supreme Court of Pakistan in the case of the National Commission on Status of Women v. Government of Pakistan, led by renowned women’s rights activist Khawar Mumtaz. In this case, the NCSW argued that the practice of jirgas violated the fundamental rights of women and marginalized communities, as they often perpetuated discriminatory practices such as forced marriages, honor killings, and other forms of violence.
“Still the implementation of this law [from this case] is weak,” said Mumtaz. “But I still think it was a very landmark judgment.”
The local jirga in Kohat facilitated a compromise between Rani’s family and Afridi’s family. Therefore, the jirga in Rani’s case acted illegally with their involvement, however, because the implementation of this law is weak, any legal implications have not been pursued.
Compromises and the amount of money exchanged don’t need to be reported to the court or the government, therefore, official documentation of such compromises is difficult to independently prove.
“Always. There is always an exchange of compensation,” Mumtaz said. “Many transactions take place behind the scenes.”
When asked to be interviewed for this story, Dastagir and his family refused to go on the record unless they were given money in exchange for their words. “They are a greedy family. They don’t care that their girl had been killed,” said Gigyani. “They just say, ‘She is killed, she is gone, pay us the money, and you are free.’”
“Victims [of the qisas and diyat laws] are mostly poor people and they put all sorts of pressures, everything for a compromise,” said Rizvi. Afridi comes from a wealthy and powerful family, yet, Rani’s father has denied allegations of pressure.
Afridi is still in jail despite Rani’s family being given financial compensation because the Peshawar High Court has not accepted the pardon.
The environment in which the pardon was sanctioned has halted the pardon process and opposition to the compromise is being considered. The pause on Afridi’s pardon is related to tribal conflicts that have shrouded Rani’s case.
Her family, belonging to the Marwat tribe, a Pashtun group native to Pakistan and Afghanistan, faced opposition from tribal elders who vehemently opposed the pardon. They approached the Peshawar High Court to halt the process, which is still ongoing.
Gigyani has also confirmed that the Marwat tribe submitted an application to the former Prime Minister of Pakistan, Imran Khan, expressing their refusal to participate in the blood money process that her family had agreed to. The Marwat tribe has refused to “sell Asma’s blood,” in the way her family has, as they put it.
The next court hearing for Afridi’s appeal of the rejection will take place on May 15, 2023. Gigyani has stated that Dastagir has not only been aggressive during court sessions but has also quarreled with judges. “Once they had the compromise, her dad was defending Mujahid in the court,” recalled Gigyani, a scene he had witnessed first-hand while he was assisting the court with Rani’s case.
Initially, Dastagir and his family’s goal was to delay the case for as long as possible. “If the case takes long, they can create pressure on Mujahid’s family to get the most amount of money,” said Gigyani. Furthermore, after Afridi was sentenced to death, it allowed Dastagir to negotiate a higher amount of money for the diyat compromise.
“They have earned millions on the murder of their daughter, they want to grab maximum money,” said Gigyani. “They don’t care about Asma, they only want money.”
Triumphing over Injustice
The rape of a half-blind young woman by her landlord’s son; the beating of a woman who was then paraded around the village naked; publish lashings of a woman in the 1980s. These are the kinds of cases Khawar Mumtaz and Justice Majida Rizvi have tackled during their lifetime’s worth of experiences as Pakistan’s most prominent women’s rights activists.
Pioneers of feminist activism in Pakistan, both Mumtaz and Rizvi were born into families where boys and girls were equal.
“Thank God that I come from a family where education was a must and there was equality,” said Rizvi. She credits her stature as a legal advocate and her success as a feminist activist with her family’s liberal mindset and attitudes towards women’s rights and girls’ education.
Although Mumtaz, on the other hand, grew up in an equally progressive family, she still felt treated unfairly at times because of rules her parents would enforce, such as not being able to go out at night as her brothers could. “You become aware of it, and it also makes you sometimes frustrated, sometimes angry, sometimes questioning,” said Mumtaz.
Mumtaz did not get involved in politics until after she received her master’s and got married. In fact, it was her husband, who was active politically as well, who urged her to get more involved in leftist politics. The backdrop was Pakistan’s era of martial law.
In the late 70s and early 80s, when Mumtaz was in her late 30s, Pakistanis lived under the draconian regime of General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq. Ul-Haq was a four-star general and politician who became the President of Pakistan following a military coup against the then-Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.
Under ul-Haq’s rule, the Hudood Ordinances were implemented as a part of Pakistan’s “Islamization” process. The ordinances were enacted in 1979 and replaced parts of the British-era Pakistan Penal Code, adding new criminal offenses of adultery and fornication, and new punishments of whipping, amputation, and stoning to death.
“Majority of women were jailed under the Hudood laws, and no bail was allowed,” said Rizvi, who was also an active feminist reformer at the time. The effects of statutes were discernibly seen in a spike of incarcerated women during the period of martial law; in 1979, before the ordinances went into effect, there were 70 women held in Pakistani prisons. By 1988, there were 6000.
By the mid-80s, as martial law was being challenged, Mumtaz, now 77 years old, witnessed first-hand how political activism could shift the zeitgeist in Pakistan at the time.
“That was a time when young people were all very, very animated and very engaged,” said Mumtaz. “And I’ve had the privilege in the sense that whenever my husband and his friends went to demonstrations, I would go with them. So that exposure to public agitation was there.”
The court case that finally triggered mass public opposition and protests concerned the conviction for adultery of a man and a woman; the ruling resulted in the stoning to the death of the man and public lashings of the woman. Although the two had been married, their marriage was not recognized by the family, who insisted that it was a case of abduction of the woman.
“After that case, a group of women from Karachi got very animated and called a meeting of other women’s organizations and individuals,” said Mumtaz. Pakistanis became especially indignant over this case, as it was a culmination of years of abuse and dangers posed by the government towards women. And that’s how the Women’s Action Forum (WAF) was born in 1981.
Within a month of its creation, WAF open a chapter in Lahore, where Mumtaz lived. WAF was the first autonomous women’s rights organization, independent of any political party. “Women decided which issues to take up,” said Mumtaz.
The WAF consisted of professional and middle-class women who challenged how the Hudood ordinances cited religion to permit discriminatory policies. “They brought up things that would slide under the carpet, so to say,” said Mumtaz. Among these were taboo topics like reproductive health and girls’ education.
Moreover, women’s incarceration rates reached an all-time high in Pakistan, significantly affecting society. “Women were always looked down upon and there was the stigma attached to them all the time,” said Mumtaz. “Even if they were proven innocent.”
During the 80s, WAF was the face of feminism, with picketing, demonstrations, rallies, signature campaigns, and more. Over time, WAF transformed into an advocacy group focusing on women’s representation in parliament, consciousness-raising about family planning, and addressing women’s issues.
After General ul-Haq’s plane crash in 1988, the martial rule effectively ended. Mumtaz, whose been involved with WAF since its inception, devoted her career to counteracting the detrimental impact of the Hudood Ordinances on women when she was the Chairperson of the National Commission on the Status of Women. In 2005, Mumtaz was one of the 100 nominees for the Nobel Peace Prize, and in 2006, she received the Sitara-e-Imtiaz, the third-highest civilian honor in Pakistan, for the promotion of women’s rights.
“This is my life,” said Mumtaz. “There is not one issue that I have focused on; I’ve been involved in so much I can’t even remember one specific story,” she responded when asked if there was a particular instance that has stuck out to her from her career. Her life revolves around empowering women in Pakistan.
Similarly, in 1994, Rizvi was appointed as a judge to the Sindh High Court, the first-ever female judge to ever sit on the bench of a High Court in Pakistan. In 2002, Rizvi was appointed as the third Chairperson of the National Commission on the Status of Women, where her first priority was to work on the damage caused by the Hudood laws.
Rizvi commissioned a 16-person committee, made up of judges, lawyers, and activists, delegated to assess and investigate how to amend the Hudood laws. “Nobody would think of touching the Hudood laws,” said Rizvi. “In the beginning, people wouldn’t listen to us. They would say ‘No, no these are Quranic laws we won’t talk about it. But people were suffering.”
In addition to the committee, she wanted to create a conference of lawyers for this task, but that idea was unsuccessful due to political issues. “The government did not allow me because I was inviting progressive people who could give me a correct opinion,” said Rizvi.
After a year, Rizvi and the committee came to a verdict that many of the Hudood laws, which aimed to Islamicize Pakistan’s legal system. “These laws were not in accordance with Sharia law,” said Rizvi.
In 2003, her first report shed light on the flawed application of the Hudood laws, pressuring the government to take notice and rectify the situation. The first amendment, after the report was published, permitted bail under the Hudood laws. Subsequently, amendments to the Pakistan Penal Code were introduced, including the Woman’s Protection Act in 2006. “That was a great victory for the Commission,” said Rizvi. “Women were finally out of jail.”
Yet, some discriminatory policies of the Islamization Ordinances remain intact, including the qisas and diyat laws. These laws, unlike others introduced in 1979 by ul-Haq with a single stroke of his pen, took nearly a decade to be enforced after their introduction in 1982. They significantly modified Chapter 16 of Pakistan’s British colonial-era Penal Code of 1898, which pertained to bodily harm.
In 1980, ul-Haq introduced the Federal Shariat Court, a constitutional court that modified statutes after reviewing laws for Sharia compliance contradictions, especially for the definition of murder, to align with Islamic jurisprudence. Therefore, the Federal Shariat Court mainly dealt with cases challenging provisions in the Penal Code related to bodily harm.
“These cases were repugnant to Islam,” said Warraich. “And it was on the basis of a few grounds, one being the right to qisas, or the right of retribution to the aids of the deceased or to the victim themself and the right to diyat, or pardon and compromise.” The Federal Shariat Court added qisas and diyat to the Pakistan Penal Code via an ordinance that was to be promulgated by the President. It then passed in Parliament in 1997 under Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s Muslim League.
Since their inception, the qisas and diyat laws have rocked Pakistan’s criminal justice system. The qisas and diyat laws can be used in any case related to bodily harm (except for honor killings).
Rizvi’s second priority as Chairperson of the NCSW was to amend the qisas and diyat laws, which she believed did not align with the Quran. In Islamic law, a diyat compromise should only be reached once an individual is convicted. In Pakistan, they can be applied at any stage once a person is accused, and if a compromise (diyat) is created before conviction, it does not appear on the offender’s record, meaning they can hold public office, government jobs, etc. From murder to corruption to violence, a person who committed an offense has the ability to walk away hands-free under this system.
Rizvi and Mumtaz have divergent views on changes that must be made to the blood money laws. Rizvi suggests that the state should be a party in criminal proceedings to regulate the use of these laws. “I’ll be starting a campaign against the qisas and diyat laws,” promised Rizvi. “Amendments must come, and the state must be a party.”
Mumtaz has a more radical idea in mind. She believes that the issue related to the blood money laws and violence against women will not be solved until the country’s belief system towards women changes, which starts with prioritizing education.
Pakistan is systemically unequal towards women. Whether or not changes are made, the current reality is that the qisas and diyat laws have spiraled out of control in their use to dominate and harm women. One movement is looking to change the status quo for women in Pakistan: The Aurat March.
“Mera jism meri marzi”: my body, my choice
Seven-year-old Zainab Ansari failed to show up for Quran class while her parents, Amin and Nusrat Ansari were on the Islamic pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia in Jan. 2018. Four days later, her body was found in a heap of trash in a town near Lahore. Two weeks after her death, Imran Ali was arrested for her death, along with the murder of seven other girls. DNA evidence, along with Ali’s confession, linked him to the rape of eight boys and girls, killing six of them. Ali was sentenced to death by hanging.
“I’ve seen his awe-inspiring end with my eyes,” Zainab’s father, Amin Ansari, said after witnessing the hanging.
Zainab Ansari’s death launched Pakistan’s #MeToo movement, birthing the first Aurat March (which translates as “Women’s March”). On Women’s Day in 2018, thousands of women marched in the streets of Lahore, Karachi, and Islamabad for the Aurat March.
According to Dr. Rubina Saigol, an eminent Pakistani feminist scholar, the Aurat Marches are part of the fourth wave of Pakistani feminism that seeks to challenge the private spheres of life where patriarchy reigns, by making lots of noise with provocative slogans.
“They defy the system even more than we ever did,” said Mumtaz, discussing the approach of Aurat March feminists in contrast to that of older feminists with the Women’s Action Forum. “There is a defiance, and there is that experiential reality brought out very vividly to the public, in a way that shocks people. So, their approach is to shock people, to wake them up.”
This current, fourth wave is mainstreaming the discussion of taboo topics in Pakistan culture, such as rape, divorce, and murder. Following the first Aurat March, violence against women was widely talked about in the media, households, and much more.
“Why society, men, and even institutions, are very antagonistic towards [the Aurat March] is because they are saying it in your face,” Mumtaz said. “It’s a very direct expression of women who have experienced all kinds of violence, abuse, harassment, and discrimination. Different aspects of this have been brought out into the open. And I think it hits people, and they are not willing to face it. What they are doing is very courageous.”
In the first Aurat March, the number of protesters was modest, but the idea of women marching in the streets, singing, dancing, and shouting, had an extraordinary impact on Pakistani society, leading to a much larger turnout in the 2019 Aurat March.
Ajwah Nadeem, a 25-year-old Lahore-based Aurat March organizer, and volunteer of the movement’s central organizing committee, who works as a research associate, recalls the first time she ever attended the Aurat March, which was in 2019.
“There was generally a nervous energy inside of me,” said Nadeem, as it was the first time, she was ever attending a march or a protest. “But seeing so many women takings up space together in the streets, and all the slogans focused on women’s issues; that felt like I didn’t need to be strong on my own because all the women were strong around me.”
The second-annual Aurat March was pivotal in sparking Nadeem’s passion for women’s rights. “The 2019 March is what made me decide to give a piece of my heart to Aurat March,” said Nadeem. “It was the first time I felt that resistance can also be joy. That power that I felt is what made me come back to volunteer.”
Volunteering for the Aurat March is no easy feat for Nadeem. Her parents are unaware of her involvement with the movement and would not accept her ardent commitment because of their conservative and protective “upper-middle class mentality.” The “culture of care” among all volunteers has kept Nadeem continuing her volunteerism over the past four years, behind her parents’ back.
“If you did work at 1%, everyone would appreciate you at 100%,” said Nadeem. “That is something that we have tried to keep as a part of our meetings. We even call ourselves volunteers rather than organizers in order to avoid becoming the face of the movement.”
Since 2018, the March has been held annually and has expanded around Pakistan. Towards the end of 2023 March this year, Nadeem recalls a massive dance party. “The joy was infectious, it would replenish your energy,” said Nadeem. “There was so much resistance we showed together that day. It was a reminder that ‘Oh this is what I am fighting for.’”
The Aurat March has consisted of many street mobilizations, with feminist digital art and several viral signs saying: “mera jism meri marzi,” translating to “my body, my choice”, “lo main beth gayi sahi se,” meaning “look, I’m sitting properly now,” with an illustration of a woman sitting with her legs comfortably apart, “divorced and happy”, and “khana khud garam kar lo,” meaning heat your food yourself, an allusion to the additional domestic labor of serving men that often falls to women in local households.
Despite the aura of sanguinity that radiates from the women who attend the March, the backlash against it from mainstream media, government agencies, and religious extremist organizations was immediate and continues to escalate. Right-wing social media campaigns have gone viral with photoshopped photos, anti-Aurat March hashtags, and death and rape threats against the protestors in the comment sections. Aurat March has been depicted as a major threat to family values and public morality.
Religious right-wingers have also held countermarches on the same day, including a Modesty March in Islamabad in 2020 organized by the Jamaat-e-Islami Lal Masjid, a mosque located in the city. The Modesty March turned violent, as they chanted slogans and threw stones and batons at Aurat March protestors. Similarly, the fundamental Islamist organization Ahl-e-Hadees in Lahore has held a countermarch each year since 2018.
Over Zoom from his home in Lahore, Warraich attempts to show me the Aurat March posters sitting on his top shelf as he lights a cigarette. He expressed pride in his involvement, both as a man and as a women’s rights activist.
“I am a key participant of the Aurat March and helped the organizing committee,” he said. “We faced disruptions and attacks in Islamabad, and police were also responsible.”
Warraich said that Aurat March protestors were much angrier this year because of logistical challenges created by city and provincial governments, who withheld required certification until the last second.
“In Lahore, we had to file a petition in the High Court because the Deputy Commissioner of the administration had issued a letter stating that ‘you cannot have a March for security reasons and cannot go on certain roads’,” said Warraich.
Aurat March organizers have been harassed by security agencies, which was a particular problem Nadeem and other Aurat March volunteers faced in the planning of the Lahore March this year. “We didn’t trust Lahore City Admin,” said Nadeem, because of the City’s reluctance to provide security for the protest. “It’s our basic right for them to give us some sort of security,” said Nadeem. “A lot of women who come to Aurat March would feel safer if there was security.”
The ultimate threat to Aurat March came in the form of blasphemy allegations against the Aurat March chapter in Islamabad in 2021. In one instance, the organizers posted videos to social media and claimed that while the participants chanted “Mullah should also listen” (mullah is a title for a mosque leader) in the original tape, the sound “M” was removed in the doctored version, and the women were heard chanting “Allah should also listen.”
“Last year’s backlash was the most dangerous for us because blasphemy is the most dangerous thing to be accused of in Pakistan,” said Nadeem. The country has strict blasphemy laws, but prosecution on those grounds is not the only threat. Even a mere allegation of blasphemy can spark vigilante killings or mob violence; in the past, it has claimed the lives of a sitting Governor and a Minister of State.
Measuring the impact of the Aurat March has also posed a challenge. “It’s always a complicated picture to understand what is happening on the ground,” said Nadeem. “When you think about what has changed, it is not always tangible.”
Despite the Aurat March’s efforts, Warraich explained that Pakistan’s tumultuous political situation, with an impending economic crisis looming on the horizon, and the aftermath of devastating floods in 2022, have not allowed for a focus on women’s rights issues.
“Everything in a way is at a standstill, as per the rights of women are concerned,” said Warraich. “There have only been, what I call, cosmetic changes,” in terms of women’s rights issues. The “ground reality has not changed,” said Warraich.
Nevertheless, the Aurat March has galvanized women in Pakistan and sparked conversations that were unthinkable in Pakistani society even a decade ago. Nadeem asserts that the March has underscored “the importance of reimagining how you do activism and outreach.”
“I think what they are doing is needed,” said Mumtaz. “On one hand, we need systems that work and are founded on strong stable foundations. We also see that we have a whole range of [harassment] laws in Pakistan. But we find that those laws still don’t protect women. So what they are expressing is the real manifestation of that lack of implementation. And they are also very vocally asking to be recognized as individuals in their own right.”
“They want to live life on their own terms.”
Dubbed Pakistan’s Kim Kardashian, Qandeel Baloch, whose original name is Fouzia Azeem, was a Pakistani model and social media influencer. She was frequently photographed with her perfectly contoured makeup under black specs and her hair under gaudy wigs.
Baloch first emerged on the celebrity scene when she auditioned for “Pakistan Idol” in 2013. After she was rejected from the show, videos of her hysteria and over-dramatic reaction went viral.
Under her online persona as Qandeel Baloch, she would post videos that were playfully provocative and lightly sexual, toeing the line of Pakistan’s ultra-conservative society. Her videos were odd, almost bipolar, and yet, showed a bit of vulnerability. One day she would post a clip of herself asking, “Guys, who wants to watch my next nasty clip?” and the next video would be of her trying to twerk, or crying, or complaining.
Her most popular videos were of her saying “How em luking?” (How am I looking?) and “Maire sar mai pain ho raha hai” (my head hurts), in a campy American accent. The phrases from her videos would immediately go viral and became so popular that she was amongst the top ten most searched individuals in Pakistan. During the course of her famed career, she would attempt to hide her background, claiming to be the daughter of a wealthy landlord.
However, when her true identity was revealed, a stark reality emerged.
Baloch came from a poor family and village in Multan, a city in Pakistan’s Punjab province. Her family relied on farming for a living. When she was a child, she was high-spirited and loved climbing trees, often teasing her brothers who could not climb as high as her. On one occasion, when Baloch was around eight or nine years old, her brother Waseem Azeem caught her dancing to a video on TV. Azeem was livid and “knock[ed] the breath right out of her,” wrote Pakistani writer and journalist, Sanam Maher, in her book about Baloch, “A Woman Like Her”.
Baloch was one of nine siblings and was married off at the age of 17 to her mother’s cousin. Her husband would torture her, burning her arms with cigarette butts until she ultimately fled to a women’s shelter with her young son. Her parents had begged her to go back to her husband.
Baloch eventually gave up her baby to her husband’s family while in the shelter. “I need to make my own life,” she explained to the shelter’s supervisor, as recounted by Maher. “Whatever I want to do, I cannot do it with a child hanging on to me. I’ll become helpless.”
Maher digs into Baloch’s life in her book, detailing how Baloch continued to push the boundaries of her suggestiveness and sexuality each time she went viral. “Whatever you try and stop me from doing, I’ll do that even more,” Maher writes, quoting Baloch.
Baloch would receive threats, with her Instagram comments section filled with disturbing messages and abuse: “If I find this woman alone, I would kill her straight on the spot”; “Getting a gun, email me her address LOL.” In one instance during the spring of 2016, Baloch appeared on a comedy show with the Muslim religious leader Abdul Qavi. A few months later, she shared photos of them in a hotel room, with her wearing his cap. “Yayyyy,” she tweeted. “Having memorable time with #mufti Abdul Qavi.” A media pandemonium erupted, and Baloch became fearful of her brothers. She was worried she would have to disappear for her safety.
A month later, she was dead.
Waseem Azeem, the same brother who had chastised Baloch for dancing when she was a child, pinned her nose and mouth shut, suffocating her to death while she slept in her parents’ Multan home on July 15, 2016. She was only 26. By the time her body was found, she had been dead for around 15 to 36 hours.
“No one knew [who] Qandeel Baloch [was] before the Mullah Qavi scandal,” said Safdar Shah, Baloch’s parents’ lawyer, to The Guardian. “When she was revealed, the people of the area started tormenting her brother: ‘Your sister has violated our cultural and religious norms.’ They told him he had to do something.” Azeem was nonchalant when arrested. “You know what she was doing on Facebook,” he told the press. He confessed to the murder, saying “She just wouldn’t listen.”
“I had no other way to deal with this,” he told the police during interrogation.
Azeem was sentenced to life in prison in 2019 for the honor killing of Baloch, while one of Baloch’s older brothers was extradited from Saudi Arabia for his involvement in the crime in September 2020. Several alleged accomplices were released, including Qavi, who was accused of provoking the murder. According to the New York Times, supporters had dowsed him with rose petals as he left the court.
Initially, Baloch’s parents were horrified and disturbed, with her father vowing to never forgive Azeem. Baloch’s mother, Anwar Bibi, drew henna on her dead daughter’s hands and feet, a symbol for leaving the world in honor. Azeem’s sentencing should have been a commemoration of justice for Pakistani women, and a celebration of a legal system that finally worked.
Yet, Baloch’s case is not simple, as with many other women in Pakistan.
In 2022, Anwar Bibi pardoned Azeem for her daughter’s murder after the court overturned its decision that Azeem killed Baloch in an honor killing. According to a 2016 amendment to Pakistan’s Penal Code, pardons cannot be given in cases of honor killings.
The narrative that was reported, including in the BBC, was that Azeem was acquitted because his mother had forgiven him for the murder. But while that was the official spin, the truth is much more complicated.
Baloch’s parents were insistent on pursuing the case against their son. However, Baloch’s parents were completely reliant on her financially, as they were old and poverty-stricken. Soon after Baloch’s death, her father died as well.
According to Mumtaz, Baloch’s mother had no financial support apart from her sons and was forced and pressured into pardoning Azeem just three years later, as he and his brothers had threatened to kill her and cut her off financially if she didn’t do so.
“The brothers threw her out of the house and said, ‘We will not support you’,” said Mumtaz. “And then at one time, she was getting support from the Benazir Income Support Program, even though that was stopped because…there are just so many complications in our laws and policies,” said Mumtaz, with frustration.
The Benazir Income Support Program is a federal cash transfer program in Pakistan aimed at reducing poverty. Following Baloch’s murder, Bibi began receiving income from this program, which enabled her to support herself. However, the payments ceased because she had working sons, and because they earned enough, she was no longer eligible for further income support from the program.
Mumtaz, as well as other community members in Lahore and Multan, attempted to support Bibi through the legal processes. “Many of us collected money so that she could be paid,” said Mumtaz. Yet, it was not sustainable, and she was forced to pardon her son.
The circumstances surrounding Baloch’s death and the pardon cannot be independently confirmed, beyond Mumtaz’s account. However, though the pardon was granted, ultimately Azeem wasn’t acquitted through that qisas and diyat process. Rather, the case was dismissed and Azeem was acquitted on a technicality related to his confession, where he stated that he killed his sister because she was in the business of social media, which the court relied on as primary evidence. The court nitpicked the technicalities and the manner in which the confession was reported because the accused did not outright claim that he killed his sister out of honor.
“The law does not and cannot define all forms of social practices of honor killings,” explains Warraich. “Honor killing is socially understood.”
Because Azeem did not verbatim spell out that he killed his sister out of honor specifically, the court did not accept his confession as primary evidence of an honor killing. “This is definitely a very strange thing for the court to say, ‘Where does he say that I killed my sister out of honor?’ He did not have to say that,” Warraich said. “The reason for the killing was because she was a social media star and in that business. That is socially very well understood.”
Baloch’s case and the confusion surrounding honor killings exemplify the magnitude of complexities and loopholes that surround the qisas and diyat laws. “Everyone understood that if a man kills for such a reason, it is because it is a matter of ego and honor,” Warraich said passionately, regarding the intricacies and ambiguities around Baloch’s case and the concept of an honor killing. “If you keep trying to fill in the gaps, there will always be contradictions.”
And “women [will always] become special targets,” said Warraich.
“If I stayed, I would have died.”
Asha was convinced that she was going to die the night she left her husband.
He had just beaten her with a bicycle lock, and she was packing her belongings to leave her home of over a decade, in the middle of the night. While being abused, Asha, whose name has been changed for her safety, thought about her children: how if she stayed with her husband, her four sons would eventually lose their mother. Her husband had injured her so terribly that she could not remember the color of the shalwar kameez she was wearing, what day it was, or what she did that day, because of the pain.
All she remembers is the ceiling light blinding her as she lay on the floor of her Lahore home in agony at around 9 PM.
This wasn’t the first time Asha’s husband had beaten her. During the course of their 15-year relationship, which started with an arranged marriage to him at the age of 16, Asha dealt with abuse at the hands of her husband. The abuse was almost normalized in their household; in fact, Asha’s two oldest sons, aged 14 and 10, sided with their father.
When she sought out help from her family due to the abuse, she would often hear the same phrase. “Bardash karo, they would say to me,” said Asha. The phrase “bardash karo” is all too familiar women to Pakistani women; it’s Urdu for “tolerate it.” Even I, despite having the privilege to be born in the United States in a fairly liberal and nonviolent Pakistani family, have been told “bardash karo” when it came to inequalities I noticed in my family between men and women. Pakistani, and South Asian culture as a whole, is fraught with traditions that put the burden on women. Women are expected to tolerate everything that comes their way; sexism, lack of opportunities, violence, and the ability to be alive.
That night, Asha had enough.
“I couldn’t bardash it anymore,” said Asha. “If I stayed, I would have died.”
Asha left home that night, on Nov. 24, 2022, and went to Karachi, where her parents lived. After arriving at her parents’ house, however, the reality of her situation sank in. “My parents did not support me, they said I shouldn’t have done that,” said Asha. “They said home issues should remain private, and that I should just bardash it.”
The family court in Karachi, where her divorce settlement is taking place, sent her to Panah Women’s Shelter, the same shelter Alizah was staying at.
Panah is situated in a modern white building, with loads of greenery, a water fountain, a garden, and a playground outside. Inside, there are single beds with white bedding, a prayer room with a printed red rug, a study room with almost a dozen desktop computers, and more. In the children’s playroom, a Winnie the Pooh stuffed animal sticks out amongst the chaos of colorful toys.
Panah is unique: it’s a private shelter that uses a government facility, making it a public-private dual partnership like no other shelter in Pakistan. Shelters tend to be the last resort for women, mostly due to the societal stigma surrounding them as well as poor reputations surrounding shelters, and the women who go to shelters don’t normally know what they are getting into. Panah tries to combat these notions, going above and beyond to accommodate victims.
Kohyar oversees the creation of customized plans for every victim. Such plans include assistance from Panah’s legal team, setting up psychological counseling for both women and children at the shelter, medical assistance, providing daycare for the women who have children, and more.
Asha spoke to me from her bed in the dormitory, while her children were at the facility’s daycare. “They have been taking very good care of me,” Asha said, as she fixed the bright yellow dupatta that was covering her hair. The shelter’s staff assists her with all aspects of her life where Asha’s divorce settlement is handled by outside attorneys. “I meet with doctors who prescribe me whatever medication I need, a psychologist who checks in on me; lots of things they have helped me with,” said Asha. “The doctors even helped me heal the wounds from when my husband beat me.” Despite treatments, the scars from the incident still remain on Asha’s body.
Created in 2001, the shelter heavily relies on volunteers and has a capacity for around 75 women. On average, Panah tends to have 35 women and 10 to 15 children at a time, totaling around 300 women per year. The shelter is funded through a mix of government provincial funding, private donors, and zakat: Islamic obligatory almsgiving.
In her nine years with Panah, Khoyar says she has never seen the number of women who have faced violence and come to Panah for refuge, decrease. Khoyar herself became involved in Panah because of her personal experiences after she dealt with a close family member’s abusive marriage.
Asha has been at Panah for five months with her two youngest sons, ages six and four. She is using her time at the shelter to divorce her husband, find a job, and get her life back on track. But after she left home, she never filed a police report against her husband.
“Buree bhahat hai,” said Asha, which translates to “It’s a bad thing.” However, culturally, the phrase refers to something that is not only bad but inappropriate, with a shameful connotation. Asha found going to the police to report the abuse inappropriate and shameful. “I didn’t want to embarrass him,” she said.
Asha’s fear and shame are a reflection of the shame and victim-blaming that is put on women who are victims of abuse and murder. While Asha has not been impacted by the qisas and diyat laws, her story sheds light on the detrimental situation regarding women’s rights in Pakistan, leading to women being the most vulnerable to the abuse of the blood money laws.
Like Asha, Alizah had also stayed at Panah for a long duration of time. Though Alizah never suffered any physical assault like Asha, she endured a different, yet equally distressing, variant of violence: mental violence. Her mental health situation was considered more deleterious than Asha’s physical state after her husband hurt her.
“I called the psychologist to come and meet her in the first place, realizing she needs a lot of catharsis,” said Kohyar, recalling her first interaction with Alizah, and how a psychologist was the first person she called for Alizah after hearing her story.
The impact of the pressure to pardon her family through the qisas and diyat laws made her mental health situation go from worst to horrible. This system in Pakistan does not only hurt women physically but is also psychologically traumatizing and jarring.
As long as Pakistani women are forced to bardash silently, they will continue to bear the brunt of relentless brutality.
When will Pakistan finally say enough is enough?
Contributions made by Muhammad Faheem. Special thanks to Fatima Bhojani.