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‘Runaway’ Girls and Their Rights

In our zeal to protect victims of underage marriage, we should not ignore the societal circumstances that encourage children to flee their homes

by Khaled Ahmed

Police take custody of Dua Zehra, center, and the man claiming to be her husband

Two teenaged girls from Karachi—Dua Zehra and Nimra Kazmi—were “kidnapped” from their homes in April 2022 and found “married” in Punjab; Zehra in Lahore; and Nimra in Dera Ghazi Khan. Since both girls’ families maintain they are underage, the state is getting ready to extract them from their current places of residence and return them to Karachi, where they will either be remanded to their parents’ custody or the Child Protection Unit.

In a video statement, Dua claimed she had run away from home because “she was maltreated by her parents who wanted her to marry an old man for money.” Her parents have, naturally, denied this. Needless to say, the state is unlikely to pursue the girl’s plaint, as it is far easier to pursue a case of “kidnapping and underage marriage.” Instead of sympathizing with the plight of the girls—any alleged abuse must be investigated in full—police are acting on the parents’ complaints and treating the girls as near-criminals, transporting them in prison vans alongside their “husbands.”

Unfortunately, the police response aligns with the mindset of Pakistan’s general public—not so much because of law but because of the practice in households in general. Today, for parents living in a “hard” city like Karachi—where survival is tough—having a girl in the house is a liability they would prefer to speedily get rid of. Additionally, societal custom is unkind to girls, depriving them of the right to property by inheritance and considering them “temporary guests” in their own homes.

Needless to say, there is no justification for underage marriage. A child—and the girls in question are both considered children—cannot enter into any contract such as the nikahnama. However, lost in the discourse surrounding these events is the question of why some girls feel compelled to run away from home, and what society can do to ensure their rights are protected.

Treatment of the average daughter

It is, therefore, very important to take a look at how an average girl is treated in a lower-middle class home of Karachi. It is not uncommon to expect that a girl would do household work and “serve” the parents and her “brothers”; perhaps even being denied the right to be educated in the same manner as sons. Parental anxiety over her as “liability” increases as time passes and often inclines them to be impatient with daughters if they don’t “behave.” Most girls accept this treatment as “normal,” but for “abnormally” sensitive, thoughtful individuals capable of independent thought, this situation quickly becomes untenable. This, in turn, can incline some girls to look for any means of escaping a hopeless situation imposed on them by custom and the state, whose male-dominant laws don’t help.

The British codified Muslim laws with regard to property, but this was applied “politically,” allowing certain regions to adhere to custom. Today, a Sunni Muslim daughter inherits half the share falling to the son. If she is the only daughter, she gets half the share of her father’s property. Two daughters of a father without a son together get two thirds. A husband receives one fourth of his deceased wife’s property whereas the widow receives one eighth; but a fourth if she has a son or son’s descendants. A mother gets one sixth, which is equal to what the father gets. In Sunni law, a great-grandson excludes a granddaughter, but it is the other way around under Shia law.

Girls in the Islamic World

Women, generally, have a raw deal in Muslim societies. Parents treat them as useless chattel that will “go away,” while society subjugates them through an interesting formulation of the edict that Islam is the only religion that gives women their rights. Rural women often suffer more because of illiteracy; urban women are restrained through appeal to religion. This kind of anti-women mood has prevailed across South Asia in countries with large Muslim populations, despite the work done by activists to ensure equal rights for all.

There is, unsurprisingly, some confusion in Islamic interpretation. When women read the Quran, they feel that they are not badly off, but when they confront the court of law they are quoted fiqh that discriminates against them to the extent of hating them. In Iran, Ayatollah Montezari had quoted Nahj-ul-Balagha to say that first Imam Ali had advised second Imam Hassan to keep the women forcibly at home and cover them with hijab because their nature was inconstant and their thinking defective. Imam Khomeini had protested in 1963 against the Shah’s granting of the right of vote to women, but after the Revolution he, too, accepted this right.

Maltreatment as state legitimacy

Post-Revolution, Iran has gone on to remove laws that protected women from male exploitation. Their age of consent (for marriage) was decreased from 18 to 13; polygamy was reinstated; as were temporary marriage called mutaa and unilateral divorce by men. Women were barred from employment in mixed workplaces and certain academic disciplines were disallowed for them. In Bangladesh, the status of women was undermined by the compulsion of the generals to gain legitimacy through religion. The Bangladesh army, pretending to reject Pakistani legacy, turned out to be slavishly imitative of General Ziaul Haq, who was legislating against women in Pakistan in the name of Islam. Bangladesh’s General Ershad legitimized the role of the mullahs to counter the two women politicians who were leading the masses against him.

In Afghanistan, where traditionally the urban women under Zahir Shah were more liberated than the women of India, the advent of Islamic revolution played havoc with their rights. This was also in reaction to the Saur Revolution, which had brought Communists into power in Kabul. Women activists played their role under this government and became more active. After minister Anahita Ratebzad, there were Sultan Umayd, Soraya, Ruhafza Kamyar, Dilara Mahak, etc, running various state institutions for women.

Hekmatyar the gender tyrant

After the collapse of the “communist” regime in Afghanistan, the rights given to Afghan women were all reversed. Warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s men first started firing into the feet of women who ventured on the streets without burqas, which were even more restrictive of movement than the veil in Iran. The problem with rights under Islam is that the laws are not uniform within one society and different jurists prescribe different kinds of restriction. Between societies, there is no Islamic consensus on how much to suffocate the woman to allow Islam to take hold. Taliban are even rougher on the women in Kabul than Hekmatyar; their brand of Islam is certainly more regimented than that of Iran and Pakistan.

In a report on the plight of girls in the developing world, the World Health Organization noted that nearly 3 in 4 children—or 300 million children—aged 2–4 years regularly suffer physical punishment and/or psychological violence at the hands of parents and caregivers; one in 5 women and 1 in 13 men report having been sexually abused as a child; 120 million girls and young women under 20 years of age have suffered some form of forced sexual contact. The report stresses that child maltreatment can result in impaired lifelong physical and mental health, with the social and occupational outcomes ultimately slowing a country’s economic and social development.

A child who is abused is also more likely to abuse others as an adult so that violence is passed down from one generation to the next. It is, therefore, critical to break this cycle of violence, and in so doing create positive multi-generational impacts. Preventing child maltreatment before it starts is possible and requires a multi-sectoral approach, but an effective approach should include supporting parents and teaching positive parenting skills, while also enhancing laws to prohibit violent punishment. Ongoing care of children and families can reduce the risk of maltreatment reoccurring and can minimize its consequences.

Pakistani girls under 18 from lower-middle class homes often suffer child maltreatment. It includes all types of physical and/or emotional ill-treatment and commercial or other exploitation, which results in actual or potential harm to the child’s health, survival, development or dignity in the context of a relationship of responsibility, trust or power.

Gender violence and Imran Khan

In an article from Aug. 3, 2021, Nushmiya Sukhera writes in The Diplomat: “Pakistan has a high rate of gender-based violence, which has been blamed on a number of factors, including lack of education, lack of awareness, poverty, and rampant misogyny in the country. However, the recent surge in crime against women also points a finger at the complicity of the state for its inability, or even a lack of desire, to protect women. Pakistan was ranked 153rd out of 156 nations by the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap 2021 index; it placed 151st out of 153 in 2020. In a Thomas Reuters Foundation poll in 2018, Pakistan was ranked as the sixth-most dangerous country for women.

“The Human Rights Commission Pakistan (HRCP) registered a rise in complaints of domestic and online parental and marital violence, indicating the increased vulnerability of women during the COVID pandemic. The HRCP recorded 430 cases of honor-killing in 2020, involving 363 female victims. The Punjab Police have registered 53 cases of gang-rape in the first four months of 2021 in one province alone.

“But those holding public office in the country have a different outlook on the plight of women. In April 2021, Prime Minister Imran Khan was asked during an interview with the BBC about the rise in sexual assault cases in the country, to which he replied that in a place like Pakistan women need to cover themselves to prevent temptation in the society. This statement was highly criticized by human right groups, who called Khan a ‘rape apologist.’ Khan also stated on national television in another interview this year that sexual assault was a product of obscenity. A similar situation had arisen earlier when Maulana Tariq Jameel, a powerful cleric, stated during a television program—in which the prime minister too was present—that the pandemic had been caused by ‘lack of modesty in women.’”

For the girls from Karachi, there is now little chance of peace. If proven to be underage, they would be required to choose between spending the rest of their childhood in the custody of the Child Protection Unit or return to potentially abusive homes in misery. As women in Pakistan, even achieving adulthood doesn’t guarantee them the rights enshrined under the Constitution and marriage might remain their only means to achieve any degree of “independence” from their families.

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