Growing up in Pakistan, Khadija Siddiqui was a shy, timid girl, traits she carried with her as she started her college education. While becoming a lawyer had always been her passion, she wasn’t an outgoing student, preferring to listen silently in class rather than participate in discussions that would attract undue attention.
“I was the girl in class who had something to say but never spoke up for fear of how I would be perceived,” the 23-year-old told Newsweek during an interview earlier this month. Anticipating disbelief, she is wide-eyed and frank in recalling her past, well aware of the perceived contrast between the impassioned activist she has become and the quiet student that existed on the margins prior to the horrors she faced two years ago.
On May 3, 2016, Khadija and her driver were waiting, as they usually did, outside her younger sister’s elementary school in Lahore. After collecting the then-six-year-old, Khadija walked out of the school and headed toward their car. As they reached the vehicle, a knife-wielding assailant wearing an identity-obscuring motorcycle helmet attacked Khadija. Stabbing her 23 times in broad daylight, the perpetrator left her critically injured. When her sister tried to intervene, she was also stabbed. During the struggle, the perpetrator’s helmet fell off, allowing Khadija to get a clear view of his face. It was Shah Hussain, a classmate from law school whom she had once been friends with. Hussain had repeatedly propositioned Khadija to start a relationship with him—advances she had rejected due to his increasingly volatile and controlling nature. Khadija narrowly survived the assault and registered a criminal case against him. Thus began a bitter legal battle that continues to this day.
Initially perceived to be an open-and-shut matter thanks to multiple eyewitnesses, DNA evidence and CCTV footage of the horrifying assault, the case proved anything but. The first hurdle was the defendant’s father, Tanweer Hashmi. An influential member with clout among the legal fraternity, he tried to strong-arm Khadija into withdrawing her allegations. When threats of blackmail failed to scare her, the defense resorted to a smear campaign, attempting to defame her character.
As the case progressed and gained media attention, it became about more than just one girl’s struggle for legal reparation. Khadija’s plight shed a rarely seen light on the strong-arm tactics often employed by lawyers in Pakistan, the miscarriage of justice found even in cases perceived to be open-and-shut, and the patriarchal biases of the country’s judiciary. After more than a year of legal wrangling, on July 29, 2017, a judicial magistrate convicted Shah Hussain of attempted murder and sentenced him to 7 years in jail. The win proved short-lived as a sessions court judge reduced the sentence to 5 years in March 2018. Three months later, in June 2018, a Lahore High Court ruling went even further, acquitting the accused over “insufficient evidence.” The case, seen as a bellwether for women’s empowerment, risked being relegated to the trash heap of history. Fortunately for Khadija—and women across Pakistan—this was not to be.
In the time after Khadija was attacked, the #MeToo movement had spurred a revolution highlighting the horrors faced by women across the world. The viral hashtag, used on social media to demonstrate the prevalence of sexual assault and harassment, encouraged victims to reframe the narrative and stop letting abusers silence them. In this environment, Khadija’s case became extremely decisive, establishing precedent over how rape, assault and “honor” killing cases in Pakistan would be prosecuted in the future. Despite this, Khadija hesitates to label her struggle as a solely feminist undertaking. “I feel like feminism is a very conclusive term. My approach to my struggle is from a humanist perspective; this could have happened to anyone. The struggle applies to both genders. However, there are difficulties that are gender exclusive to females—difficulties like the one I and many other Pakistani women face in law courts.”
Detailing a fraction of the abuse she faced merely for demanding justice, Khadija points out how women are more likely to be blamed for crimes inflicted upon them than men. “The defense tried to slut-shame me by distributing pictures of me with male friends, as if those proved I had a ‘bad character.’ They appeared to think that if they maligned a girl’s character, she would just give up and say it’s all too much. They believed that if they engaged in mudslinging and spread insidious lies, I’d back down,” she tells Newsweek, adding that the toxic mentality of Shah Hussain’s supporters was clear in how they framed their defense. “[During proceedings] They asked me inappropriate questions about my virginity. They tried to frame everyone as liars: my mother, my father and even my little sister.”
Laughing wryly, she admits the defense’s tactics baffled her. “They’d argue about the number of times I was stabbed, what weapon was used to attack me,” she says. “There was no attempt to deny that I was actually attacked, nor was there any attempt to deny that [Shah Hussain] had been the attacker. They just tried to sway the case through superficial arguments and lame excuses. This was a case of attempted murder: my chastity or my relationships with my male friends were irrelevant.”
While currently the most prominent, Khadija’s case is hardly the sole incidence of violence against women in Pakistan. According to a 2018 Thomson Reuters Foundation survey, Pakistan is the sixth most dangerous country in the world for women. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan has compiled reports claiming 4,736 women suffered sexual violence between 2004 and 2016. In the same period, 15,222 men and women faced “honor”-based violence and 1,535 women were victims of acid attacks. These numbers are likely conservative due to the cultural stigma of reporting crimes—women, especially, fear biased courts, unsupportive family dynamics, astronomical legal fees, and potential repercussions from their attackers. Like Khadija, many fear the prolonged, and often torturous, effort will be met with character defamation and rulings in the defense’s favor.
One small beacon of hope has been the Punjab government’s passage of the Protection of Women Against Violence Act. The legislation calls for the implementation of toll-free numbers to report violence and the establishment of shelters staffed by licensed doctors and psychologists to offer aid to victims. “I think this is a step in the right direction. It’s an acknowledgement that the government needs to give women requisite protection,” says Khadija cautiously, noting there is a wide chasm between the passage of a law and its implementation.
“The law must be implemented equally for everyone. Sure, it allows women to report violence against them, but the subsequent process to secure justice remains slow and time-consuming,” she says. “[Any victim] reaches a point where they weigh whether the monetary strain and effort are worth the battle. You end up spending so much on lawyers, and yet the protection of women remains secondary, while the power of influence is primary.”
Khadija is well aware that her fight has positioned her firmly between the entrenched patriarchal systems that are rampant across Pakistan and the people they disenfranchise. Fortunately, she did not have to fight her battle alone. “My parents have been extremely supportive. We’re a team. If my dad started to falter, feeling the pressure was getting too much to bear, my mother would insist that we can’t give up. We have a good equilibrium.” She also credits her faith for strengthening her resolve. “I kept faith. I prayed to God every day. I know He will allow the truth to triumph and will dissolve these fabricated lies. This is what keeps the fire in me burning.”
Voice of the voiceless
Due to the brutal nature of her assault and the public attention her case has attracted, Khadija has an increasingly massive following among the disenfranchised. Hailed as the “face of the faceless and voice of the voiceless” by some, she knows the case—and its potential societal impact—exceeds her personal plight. “Initially, it was just my struggle, my case. But now I feel the fight is much bigger than me. If I fail then nobody is going to come forward and say that they want justice,” she says. “It’ll be seen as too hard a task.” To make sure this does not happen, she vows to stop at nothing to ensure Shah Hussain is brought to book—for all the women who might be wrestling with whether or not to seek legal course in similar cases.
Khadija maintains that perseverance is key. “I urge all women victims who have suffered to take a stand. No matter what you have suffered, whether an acid attack, sexual assault, or any other emotional or physical violence, you must fight,” she tells Newsweek. “The solution is not to silently accept it. The day we tell ourselves that this was written in our fates, the day we accept it, is the day that misogyny and crime win. We can’t make it a norm. We can’t give men the idea that this is ever okay, that their crimes can go unpunished. They must know that if they use violence they will be dealt with in the court of law.”
Her words have struck a chord. She has attracted support from all corners of society, including activist and politician Jibran Nasir and author and feminist Tehmina Durrani. Khadija is thankful for their encouragement, recognizing that no one individual can enact change on their own. “All these people gave me a platform. They promised to keep raising their voices alongside mine [to ensure justice would prevail].”
It has also helped Khadija accept that it is her duty as a citizen of Pakistan to fight for equality, no matter the odds. “We should all be activists! We cannot rely on the government or the politicians to enact change. That mindset leads to failure. It is our right and duty to fight for our rights whenever they are threatened.”
The aspiring lawyer is also thankful to all the people who have reached out to her, who have offered to help, who have asked her what they can do to ensure she gets the justice that is her right. To these people, she says, it’s not a question of what they can or should do. Rather, “it’s a question of what can you possibly not do? There is so much we, as a society and as individuals, can do. We can protest. We can even use our social media profiles to help ensure that people know the truth of what is going on in our country. We can take our voices directly to the government and demand that they prosecute violent criminals without any bias.”
But while there is a groundswell of support for Khadija—to the point that the Supreme Court was forced to take notice of the Lahore High Court ruling acquitting Hussain—it wasn’t always this way. Realizing the battle she had to fight, and the potential for the judiciary to be swayed by the accused’s influential family, her legal team led by Hassan Niazi launched a social media awareness campaign to ensure the people of Pakistan would help. They used Twitter to post pictures of Khadija’s wounds, publicized Hussain’s utter lack of remorse and pled their case before the court of public opinion. The strategy paid off.
In the days following Hussain’s acquittal, there was public uproar. The hashtags #justiceforkhadija and #khadijathefighter were top trending topics on Twitter. “The more the defense attempted to destroy my reputation and crumble my morale, the more people came forward. They fought for me,” she says, recalling that she had succumbed to hopelessness after Hussain was acquitted. “Social media gave me the courage and motivation to keep fighting. People from show business like Mahira Khan tweeted their outrage, helping spread the message to people who would otherwise never have been aware of it. The subsequent clamor reassured me that our society’s conscience was still alive.”
The public support has been vital in reaffirming Khadija’s faith in Pakistan’s legal system and she is as resolute as ever to complete her education and become a practicing lawyer. “The case went on longer than I expected it to, obviously, and in that time, my morale to join the legal fraternity only strengthened,” she says. “We have abysmal female representation among lawyers and a serious lack of female judges,” she says, noting that when her case was placed before a woman judge, Ayesha Khalid, the defense had gotten the case forcibly transferred to a man, who eventually decided in their favor. “It’s a travesty that such people have the upper hand and feel they can do whatever they want. This incident gave me even more reason to join the law profession. Wherever there are black sheep, there need to be good people [to fight them] as well.”
Above all, says Khadija, she cannot forget that God gave her a second chance at life and she cannot allow it to go to waste. “If I had not survived that attack, who would have fought for me? Certainly not my parents, who would’ve been too shattered in the aftermath,” she says. “I would have become just another cautionary tale, while [Hussain] would have continued to roam freely. I will use this chance for the betterment of society.”
With the Supreme Court set to commence hearings into her appeal against Hussain’s acquittal in September, she hopes her plight will not be forgotten and that the country’s youth will not abandon her. “Know your power,” she says. “Don’t let them undermine your agency.”
From our July 28 – Aug. 4, 2018 issue