LAHORE, Pakistan — Shamaila and Wamiq fell in love and decided to wed despite her parents' objections. One hot day in May, she and her sweetheart signed the formal contract that is the centerpiece of the Muslim ritual of marriage.
It should have been the beginning of a happy union between the 19-year-old Lahore student of nursing and the accountant eight years her senior. But it wasn't.
In one of the handful of hotly disputed cases about a woman's right to wed the man of her choice now roiling overwhelmingly Muslim Pakistan, Shamaila Munir's father has gone to court to insist that under Islamic custom, his daughter, although legally an adult, must marry a man he approves. And so far the judges have agreed.
On Sept. 26, Wamiq Mumtaz, the unhappy bridegroom, was arrested and thrown into Lahore's squalid Central Jail, accused of kidnapping Munir "for the purposes of sex."
His bride, five months pregnant, pale and suffering from low blood pressure, has fled to the safety of a women's shelter.
At a time that should be among the most joyous in her life, the young woman fears that her parents will try to abduct her and abort her unborn child.
"Every time my parents come to see me, they tell me, 'See things our way or we'll not only have Wamiq kept in prison but beaten up,' " said the gentle, soft-voiced woman. "According to the idea I have of Islam, I haven't done anything wrong at all."
For Pakistan's small but vocal--and courageous--band of women's rights activists, Munir's case and similar marriages being disputed by the brides' parents are a benchmark issue that bares the generally second-class place of women in this society, whatever the laws on the books say.
"If we are to go by the court's position, it would make women the slaves of men," said Shahtaj Qizilbush, one of the founders of the Lahore-based Women's Action Forum. "We women in Pakistan have come to feel that for every two steps forward we achieve, we are then forced to take two steps backward."
Pakistan has a female prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, a female ambassador to Washington, a woman in charge of state television and prominent women in numerous other fields. Yet the lot of most women here remains one of decided submission to parents or husbands.
The marriage cases have been seized upon by some Muslim mullahs in Punjab, Pakistan's most populous and politically important province, as a vehicle for pushing their vision of a genuinely Islamic society. Under proper Muslim practice, they contend, a woman of any age may marry only with the consent of a wali, or male guardian.
A woman's father, or even her brother, should decide the best match for her, even if she is legally an adult, fundamentalist clerics and their sympathizers contend. "The house of a father is always the safest place for a daughter," Malik Mohammed Nawaz, an attorney in a case similar to Shamaila Munir's, told a Lahore court earlier this year.
"It is the duty of a father to feed, educate and arrange for suitable partners for his children," Nawaz said. "A marriage without the consent of the guardian should be regarded as an invalid one."
Such an interpretation is flatly at odds with Pakistani law, women's rights activists say, and also may have no justification in Islam's holy texts.
Enacted in 1961, Pakistan's Muslim Family Laws Ordinance allows any woman 16 or older to marry and makes no mention of a wali or the necessity of his approval. According to Muslim scholars, Imam Abu Hanifah, the 8th century founder of the school of Islamic jurisprudence that is followed in Pakistan, likewise decreed that an adult female could marry any person of equal social status without her parents' blessing.
Some other Muslim jurists, citing the hadith, or reported sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, have ruled that a wali's consent is a must for a woman of any age. But Abu Hanifah decided that those hadith referred only to minors, professor Rafi Ullah Shabab, a Pakistani scholar, noted in a recent article in the Friday Times weekly newspaper in Lahore.
Lahore's wali marriage cases have once again underlined Pakistan's difficulty in reconciling modern concepts of sexual equality and human rights with traditional social mores and an increasingly militant undercurrent of Islamic fundamentalism.
In neighboring Afghanistan, the Taliban, the Islamic militia that now controls most of that country, have enacted measures that bar women from working or studying. "These things only encourage the mullahs in our country," Qizilbush said.
In most Pakistani families, marriages are still arranged by the parents. More likely than not, the intended bride and bridegroom do not know each other and have no opportunity to become acquainted before their wedding. The bride's formal consent is required, but few daughters, if any, dare oppose their parents' choice.