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Divorce deals a cruel blow to Pakistani women

Women have little say when the man wants out, yet little way to leave if he's abusive but wants to keep her in. Once divorced, they often lose custody of their children.

March 23, 2010|By Mark Magnier

Reporting from Karachi, Pakistan — Zahida Ilyas looks every inch the demure Muslim woman, dressed from head to toe in black, her face ringed by a head scarf, the epitome of outward modesty.

Then her eyes flash and her jaw hardens as she recounts how she was beaten dozens of times, saw her husband take away their five young daughters, divorce her without telling her and leave her with nothing, least of all her dignity and confidence.

"He could kill me and no one would care," Ilyas, 32, said. "The police, courts, they're all on the men's side. No one listens to us."

With divorce and domestic violence on the rise in Pakistan, all too often women are dealt a doubly bad hand, family experts say. Women have little say when the man wants out, yet little way to leave if he's abusive and wants to keep her put.

Although statistics are difficult to come by in Pakistan and are often unreliable, the Aurat Foundation, which tracks women's issues, found 608 police reports of domestic violence in 2009, compared with 281 in 2008. Experts say most cases go unreported. Violence in marriages may be as high as 90%, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan says, with most women unaware they're being abused.

On paper, Pakistani family law is among the more progressive in the Islamic world, although there's still no statute on domestic violence. But corruption, weak implementation, patriarchal thinking and legal gaps often leave men holding all the cards.

"The major problem is a feudal mind-set," said Zia Awan, head of the Madadgar Helpline, which helps women in crisis. "Women are treated like chattel."

When Zahida Ilyas married her husband, Mohammad, a distant relative, in Lahore in 1999, she saw a bright future, she said, fingering a cardboard album with snapshots of their big day, her in pancake makeup, him wreathed in red flowers, cuddling on the wedding platform.

They hadn't spoken before the arranged marriage, and she blushed serving him tea, she recalled, dreaming of a loving household filled with happy children. "I had great hopes," she said.

They had three daughters in rapid succession. When Mohammad lost his sales job in 2004, his parents stepped in to support him, and he started spending more time with his folks.

He started beating her, she said, blaming her for not having a boy. Her mother-in-law also abused her, she said, at one point kicking her so hard she had a miscarriage.

In 2004, they had a boy, Saim. But things only got worse, probably because, she said, her husband now had an heir and didn't need her.

Shortly after their sixth child was born last summer, Mohammad moved out and went to live with his parents. In September, when she went to ask for rent money, she said, he emerged with a pair of scissors and slashed her wrist.

She started attending a teaching workshop. With no money for baby-sitters, she would leave their infant daughter with her in-laws. One day in October, she arrived at the house to find her husband, in-laws and five daughters gone, his parents' house shuttered. She still has her son, who was in a different school when her husband made his getaway, she said.

She was unable to pay her rent, and her landlord threw all her belongings into the street soon after. She managed to get the landlord to relent, but she continues to live hand to mouth. She sits in a two-room apartment, mattress upended, bed broken, clothes strewn on the floor. She can't afford cooking gas or food. "I've been turned into a beggar," she said.

She discovered several months later that her husband had filed for divorce in August without her knowledge, let alone uttering the word "talaq" to her and waiting out a reconciliation period, as required for Shiite Muslims to divorce.

She eventually learned where her husband was living and tried to see her daughters -- Thooba, 10, Fiza, 9, Maliha, 6, Maryam, 3, and Maira, 7 months -- but he beat her again, she said. She shows a hospital report that lists "multiple contusions on leg and shoulder."

Her son often asks where his sisters are. He doesn't want to go to school, fearful of being snatched, she said. Her husband's lawyer has told her that the family will get custody of the boy legally, she said.

Many of the details of Ilyas' story could not be verified, although family counselors said her account was not unusual. Pakistan ranked 124th out of the 155 nations in the 2009 U.N. Gender Development Index, a measure of women's position in their society.

Mohammad Ilyas, reached by telephone, said he was divorced under civil and Islamic law, with all procedures followed. He said his wife handed the daughters over to him a year ago, voluntarily. The girls opted to live with him and are happy, he said. The boy chose to stay with his mother.

"She threw knives at me, even a bottle, and tried to hit me," he said. "I never beat her, was only unemployed for a year and even then gave her $50 a month."

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