THE FREEDOM TO CHOOSE
Some would say Saima's troubles started when she married Arshad; others, when she told her family about it. All would be wrong.
Saima's troubles actually started when she was first admitted to school. Education made Saima aware of her Human and Religious Rights, and the confidence to demand them. Her family was only prepared to mouth religious precepts, not to practice them.
Saima's crime is that she did not realize that a woman in a conservative, tradition bound society `belongs' to the men in her family. She cannot do what they disallow. In the first flush of youth Saima had made a cardinal error, the error of believing she was a free human being.
Saima's case is fast becoming a `cause celebre'. It was on Saturday 20th. April 1996, that I first read Saima Waheed's story. Saima's parents were inflamed when she told them of her secret marriage to Arshad Ahmad. After imprisonment and starvation did not bend her to their will, they drugged her, and made her sign on divorce papers.
Then, with the help of the Model Town police, her father, uncle and cousin, detained and tortured her in-laws. At gunpoint, Arshad was made to sign divorce papers drafted by her father. The threat these pious men made were mostly directed against Arshad's mother and sister. They threatened they would have them raped by the police. If nothing else, these threats show the respect they have for Women in general, and one begins to understand something of Saima's background.
Since her life had become intolerable at home, Saima finally escaped to AGHS. They provided her with legal aid and shelter as she feared for her life. This was too much for Saima's family. Armed to the teeth, they came to Ms. Jahangir's office to take Saima away by force; roughing up the lawyers and AGHS staff, for good measure!
Reading Saima's story I wondered whether she was very young, and therefore did not know what she is doing; or whether she was illiterate, and therefore did not understand what was happening; or whether she was mentally retarded and therefore had been taken advantage of by the AGHS, Arshad Ahmad, Asma Jahangir and Asma's absent daughter!
The mystery deepened when I realized that Saima is neither underage, illiterate nor mentally retarded. She is an intelligent girl in her early twenties and a former head-girl of the Lahore College for women. The crime that drove her family to such extreme reactions is that she took charge of her own life.
When parents arrange a marriage for their daughters, they unflinchingly marry them off to a stranger. Often the first time the couple meet is in the bridal bed! Yet, many parents find it hard to accept their daughter's choice of the man she will be spending the rest of her life with; not to mention her most intimate moments.
The general belief seems to be that, only a wanton and immoral girl chooses her own mate. I guess they subscribe to the belief that a `good' woman does not exist below the waist!
Saima's fault lies in not realizing that she has to conform to the submissive, long-suffering, stereotypical `good' woman. Her family's `izzat' (honour) is collectively challenged and threatened if she dares to take charge of her life. The family's joint `izzat' lies tattered and in shambles if, even by a flicker of an eyelid, a girl betrays her awareness of sexual desires and physical attraction.
Saima's family learned of her marriage to Arshad on 26th. February 1996; they raided his house on March 9th. forcing him to sign divorce papers. By April 12th. they had found a groom willing to take Saima. It seems that it is not their daughter's marriage per se that they are against. From what I gather, it is purely a knee-jerk reaction against their daughter's rebellion.
Finally Saima escaped, and took refuge in Asma Jehangir's refuge for women. Saima is not the first woman in trouble, whose first thought is `I must get to Asma Jahangir' (a women/human rights activist/lawyer); and she will not be the last; unless all women take the persecution of all `Saimas' as a personal affront. Female solidarity has a tremendous social impact; in it lies not only a woman's personal strength, but also her social force. It is only when women realize that female solidarity is the only path which will give them political, social and cultural strength, that they will be able to force a change in society.
Men and women of Pakistan must make especial note of the fact that no society can flourish and prosper if one half keeps the other in subjugation, even in matters as personal as marriage.
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