Abused women face lonely struggle for justice in conservative Pakistan

When Ruqayya Parveen's husband dumped a jug of acid on her and her children as they slept, she awoke to a life of pain and disfigurement — one that many in conservative Pakistan believe she brought upon herself.

The police have shown little interest in tracking down her husband in the 18 months since the attack, and she says many in her community shun her, not only because of her appearance but because they assume she did something to provoke the attack.

Last year, at least 1,000 Pakistani women were murdered in so-called "honor killings" carried out by husbands or male relatives over suspicions of adultery or other illicit sexual behavior, according to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, a private organization. It said another 7,000 survived similar assaults, including acid attacks, amputations, and immolation.

The commission only compiles reported cases, meaning the true statistics are likely much higher, as cases are often covered up by families.

Last month, a Pakistani court sentenced to death four men who had beaten a pregnant woman to death in front of a Lahore courthouse for marrying against the family's wishes. One of the men was her father; the others were male relatives.

That verdict came after the killing sparked widespread outrage. But women's rights groups say justice in such cases is often elusive, with police and prosecutors having little interest in getting involved in what many in the conservative, Muslim-majority Pakistan see as private family matters.

Parveen, 26, said her husband, an "alcoholic gambler," threw acid on her as she slept with three of their four children.

"I lost my senses. I was shivering with pain," she said. She was hospitalized for six months with severe burns on her face, torso, back and arms. She lost vision in her left eyeball, which hangs from the socket, and hearing in her left ear.

When she went to the police she was told they could only apprehend her husband if she told them where he was. "Is this a joke?" she asked.

Police investigator Mahmood Khan told The Associated Press that he did not have the intelligence resources to track the husband down. "We're ready to spend the money. We're ready to travel," he said, but only if she tells them where to look.

"In our country, domestic violence is still considered a private matter," said Zoia Tariq, a women's rights activist. "Try telling a police officer or a government official that someone is hitting his wife, sister, daughter, you will get a response ... 'What have you got to do with it? It is their personal matter.'"

Parveen says it is the lack of justice, more than the disfigurement, which has "robbed me of the will to live."

She is still in pain from the attack, and stays at home most days to avoid the stares. Her mother works as a housekeeper and her eldest son, an 11-year-old, quit school to work as a gravedigger.

There are shelters in Karachi where she and other abused women can learn skills in order to earn a livelihood.

"It is important that these women consider themselves survivors and not victims. It is essential for their rehabilitation and reintegration into society," said Uzma Noorani, who runs one such shelter.

But it's hard to see yourself as a survivor when you are treated like a pariah.

"Acid attack victims are avoided like the plague, like AIDS," Tariq, the women's rights activist, said. "They're considered someone punished for doing something wrong. People would ask their kids to stay away from such victims, stay away from their influence."

Rubina Qaimkhani, a Pakistani minister in charge of women's affairs in Sindh province, acknowledged that the government could do more, but said there was a need to change the mindset of the entire society. "We are making laws and trying to create awareness among women of how they can fight for their rights," she said.

Laws already on the books bar sexual harassment in the workplace and criminalize acid-throwing. But a bill specifically addressing domestic violence failed to make it out of Pakistan's upper house because of opposition from hard-line religious parties.

Zohra Yusuf, the chairwoman of the Human Rights Commission, says the legal system does little to protect the rights of people like Parveen, but that society is slowly changing.

"You hear of a lot of cases of women marrying of their own will," she said. "You are seeing a bit of change that, you know, they will not accept patriarchy all their lives."


Shahzad reported from Islamabad.