Long read: In-depth narrative report
By Shahana Shah
Home sweet home – the most dangerous place for women
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime reported in 2018 that the home was the most dangerous place for women, as 58% percent of women killed around the world that year were murdered by intimate partners or family members. This unsettling statistic became a monstrous reality for newly married Adiba Parveen in the summer of 2021.
A native of Upper Hunza, Adiba looks delicate and gentle in the pictures which surfaced online after her murder. The most striking is a photograph from her wedding day. She looks elegant in a white dress, the traditional silver silsila adorning her embroidered cap. The picture ended up on placards during protests organized by civil society. It loomed over the throng of protestors gathered outside the Gilgit-Baltistan Assembly like a dark symbol of the patriarchy and its voracious appetite for women’s lives. A bride, gilded on what was supposed to be the most important day of her life, ready to be handed over from one family to another, leaving the custody of her father and entering that of her husband, her so-called protector – it was the picture of a society failing half of its whole, decaying and festering at the roots…
It was the same old story of an unhappily married young woman expected to ‘adjust’ with her in-laws. She told her family and friends that she was going through a hard time. They later reported that her husband took her cell phone away so that she would not be able to complain anymore.
HRCP’s Israr Uddin observes that domestic violence almost always goes unreported. “Only the most extreme violations such as murder are highlighted. Generally domestic violence is hushed up because the victims are afraid of being shamed and blamed. They don’t trust the justice system.”
As usual, blame for the death was initially pinned on the victim herself. But this was no suicide – the steady build up of violence at home pointed to foul play. From the very start, complications arose in the investigation. The main suspects, Adiba’s father-in-law and brother-in-law, were arrested, released and arrested again. Evidence samples had to be sent to Lahore for analysis. They expired during the time it took to reach the laboratory.
Social media was abuzz news of the tragic event. People were enraged. For the first time in Gilgit-Baltistan, large-scale protests were arranged in the cause of justice for a woman. Girls’ Ražek, a women-led virtual platform, took the lead in organizing the protests. The group mostly consists of women from Upper Hunza like Adiba herself. It was formed with the aim of “striving to develop an inclusive society by creating awareness about social justice issues and catering for the well being of women and people in disadvantaged positions.”
Activists Amina Bibi and Mehnaz Parveen are part of Girls’ Ražek. They share a perception that the local police had not put together a strong case. “We thought it was an open and shut case,” says Amina Bibi. “When it was heard that the accused had been granted bail, everyone from the community was hurt. They were angry at the system, at the fact that those people were walking free among us.”
People of all ages and from every walk of life came out on the streets to protest. While it may have appeared that public pressure had resulted in the accused being arrested again, AIG (Establishment) Tahira Yasub clarifies that police procedures do not follow public opinion, discussions on social media or any other subjective factor, but the letter of the law.
Both activists also mention the financial difficulties Adiba’s family is still facing in the pursuit of justice. Adiba’s brother Bakhti Baig told Aljazeera in March 2022 that the family had already spent over half a million rupees in legal fees and travel for the hearings. “We sold whatever we could,” he said. “I am so tired, I don’t know how to go on.” While Mehnaz mentions some social pressure from those sympathetic to the suspects, Amina adds that the majority of the community stands by the aggrieved family. “We hope that Adiba’s name becomes a beacon of change for the community and opens their eyes to the fact that our women are being killed,” says Amina. “We have to stop the tradition of forgiveness. We have to stop this tradition of honor, because there is no honor in killing. We hope the killers are not able to go back home because it is such a small community that her family would have to see them every day which itself would be torturous. Furthermore, it should be the government’s job to prosecute the murderer, not the family’s. They should not have to sell their land in order to pay for lawyers and get justice for their daughter.”
For some time, Amna Zamir Shah was the presiding judge in the case. The defendants, however, made a formal request for the case to be moved to another court as they thought that, being a woman herself, Judge Shah would sympathize with Adiba’s plight. The request was granted. Adiba’s case is still in court. Her family awaits justice. The social media furore has died down. The news cycle has moved on. Amina Bibi points out that the nature of traditional as well as social media is such that people’s attention is constantly being diverted from issue to issue. While the family is still pursuing the case, there is little ongoing coverage of court hearings in the media. It has been over a year since the crime was committed. Until a verdict is reached, the question remains: when will the home, the village and the country be safe for women.
The articulation of crimes against women
Feminist activist Diana Russell defined femicide in 1976 as “the murder of women by men motivated by hatred, contempt, pleasure, or a sense of ownership of women”. The World Health Organization states that “Femicide is usually perpetrated by men, but sometimes female family members may be involved… Femicide differs from male homicide in specific ways. For example, most cases of femicide are committed by partners or ex-partners, and involve ongoing abuse in the home, threats or intimidation, sexual violence or situations where women have less power or fewer resources than their partner.”
Another term, ‘feminicide’, encompasses even more nuances. Scholar and activist Marcela Lagarde y de Los Rios defines as feminicide, gender-based violence characterized by the inaction of the state: “Feminicide is able to occur because the authorities who are omissive, negligent, or acting in collusion with assailants perpetrate institutional violence against women.” She holds culpable not only the actual perpetrators of crimes but also the institutions that normalize misogyny.
Many elements of femicide and feminicide are present in gender-based violence in Gilgit-Baltistan. Women have little expectation of security or justice. Social media outcries aside, are communities serious about protecting women’s rights or respecting their will and personal autonomy? “We are all toeing the line society has drawn for us. The day any woman crosses that line, she faces retaliation,” Amna Zamir Shah draws attention to the unwritten laws of a male-dominated culture.
Crimes against women go unavenged when concern for justice is superseded by religious affiliation, culture of face-saving, financial status or community ties. Even in parts of Gilgit-Baltistan projected as models of equality, patriarchal domination reigns supreme. Literacy rates may be high, but so are the levels of depression, anxiety and stress. Killings are justified in the name of honor. Murder is disguised as suicide. HRCP ran a focused project to monitor honor killings from 2013 to 2017, observing 20 to 25 annual cases. On the one hand highlighting these cases is imperative to draw attention to injustice, on the other hand human rights organizations and activists face backlash for giving a bad name to the region and the country.
Surveillance, research, legislation and awareness-raising are part of the World Health Organization’s suggestions for prevention of women’s killing by men. Further recommendations include training and sensitization of healthcare professionals and the police. It cannot be ignored that the police, lawyers, doctors and judges are mostly men, raised under the patriarchy, having imbibed all its anti-woman bias. It is not uncommon to hear whispers of “There must have been some reason that he killed her.” The slightest misstep by a woman is enough to stain her reputation even beyond life, while the ‘mistakes’ of men are hard to prove and punish.
Why was an innocent little girl child in Kochdeh murdered? Why was Sadia’s mother killed and the culprit ‘forgiven’? Why was Adiba forced to endure mental and physical abuse until it culminated in murder? All of these tragedies occurred because men were trying to control the entirety of women’s existence or hide their own crimes. One is forced to wonder if the initiation of legal proceedings is even worth the trouble. “A woman cannot do anything if she is alone,” says Sadia. “Women should only go to court if they are sure of support from their family. I felt betrayed because it did not occur to me that my family would back out. If I had any idea that a compromise was possible, I would not have been so shocked when the murderer walked free.”
The conviction of Nazir Ahmed has been welcomed by the public and human rights activists. He still retains the right to appeal. Every small victory is tainted with anxiety that it may be snatched away later. Even the most notorious rape-murder convict in the country, Zahir Jaffer, has not been executed yet. This gives a message to the women of Gilgit-Baltistan and the whole country that those who commit crimes against them would rarely pay for their deeds in any true manner. Every ‘sulah’ and ‘maafi’ reinforces the bitter truth that a woman’s life is worth only a few million rupees to her family and to the society at large. The patriarchy demands that women give up their agency, their dreams and their sense of self. Not satisfied with that, it even continues to exact blood sacrifices from them at the altar of inequality and oppression.