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Pakistan moves closer to banning domestic abuse

Some lawmakers fear change could weaken families

Somi Khalid, 26, had her eyes examined at the Acid Survivors Foundation in Islamabad, Pakistan. The group provides medical, psychological, and legal support to attack victims. Somi Khalid, 26, had her eyes examined at the Acid Survivors Foundation in Islamabad, Pakistan. The group provides medical, psychological, and legal support to attack victims. (Muhammed Muheisen/Associated Press)
By Nahal Toosi
Associated Press / April 18, 2010

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RAWALPINDI, Pakistan — For seven years, her husband taunted, threatened, and thrashed her, she says. After she filed for divorce, he struck again, throwing enough acid on her face to destroy her left eye.

Why didn’t she leave sooner? Or turn to the police for help? Zakia Perveen’s scarred lips are quick to explain: She would have become a pariah in her conservative Pakistani town of Jhelum.

“People don’t appreciate women who go to police stations,’’ the 38-year-old says. “I just thought it was my destiny, my fate.’’

Rights advocates hope a proposed law banning domestic violence will chip away at such attitudes, giving women a more even playing field and bringing Pakistan in line with a growing number of developing nations that have outlawed spousal abuse.

But Islamist lawmakers in Parliament are objecting, claiming the law could tear apart the social fabric by undermining families.

Violence against women is a widespread phenomenon in Pakistan, a Muslim-majority nation of 175 million where most people are poor, only half the adults can read, and extremist ideologies, including the Taliban’s, are gaining traction.

In 2008, there were at least 7,571 incidents of acid attacks, rapes, spousal beatings, and other violence against women, according to The Aurat Foundation, a women’s rights group. Because the group relied mostly on media reports, the figure is probably a vast undercount.

Other surveys have shown that up to 80 percent of wives in rural parts of Pakistan fear physical violence from their husbands, while 50 percent of women in urban areas admit their husbands beat them, according to a 2009 State Department report on Pakistan.

“It happens even in good families — wealthier families,’’ says Yasmeen Rehman, the sponsor of the bill now stuck in a committee in Parliament. “In the rural areas, it’s almost like a habit for the men.’’

The bill lays out a broad definition of domestic violence beyond assault, including emotional abuse, stalking, and wrongful confinement. Depriving a spouse of money or other resources needed to survive is also considered a violation.

The bill strives to cover everyone in a household, including elderly parents, children, and husbands. It also sets up local “protection committees,’’ which must include women and are empowered to file complaints on behalf of victims.

Abusers can face months or years in prison and thousands of dollars in fines if they violate court protection orders, the bill says.

Under current Pakistani law, women could turn to anti-assault statutes, but unless they are severely beaten, such claims are hard to prove, activists say. Police rarely interfere in domestic matters and often do not take women seriously.

Most women are unwilling to report on a family member, especially if he is the breadwinner, and they give in to societal pressure to put up with the abuse.

It is one of the many paradoxes in a country that has tried to blend Islamic strictures with a more secular legal tradition inherited from the British, a place where a woman has served as prime minister and yet militants regularly torch girls’ schools.

“Laws are very good, but unless and until you change the mindset of the people, things won’t change,’’ said Nayyar Shabana Kiyani, who has worked on the legislation as part of The Aurat Foundation.

One person these women are working hard to persuade is a leading Islamist lawmaker, Maulana Muhammad Khan Sherani.

In a lengthy interview, Sherani said domestic violence was not a big problem in Pakistan until advocacy groups appeared and created the “issue’’ of women’s rights.

Because of this, he explained, women became “contenders’’ to men in the public realm, and were no longer content in the home. The new law led to more divorce and disrupted family life by allowing police and other authorities to interfere, he said.

“We oppose this law because it is not the solution — rather it is a possible cause of more chaos in society,’’ he said. The solution, he suggested, was striving for a truer Islamic society.

Pakistan is behind many other countries when it comes to banning domestic violence.

Among the growing number of developing nations that have passed laws against domestic violence are Bangladesh, Indonesia, and India, all of which have substantial Muslim populations.

Zakia Perveen is supportive of the bill, though no law will restore her face to what it was. With her husband on trial following the acid attack last year, Perveen says she is focused on her children.

“I will teach my son to look after his wife when he gets married,’’ she said. “God forbid if something happens to my daughters. I will tell them not to conceal the facts.’’