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Seeking a split

Mudassar Shah, Peshawar / sad
May 24, 2013

Divorce is a taboo in Pakistan, where women can face threats of violence or even death - particularly in the most conservative rural regions bordering Afghanistan. Even so, divorce is on the rise.

Women in Pakistan protest on the International Day to End Violence Against Women
Women in Pakistan protest on the International Day to End Violence Against WomenImage: picture alliance/Photoshot

For Masooma Sara Khan, marriage came when her parents sold her for $250 when she was just 11 years old.

"My marriage was neither arranged, nor a love marriage. I was sold to my husband like a toy," said the 22-year-old beauty salon worker in Peshawar. "Every woman dreams about her wedding ceremony - but mine just came in passing. The groom doesn't love me, while I just wanted to please my parents."

She finally filed for divorce last year, after 11 years of marriage - because, she said, her husband's older brother sexually harassed her. "How can I live in the same house with him again? I'm worried about my honor," she said.

Although the case is still pending, her life has become very difficult. "My parents didn't want me in their house when I left my husband. I tried to rent a house but nobody wants to rent a house to a woman who lives alone," Masooma Khan said. "Now I live with a friend and her family, but there are so many restrictions there." It's made bringing up her two children difficult.

In conservative Pashtun society, it's unacceptable for women to ask for a divorce - while men have a much less difficult time if they choose to file for one.

Turning to courts

Last year, famous Pashtu singer Ghazala Javed was shot and killed by her husband after asking for a divorce when she found out that her husband already had a wife.

Javed's mother still mourns her death. "We need justice from the court and someone to support us," she said.

Girls forced into marriage at shelter
In some regions in Pakistan, young girls - such as these in a shelter - are given away in marriage as compensation to settle blood feudsImage: DW

Masooma Khan is also seeking justice. She's brought a case to Peshawar High Court, with lawyer Ahmed Salim Khan representing her. He noted that the number of divorce cases has risen significantly in the past decade. A review of court records shows that more than 1,000 divorce cases were filed in Peshawar courts last year, compared with only 80 cases in 1998.

Khan said that women now have greater awareness of their rights."They know through the media that any wife whose rights are not upheld or who experiences violence can get a divorce. That's why they're coming to court,” Ahmed Khan said.

Divorce 'frowned upon'

Jaamia Darwaish is a local Islamic school where people can come for advice and the Islamic perspective on many issues. About 40 percent of the men and women who come here are seeking consultation on divorce.

Mufti Abdul Qadeer, one of the Islamic scholars at Jaamia Dawaish, discourages couples from splitting up. "Divorce completely destroys a society, tribe and family," Qadeer said. "It's something that Islam frowns upon - divorce should be the last resort," he said.

While the Muslim faith allows both men and women to ask for a divorce, and theoretically gives each the same rights, in practice the well-being and rights of a woman are worth less than those of a man in many parts of Pakistani society.

In 2012, the World Economic Forum in its Global Report ranked Pakistan among the countries with the largest gender equality gap.

Efforts to help women

Violence in a marriage often forces women to leave their husbands. According to the women's rights group "Aurat Foundation," more than 8,000 women were killed last year because they had complained about violence committed by their husbands, or because they had asked for a divorce.

A woman in Islamabad with scars on her face, back and shoulders from acid thrown in the middle of the street
An acid attack from a spurned marriage candidate marred this Pakistani woman for lifeImage: AP

Aurat Foundation's resident director, Shabina Ayaz, said women should not have to tolerate violence or endure a life of misery. "It's wrong that our society and culture tell women that once they're married they should accept it until death," Ayaz said. She denounced the practice of parents not welcoming women back to their homes after they're married, even if they're in trouble.

The situation in cities like Karachi and Lahore differs from that in conservative areas, like Peshawar and in regions bordering Afghanistan. Women in large cities can more easily access the police in cases of violence, and have more contact with lawyers and courts.

Women's rights organizations have special projects to address the challenges women face in the rigid culture of certain regions. They work with police, training them in how to deal with women who face domestic violence, and they aim to raise awareness among lawyers about gender discrimination and domestic violence.

Women rally on International Women's Day in Lahore
Women in cities like Lahore, such as these marching on International Women's Day, enjoy greater libertyImage: Reuters

"We also provide free legal services to women who want divorce or who are the victims of domestic violence," Ayaz said. But it's an uphill battle in improving the lot of women who divorce.

Masooma Khan isn't expecting any child support from her husband, yet she is determined to get by. She faces daily fear.

"I am afraid that someone might come to my house and kill me," she said. "And outside, I'm also worried that someone might throw acid on me."

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