THE Pakistan clergy has kicked up a storm again—this time over the marriage of 21-year-old Saima to a person of her choice. Her father, Maulana Abdul Waheed Ropari, religious leader of a right-wing militant organistion, filed a petition against Asma Jehangir, chairperson, Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, alleging that she was keeping Saima in "illegal confinement against her will".
Last month, the Lahore High Court issued summons to Saima, who testified that she had sought shelter in Dastak, a home for destitute women run by Asma's elder sister Hina Jilani, on her own. The former head girl of the Lahore College for Women also told a packed courtroom that she had decided to leave home because she was afraid her father would get her killed for marrying someone he did not approve of. Saima informed the court that she was engaged twice before, each time against her will, and that she left home when she learnt her father had arranged a third match for her—with a wealthy doctor.
Saima's heart was set on Arshad Ahmed, a poor relative whose family had asked for her hand for their son but were refused because of their "lower" social status. Her father tried to annul the marriage as soon as he came to know about it. This, despite the fact that the Muslim Family Laws Ordinance, 1961, clearly states that a woman has the right to choose a partner.
Following Saima's statement, the court, exercising its habeas corpus jurisdiction, continued with the proceedings, and pending the final ruling, sent her back to Dastak. Says Raja Zulqarnain, president, People's Lawyers' Forum: "In the normal course of events, once the court was satisfied that Saima was not being held against her will and was not being illegally detained, it should have set her free".
But Syed Afzal Haider, member, Islamic Ideological Council, believes that the court might be under pressure from religious quarters. He cited a blasphemy case fought by Asma sometime ago, when after three Christians were granted bail by the Lahore High Court, one of them was shot dead outside the court. The other two were set free for want of evidence, but they had to leave the country. At that time, Asma and her sister were hounded by a militant religious organisation when the lawyer who had moved the case, Rasheed Murtaza Qureshi, failed to get the Christians hanged. There was an attempt to kill Asma too. Says Haider: "This is a typical mindset. The fanatics do not believe that courts have jurisdiction over religious matters. All you need to know is that someone has blasphemed against the Prophet and legal niceties cease to be." In Saima's case, too, Haider believes her father's counsel has used religion to prove that the law pertaining to an adult does not hold in the case of a girl wanting to marry a man of her choice.
Frustrated by the court's decision to send his daughter back to Dastak, Ropari has taken recourse to religious organisations and armed militia to take on Asma—and he chose Qureshi to defend his case. Ropari's connections with Lashkar-e-Taiba, an outfit which is part of a Saudi-fundedmilitia now fighting in Kashmir alongside the militants, is well-known. Lashkar has a strong clout because of its stand on the so-called 'Kashmir Jehad' and even Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto is helpless in the face of its overt anti-democracy propaganda.
Asma contends that neither religion nor the Constitution prohibits a young girl from marrying a person she wants to. She argues that when a married girl does not need a guardian at the time of divorce, she also has the right to marry on her own.
But fundamentalists refuse to see reason. Jamaat-e-Islami chief Qazi Hussain Ahmed alleges that Dastak is being used for anti-State and un-Islamic activities. Coming out in Saima's defence, Dastak's head Hina Jilani said Ropari and others of his ilk were exploiting Islam to fulfil their petty interests. Saima's family and her lawyer symbolise the two extremes of Pakistani society: the father is a fanatic religious leader, while the lawyer (Asma) is known to fight for oppressed women and minorities. Shah Taj Qazalbash, a human rights activist affiliated to the Women's Action Forum, believes the danger to Asma and Dastak is greater today because religious parties have a hold over public opinion in Pakistan. "What is alarming is that the Milli Yakjahti Council, an alliance of religious parties, has alleged that Asma was bent upon diverting young women from the path of Islam under the guise of human rights."
But in a positive development, leaders cutting across party lines, have spoken out against the baseless allegations heaped on Asma. Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) leader Mehnaz Rafiwarns that such threats will only serve to bring a bad name to Pakistan at the international level. Says Pakistan People's Party leader Shehnaz Wazir Ali: "If we allow the law of the land to be hijacked by the clergy, we will be seen as a society that is helplessly submitting to coercion by forces determined to overthrow democracy."
In a society where moral issues are rarely discussed openly, Saima's case has initiated a national debate which, if taken to its conclusion, may have far-reaching consequences in Pakistan.