Pakistan’s Supreme Court is to examine the case of Shah Hussain, who was released from prison following an appeal against his conviction for a brutal attack on fellow student Khadija Siddiqi. His defence was that his actions were justified by her behaviour. The Revd Evelyn R Bhajan, a deacon in the Church of Pakistan, assesses what the case means for women in the country and the Church’s role in combating gender discrimination.
Zanjeer torr! Machao shor! Break the shackles and make your voice heard – raising our voice for Khadija Siddiqi
A recent conversation with a friend sparked a debate on the role of the church and its presence in the public square. However, there appears to be a dichotomy between the other worldly view of the church and the one which insists on the primacy of social justice. I sometimes wonder, is this dualism necessary?
This discussion seems pertinent in the case of Khadija Siddiqi v Shah Hussain. On 3 May 2016, Siddiqi, a Muslim law student from Lahore, Pakistan was stabbed 23 times by her class fellow in broad daylight on a busy road while she waited to pick up her six-year-old sister from school. After a prolonged and traumatic struggle, involving threats and character assassination, the attacker, Hussain, was sentenced to seven years imprisonment. It felt that justice had been served.
Yet Siddiqi’s fight for justice was far from over. The decision was challenged in a sessions court and reduced to five years. It was again challenged in the Lahore High Court and her attacker, the son of a well-known lawyer, was acquitted a few days ago. The decision which has triggered widespread shock and dissatisfaction, not only demonstrates that the law protects the influential who can get away with their crimes, but also that life for women is still insecure.
In such circumstances one is forced to ask “will justice ever be served to Siddiqi?” This question is pertinent for all the women in Pakistan, a country where women constitute half the population. Despite adopting a number of key international commitments to gender equality and women’s human rights, Pakistan’s ranking for gender equality remains one of the lowest. This is not to deny that systemic gender subordination varies across class, region and rural/urban divide.
There are a considerable number of women who enjoy a better status and more opportunities. However, Pakistani women in general, are vulnerable. They usually remain silent or are reluctant in seeking justice due to personal and physical onslaught and defamation involved in the litigation processes.
Pakistan is a strong state and Pakistani women are stronger still. It is encouraging to see several strong and multi-talented Pakistani women making progress in so many fields. On the other hand, women and girls like Mukhtara Mai, Malala Yousafzai and Khadija Siddiqi who fell victims to crimes of honour and abuse, have in their own ways taken up the task of challenging the powerful. Their struggles go on to show that life may be momentarily shattered by the brutality of tribal, feudal and patriarchal stereotypes and a male chauvinist mindset, but it doesn’t need to end there.
Life can begin afresh when women and girls transcend and overcome obstacles. However, transformation will only occur when all members of society make concerted efforts. In the pursuit of justice, no stone should be left unturned.
According to the Sustainable Development Goals’ global index 2017, Pakistan scored 55.6. If the country is to achieve the fifth sustainable development goal – to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls – the church as part of the civic society has a crucial role to play. Empowering women would in its simplest form essentially mean creating and fostering an environment where women can protest against injustice, emphasise their equality, utilise their capabilities to the utmost and where they can make responsible decisions. In other words, a safe space where their human dignity is affirmed.
For the church to be meaningful to the world, it cannot afford withdrawal from the society and its issues. Therefore, by developing strategies to combat gender discrimination, as well as cooperating with NGOs and agencies working towards women empowerment, the church can propel Pakistan towards accomplishing the SGD’s.
Khadija Siddiqi is undoubtedly a survivor! She has already called on the Chief Justice of Pakistan to look into her case and decided to appeal to the Supreme Court. Her courage is a beacon of hope for all Pakistani women. She hasn’t given up and neither should we.
We stand with you Khadija, let us all “break the shackles and make our voice heard!” Zanjeer torr! Machao shor.