Zahida Parveen: Husband to be freed

Islamabad: Fear and panic gripped honour violence survivor Zahida Parveen when she received the news of her former husband, Mohammad Iqbal’s release from jail. He was given a life sentence eight years ago for mutilating her face and gouging out her eyes.

The prison term of the brutal abuser from village Sukho in District Gujjar Khan was reduced last month as he, like many others, was granted remission by Prime Minister Gilani after he visited the prison last month. Dreading re-victimisation after his release, Zahida rushed to the Women Centre and demanded protection. She and her children were shifted to government shelter Saturday morning.

The plight of women threatened by abusive spouses is universal. In countries where laws on domestic violence are stringent, offenders are reported and punished. In our own setting, domestic violence, particularly honour violence, is socially accepted and the abusers, for no fear of law or society, often go scot-free.

A major reason behind the absence of prosecution against domestic violence is that battered wives require sustained social and legal support for substantiating their case before the law. Without a strong support structure, women feel unsafe in their own jurisdiction. Alarmed with fear of retaliation, they stop cooperating with the law enforcers, which often results in dropping of abuse cases.

In cases where criminal abuse is established and offenders are given strong penalties, like in the case of Mohammad Iqbal, the abused become even more vulnerable. They have to defend themselves against the aggression of their in-laws and often their own family, as going public on family violence and reporting it to the law enforcers is perceived as loss of family honour. Zahida’s former husband was given a life sentence and hence, she fears re-victimisation.

Though her suffering is exceptionally severe, Zahida Parveen stands out among scores of abused women in the country. Her case was immediately taken up by the government, civil society and media, and has drawn sustained political and social support ever since. Human rights lawyer Naheeda Mehboob Ilahi volunteered to be her counsel and fought her case successfully.

In July 2000, Mohammad Iqbal was convicted of attempted murder. “He got five years for attempt to kill, three yeas for cutting off her nose, three years for gouging out her eyes, one and a half years for her ears, and one and a half years for cutting her tongue,” Elahi explains. All of the offences run consecutively, which adds up to 14 years. In addition to jail time, Iqbal was fined for each of Zahida’s mutilated body parts – a total of Rs1.09 million. The judgment was termed as ‘far too lenient’ by Zahida. The recent remission reduced his jail term by one year.

In 2002, the government sent Zahida to the US for reconstructive surgery of her face. During her four-month stay in the US, she was hosted and nursed by Dr Naseem Ashraf, former chairperson National Commission on Human Development, and his wife, Aseela Ashraf, at their home in Maryland. The couple had read a report about the torture inflicted upon her in ‘The News’, Islamabad and offered financial assistance for the surgical procedure and construction of prosthetic eyes. On her return to Pakistan in January 2002, he initiated a rehabilitation fund in her name and contributed $10,000 for it. Its proceeds have sustained Zahida and her three children ever since.

A family of four, Zahida and three children have been relocated. They are safe within the government shelter boundary but once they are on their own in their home setting, sight-impaired Zahida’s safety could be in jeopardy. Another factor that may be an addition to her hazards is that she will be getting the fine money, amounting to one million rupees by the Court, which was imposed as penalty on Mohammad Iqbal. The penalty was paid by the government for the release of prisoners serving life sentence. The cheque is ready and will be deposited in her account after required formalities are in place. All financial transactions will be co-signed by a government ex-officio. This decision was made after Zahida declined to have a joint account with her brother, who takes advantage of his sister’s disability and extorts money from her, she told this scribe.

Despite a staunch support by civil society and media, Zahida is still at risk, as her abuser may have returned with a vendetta. It is again the State’s responsibility to ensure long-term security and protection for Zahida and other vulnerable women.

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