Humaira Awais Shahid

Fighting Forced Marriages

Humaira Awais Shahid

A Pakistani legislator fights unspeakable women’s rights abuses—with surprising success.

The acid burns the hair off their heads, fuses lips, melts breasts, and leaves the victims blind, in agony, unrecognizable, and scarred for life. According to the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), at least 211 women were killed in 2002 and countless others maimed when their husbands threw acid in their faces to punish them for disobedience. In Urdu, the acid is called tez ab—sharp water. Some victims say that it is worse than dying.

Humaira Awais Shahid, 32, a former investigative journalist turned legislator at the Punjab Assembly, is lobbying to treat this “ruthless tribal custom” as attempted murder. On Aug. 5, 2003, the Assembly passed her resolution to treat it as a crime and prosecute the men who commit it.

According to HRCP, an estimated 70-90 percent of Pakistani women have suffered some form of domestic violence—ranging from beatings and rape to maiming and murder. Shahid became aware of these practices while researching forced marriages for the Lahore-based daily Khabrain. The so-called “blood marriages” (vinni, from the Pashto word for blood) are forced unions between rival clan members in parts of northwestern Pakistan. They settle disputes, restore honor, win forgiveness, and turn mostly minor girls—some as young as 5 years old—into servant-mistresses. Tribal jirgas, or assemblies, order the unions. One girl above the age of 7 or two girls younger than that are an acceptable compensation for, say, murder. The girls become the property of the victim’s family.

According to Junaid Bahadur of Karachi’s Dawn, “The girl’s parents usually pray for her death so the period of their disgrace is shortened.” During her research, Shahid came across the account of the forced marriages of a 17-year-old girl and her 8-year-old sister. Shahid challenged the local jirga: The marriages were dissolved and a monetary settlement between the families was worked out.

Though part of the political establishment, Shahid, too, is a victim of prejudice. “To my horror, most of the time, [we] aren’t allowed to speak up in debates,” she says. “It’s like we are just there to amuse the male legislators.”

Nevertheless, in February 2003, Shahid’s resolution to outlaw vinni passed unanimously. “Women’s issues... will never totally disappear from the agenda of the [Assembly],” says Shahid, “but they will only be touched upon and never debated. Women’s empowerment is a fashionable discourse.”