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Shirin Sadeghi

Shirin Sadeghi

Posted: March 24, 2010 02:27 PM

Married to a Pigeon: Changing Pakistan Today

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On a cactus lined residential street in central Lahore, a gated home belies an unspoken pain in Pakistan.

Behind the doors of what used to be a home, a young man at a desk greets visitors and directs them to a sparse, sun-lit living room arranged with a few seats, a coffee table and a wooden bookshelf fitted with slots for multicolored brochures.

"MEN for Ending Violence Against Women," one brochure is titled. "Women's Rights in Pakistan" is another. The brochures, entirely in Urdu, look like works of art, with hand-drawn images and cursive titles.

A short flight up the stairs from the living room is a clinical, shaded room where Dr. Khola Iram sits pensively behind a cluttered desk. A physician with training in the United States and in the Western Pakistani city of Peshawar, Dr. Iram is subdued as she explains that Pakistan, a nation of over 90 million women and girls, does not have a domestic violence law.

The Women Protection Project which she heads in the Punjabi city of Lahore is a project with funding from various international NGO's which works directly with the Punjab government.

That alone profoundly affects its ability to make an impact on the problem of violence against women, an issue that, in Pakistan's current climate of severe security concerns, often takes a backseat.

"When you talk about domestic violence in Pakistan, some men in the educated classes, for instance, say that women are not the ones who are dying, it's the police officers, they are all males," Dr. Iram says. "They don't consider citizen security as security of women also." But for Dr. Iram and her team, the successes they have already had in just a few years of working on the Punjab project propel them to keep pressing on.



The project's primary focus is on awareness, for women and men, about their rights and the benefits to everyone of protecting women and treating them fairly. According to Dr. Iram, who completed some of her domestic violence research at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Pakistan is not unique in the world for having a domestic violence problem, but the type of violence may differ.

"It's not just physical violence. It takes on different forms, like if a woman is not allowed to study, to go to college, despite being a good student, or if there's control over a woman and she can't even go to the doctor because her husband is away at the time."

There's also the thorny issue of inheritance violence which too often requires that a female family member sacrifice her life and pursuit of happiness in order to secure an inheritance. "Sometimes family feuds are settled by offering a daughter or sister's hand in marriage."

Other cases are more extreme.

The concept of marrying a female family member to an inanimate object, such as the Koran, or an animal, is too often employed to ensure that the inheritance will never be lost. "We had a case in Bhawalpur where the lady was married to a pigeon just to save the inheritance. I mean, what kind of Islam is that?" Dr. Iram says.

Faced with such complications, the marvel of the Women Protection Project is that they have a keen understanding of the culture and the religion and have employed three important tactics to achieve notable change.

One tactic is to educate men. The White Ribbon Campaign is an effort that began in Canada and then spread to the UK and now Pakistan. "Men should understand what are the problems of women, and men should talk to men to combat violence against women," Dr. Iram says.

The response has been better than expected, she says, with boys in particular showing positive responses to the awareness campaign.

Another tactic is speaking the Pakistani public's own language, in terms of the religion. Religious workshops are held with important government officials, including local dignitaries and heads of local colleges, to discuss women's rights in Islam. "We use, we abuse, I must say, some ayat and sura in the Holy Koran according to our whims and wishes" to inform these officials that "it's not an NGO which is giving them this information, but the holy book itself."

"We don't ask for any right outside the Koran, so if its says that the daughter gets half the inheritance, we say that at least she should be given that."

The third major tactic is to provide women with a sense of security. The Project has held training sessions with all the majority security organs in Punjab, to negotiate standard operating procedures for recognizing violence against women and obtaining reports from the women. Shelters placed throughout the state offer a sanctuary for the women and their children or at least a resource for assistance and counseling.

In all the tactics, the key, which the Project has been particularly adept at recognizing and employing, has been to connect with the men in power, whether they are government officials or a laboring husband whose power over his wife and daughter is the only power he has in life.

According to Dr. Iram, the root of domestic violence worldwide, not just in Pakistan, is often an inbalance of power in relationships. What she does through workshops and training is to convince a man that providing a healthy environment in his home will not only improve his own quality of life, but that of his children -- something that hits home particularly for the working class men who hope their children will not have to suffer as they do in low-paying jobs and long working hours.

"That is what strikes them. We have had such huge, wonderful responses from the crowd. Many of these men say that they don't want their son to be working in the same factory or the same position and being treated they way they are treated."

And because the Project works so closely with the Punjab governmentís Social Welfare Department, the advances are becoming institutionalized and the changes are being officially recognized. Eventually, Dr. Iram, hopes, a domestic violence law will take shape to guarantee Pakistani womenís rights.