Pakistani journalist, activist, and current Radcliffe Fellow Humaira Shahid says that from 70 to 90 percent of women in Pakistan are subjected to some kind of domestic violence. Since January, Shahid has traveled to Washington, D.C., three times to argue for the passage of the International Violence Against Women Act.

Kris Snibbe/Harvard Staff Photographer

Nation & World

Horror, by custom

6 min read

On Islamic rulings, tribal cultures, and violence against women

Pure naked crime.

Those three words, in powerful tandem, are from Humaira Awais Shahid, a Radcliffe Fellow this year. She is a Pakistani human rights activist, journalist, and former member of Parliament.

The phrase, she said, describes how women are often treated by customary practices in Pakistani Islam and in its tribal cultures.

From 70 to 90 percent of women in Pakistan are subjected to some kind of domestic violence, said Shahid, a consequence of what she called the “male dominance and commodification” of females.

“Gender-based violence is most of the time pure naked crime … justified through heinous customary practices or cultural norms,” said Shahid. Often, crimes are perpetrated against a woman to “usurp her inheritance” as well as simply to punish, she said.

The associated crimes are horrible, and they rang strange in sedate Radcliffe Gymnasium during an April 14 lecture: gang rape, marital rape, acid attacks, dowry killings, stove-burn killings, honor killings, forced marriage, and using women as objects of barter.

As a journalist, she got “very close exposure to such stories,” said Shahid, whose talk was punctuated by more than one picture hard to look at. “I held the hands of so many women who were victims of acid crimes and stove burnings … who took their last breaths in front of me.”

Such abuses affect men and children as well as women, she said, since they extend to usury, forced beggary, and prostitution. All the victims, regardless of gender, share the reality that they are poor. And they share something else: feudal systems that dominate both agriculture and civil governance in Pakistan — systems that are wielded like weapons to “assert control and violence,” she said.

The agricultural sector is controlled “by a few thousand feudal families,” said Shahid. When members of the same families take positions in civil service, business, industry, and politics, she added, “their influence is multiplied in all directions.”

Such are the “facts and realities of Pakistan today,” she said. “I want to take you to the world inside.”

That world includes government, state, tribal, and religious mechanisms that are arrayed against women, children, and the poor, said Shahid. “Poverty overrides all kinds of mortality.”

Religion as presently interpreted is not the only bulwark blocking reform, she said. There is the government itself. “I entered a Parliament that was traditional, feudalistic, notoriously corrupt, and literalist with dogmatic religious leaders and tribal chiefs,” said Shahid.

But there is hope for change, and it comes from Islam itself, she said. “The humanistic ethics of Islam and the true essence of its teaching will emerge.”

Paradoxically, “the only way to improve the condition of women … is to enforce Islamic rights,” said Shahid.

She talked of the “criminal silence” on the part of authorities who ignore the women’s rights provisions already contained in Islamic law. “Most of the violence revolves around those issues,” said Shahid.

They include a woman’s right to chose whom to marry, to divorce without evidence, to remarry without the consent of family, and to manage her own finances.

The West cannot really help, nor will its wars help, she said, quoting an unnamed French thinker: “Nothing worthwhile can be done in Muslim countries except in the name of Islam.”

Meanwhile, the deck remains stacked against Pakistan’s poor, and especially its women. Shahid pointed to history to find blame.

In 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, an event that re-created the notion of jihad as a means to fight the war, transforming it from the concept of personal struggle into a weapon of political struggle.

With Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda came damage to true Islam, she said, opening the doors wider to a “Wahabi fundamentalism” that had lain dormant for decades in the Middle East.

To this day, said Shahid, most Pakistani Muslims regard “Islamism (as) a deviation from Islam” and not the true faith. At the same time, she said, most Pakistanis distrust the West too.

But Wahabism — in part supported by petrodollars, she said — spread fast through religious schools (madrasas), religious political parties, and down into village councils, where patriarchal tribal cultures “became instrumental in exploiting and punishing women and the impoverished.

In 1979, Zia ul-Haq, a fundamentalist Sunni dictator, imposed martial law in Pakistan and enforced Nizam-e-Mustafa, the “Islamic system” of law.

That started “a significant turn” away from Pakistan’s predominantly Anglo-Saxon traditions of common law, Shahid said, which had been inherited from the British during the colonial era.

One infamous artifact of this time was the Zia Ordinance, said Shahid. It required any woman claiming rape to produce four pious male witnesses, a threshold of evidence so high that women received the lash while the men went unpunished. The ordinance, which failed to distinguish between adultery and fornication, was finally repealed in 2006.

Then there was the Qisas and Diyat Ordinance of 1990, another law that had the effect of increasing violence against women. It allowed the victim of a crime, or the victim’s heirs, to inflict a punishment on a perpetrator that was equal to the crime. It also allowed the perpetrator to pay the victims for a crime.

The practical effect of this was to “privatize” crime, said Shahid, with women most often the pawns in cross-family disputes involving honor.

Village councils, or jirgas, meanwhile, often used such disputes to settle personal scores, arriving at verdicts, she said, “which are against humanistic ethics.”

Shahid mentioned one infamous case. A Pakistani villager was sentenced in 2003 to be gang raped in order to compensate for her brother’s alleged adultery. Afterward, she was paraded naked in front of hundreds. Her rape was a vani — “women barter” — case, said Shahid. (As a legislator, she introduced a resolution to abolish and punish vani. It was adopted into Pakistani federal law in 2005.)

Women and the poor are still generally caught between two judicial systems that fail to work in their favor, said Shahid. Government systems, already weakened by gender bias, supported enforcement agencies that were slow to investigate crimes against women, or ignored them all together.

Informal justice systems like jirgas are “speedy and inexpensive” and take pressure off formal justice systems, said Shahid. But at the same time they are also mechanisms that use “customary norms … for personal gains.”

While in the United States, Shahid has not been silent or inactive. Since January, she has traveled to Washington, D.C., three times to argue for the passage of the International Violence Against Women Act. It would make combating violence against women a “strategic imperative” for the United States.

Curb violence by pre-empting it, said Shahid, who will travel to the capital again in May. “You don’t need 30,000 women raped.”