About six and a half years ago, I interned with Women Aid Trust, a small not-for-profit organization in Islamabad that provides legal aid and rehabilitative services for women and juveniles in Pakistani prisons, [see their official website]. In 2002, many of the female prisoners I met in Rawalpindi‘s Adiala Jail were zina [adultery] cases. However, as was often the case with the Hudood Ordinance of 1979, many of the prisoners hadn’t actually committed adultery – rather, many had been raped, and because they could not provide four male witnesses [of the act], were subsequently arrested and charged for zina – a non-bailable offense.
One woman I met that summer had been raped and subsequently impregnated by her brother-in-law. Although she went to the police station to report the crime, she was ultimately charged with adultery. Pakistan’s lower courts found her guilty of the crime, sentencing her to stoning to death [the punishment outlined by the Hudood Ordinance]. The case subsequently garnered so much attention from international rights groups and women’s organizations that the country’s High Court swiftly reversed the decision. Despite her relatively happy ending, I will forever remember my image of this woman at the end of the trial – clutching a tiny baby [born within prison walls], she appeared tiny and frail among the swarm of reporters, human rights organizations, and big shot lawyers. It made me wonder – in our quest to address the overarching obstacles facing women’s rights in Pakistan, how often do we forget the individual victims? How often do they become just another statistic, another nameless face in our crusade for the greater good?
Working with Women Aid Trust [WAT] allowed me to comprehend that in the gender battle, both top and bottom approaches are necessary. WAT takes the latter avenue, addressing specific cases, providing legal aid to individual women and [male] juveniles, and teaching them the professional skills [from tailoring to embroidery to carpet weaving] necessary to lead a productive life post-prison. For the organizations campaigning for more overarching change, their victories are also significant. In 2006, Pakistan’s National Assembly passed the Women’s Protection Bill, which effectively replaced/amended the Hudood Ordinance. The bill ultimately brought the crime of rape under the Pakistan Penal Code, which is based on civil law, not Shari’a [Islamic law], thereby abolishing the need for four male witnesses, etc.
Last week, I witnessed the product of both these approaches. The company I now work for supports and funds WAT, and I paid a visit to Adiala Jail once again. Six and a half years later, the change is palpable. In 2002, the women, their small children in tow, would show us how their food had been infested with maggots and insects. Many stared blankly into space or cried helplessly on WAT co-founder Shaheena Khan‘s shoulder. Today, with WAT’s support, the women’s section has their own kitchen as well as small stovetops to cook their own meals. Today, skill development classes run seamlessly within the prison. The children of some of the female prisoners have a small classroom, and will happily recite their latest poem or show off their colorful drawings. While this is obviously no utopia, it is nevertheless a dramatic improvement from the state of affairs I witnessed almost seven years ago. Moreover, the organization itself has expanded its work to include juvenile boys – who are often susceptible to militant recruitment when they leave these prison walls – by teaching them professional skills and preparing them for a matriculation exam accredited by a local university. WAT, with a staff of teachers, psychologists, anthropologists, and lawyers, now supports six jails throughout Pakistan. Their success is both due to their dedication as well as the support and cooperation of the prisons’ staff – the superintendents, the guards, etc.
The advent of the Women’s Protection Bill has also altered the prison demographics, and is a shift worth discussing, [also see a related study conducted by former WAT interns]. As mentioned above, many of the women I encountered in 2002 were either zina cases or had been involved in drug smuggling cases. In Pakistan, much like other societies in the developing world, many women involved in narcotics-related cases commit such crimes because of their impoverished situations [i.e., they are given a small sum of money – sometimes as small as 500 rupees – to carry drugs from one point to the next.]. Following the Protection Bill, adultery-related cases have decreased, and the women who are charged for the crime can now be bailed out. As a result, many of the women I encountered in Adiala Jail last week were either convicted of drug smuggling or murder. In several of the murder cases I observed, many of the women had actually killed their husbands – and, while I am not armed with quantitative proof, I am convinced that some, if not many of the female prisoners had been victims of domestic violence.
To be honest, my recent experience at Adiala Jail did challenge my previous black-and-white notions of right and wrong. However, although I realize that not all women in Pakistan’s prison system are victims, there is still a viable gray area that should always be considered. That is why the work of WAT is so significant – regardless of whether a woman is a victim of a man, of the legal system, or of society, the organization advocates that they all deserve a chance to live a life beyond prison walls. For both the female and juvenile prisoners, WAT’s objective [from my observations] is to find ways to break the cycle, so that their release does not ultimately lead to a re-entrance into the prison system. The organization also engages in advocacy efforts to raise awareness about the issues impacting women and juveniles in the legal system. As someone who has personally witnessed their evolution, I can state with certainty that the men and women of WAT are true heroes – humanizing an issue that is often overlooked in many countries, especially Pakistan.