At least two young couples who recently married by choice in Pakistan are today on the run and at risk of imminent murder, says the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP).
In the Rahimyar Khan area of the southern Punjab province, Bushra Hafiz and Muhammad Irfan, who wed early in March this year, fear they may soon be killed by the family of the bride and the extended clan to which she belongs.
The pair is in hiding and have made an appeal to the media to help save their lives by highlighting their plight.
Meanwhile, some 150 km to the south of Rahimyar Khan, in the Ghotki district of Sindh province, the family of a girl from an ethnic Pathan family, who married a young man from an ethnic Baloch clan, are threatening to kill the couple. There are fears of clashes between the Baloch and Pathan clans in the area over the issue.
In traditional Pakistani society, especially in rural areas, marriages outside clan boundaries are often regarded as unacceptable.
The situation is disturbing, HRCP says, given the fact that in a landmark ruling in December 2003, the Supreme Court of Pakistan said that an adult Muslim woman was free to marry anyone she wanted and did not require the consent of a wali (guardian) to do so.
Since then, courts across the country have validated many marriages, provided the bride is above 18 years of age and willing to declare openly that she had made her choice in marriage freely and without coercion.
But, despite the legal licence granted to couples, after many years of controversy over the issue, acute problems continue to be faced by many who defy parental will in matters of marriage.
Late in April, a district and sessions judge in the southern city of Hyderabad in Sindh province finally set free a young couple, Sodi 23, and her husband, Abdul Hakeem Khashkeli, 26, after five years in jail. The court ruled their marriage was valid. The couple, who wed of their own free choice in October 2001, were arrested on charges of adultery and jailed in separate prisons after Sodi's father accused Abdul Hakeem of abducting her.
A beaming Sodi told IRIN recently: "We are finally together. It is no crime to marry someone you love and now we can start our life together."
Adultery is a crime punishable by stoning to death under Pakistan's Islamic laws, although this ultimate penalty has never been enforced.
Most commonly, couples are jailed after family members opposing the match make accusations of kidnapping against the man or allege the pair is involved in an adulterous liaison.
In other cases, women, and sometimes men as well, are killed on the grounds of family 'honour' after marrying without the consent of parents or other family elders.
While the precise number of victims is not known, according to figures compiled by the HRCP, at least 277 women were killed for honour in 2005. It is believed that many cases involved the issue of marriage by free will.
"It's a complex situation. The law permits adult Muslim women to marry as they choose, but often male relatives absolutely refuse to accept this right, perceiving it as a matter of family 'honour' and either forcibly marry off the woman to a man of their choice or intimidate, threaten or even murder the woman and sometimes the person she has chosen as her partner," explained Saira Ansari, coordinator of the women and children's desk at HRCP.
The hazards couples marrying by choice face can be enormous. In 2003, a young woman from Sindh, Shaista Almani, who married Balkh Sher Mahar, a man from a rival clan, was relentlessly pursued for months by family members across the country and narrowly escaped death after being declared a 'kari' (black woman) by the Almani tribe. She was forcibly separated from her husband and taken back to her village by tribesmen. Only after human rights groups intervened, was she granted police protection.
In early 2004, Shaista fled the country with her husband after a court validated their marriage and ordered they be permitted to live together.
Another couple, Shazia Khaskheli and her husband, Muhammad Hasan Solangi, also from Sindh, were not so fortunate. The two had been lured back from the port city of Karachi, tortured and then shot dead by a tribal jirga in Sanghar, late in 2003.
Other women have been killed for similar reasons since then. As Saira Ansari said: "It is hard to know how many deaths have actually taken place. Families often cover up the true reasons for acting the way they do."
But despite these harsh realties, more and more women are opting to make their own choices in marriage. While most matches in the country are still arranged by families, a growing number are opting to break away from this tradition.
"I am now engaged to Salim, a young man who I met at college," said Fyza Khan, 21. "At first my family was shocked when I announced I wished to marry him, but then, seeing how determined I was, they eventually agreed and are now planning the wedding," she said.
However, unlike Fyza, only a few women find similar family support. "I cannot understand why my father and other clan members want to kill me and my husband." Bushra Hafiz, in Rahimyar Khan, told IRIN.
Even when new laws are made, changes in social attitudes often lag far behind. Certainly, marriages by choice remain largely unacceptable to families, particularly in rural areas, and it will take many years of struggle by brave women such as Bushra, Shaista, Shazia and others like them before such marriages are more widely accepted.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions
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