Forgotten Girls: Behind Prison Bars in Pakistan

Kay Marshall Strom and Michele Rickett | Authors | Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Forgotten Girls: Behind Prison Bars in Pakistan

EDITOR'S NOTE: The following is an excerpt from Forgotten Girls: Stories of Hope and Courage by Kay Marshall Strom and Michele Rickett (IVP).

Were you to meet Kaia, the first thing you would notice is that she could be a serious contender in any beauty contest. The second is the way her eyes flash with anger at injustice. We appreciated her loveliness, but it was her passion for advocacy that drew us to her when we first met at a home meeting Kaia couldn't wait to address some of the issues we had raised in our first book, Daughters of Hope.

"You know, dear sisters," she said, "you were absolutely correct when you wrote that women in Pakistan suffer. But something else is also true. Young girls are languishing in our Pakistani prisons for the crime of being victims and asking for help."

Kaia continued, "It's true, girls and women are caught in a web of helplessness. My father is a lawyer in Pakistan, and he just recently defended a twelve-year-old girl named Majeeda." Then she told us Majeeda's story.

Like many rural girls from impoverished Pakistani families, Majeeda's parents saw no reason to waste their daughter's time in school. A couple of years of education was plenty. It made much more sense to hire her out to a wealthy family as a day laborer.

Late one day, Majeeda was on her way home after many hours of work in the fields when a man came out of nowhere, forced her behind a tall mound of grain and overpowered her. Majeeda fought and kicked and screamed, but she was no match for the man. Her screams did raise an alarm, however, and other men hurried over to see what was happening. What they saw was their coworker raping Majeeda.

When he finally let her go, Majeeda ran home and sobbed out the whole story to her parents. But, terrified and ashamed, they trembled at the very idea of going to the police to bring a complaint "What will those witnesses say?" they worried. "Yes, they know what happened. Yes, they saw it all. But would they actually side with a girl? Would they testify against their friend and coworker?"

And yet, when Majeeda's parents considered the terrible thing done to their daughter, they gathered up the courage to go to the police. "Not only did the police refuse to look into the matter," Kaia told us, "but they immediately arrested Majeeda and locked her up in prison. They accused her of making false accusations and of having illegal sexual contact. They said she admitted it."

Kaia continued, "In Pakistan, it is the judge who interprets the level of punishment for sexual crimes. Laws are not applied fairly. Men are presumed innocent, and woman and girls are presumed guilty. And that is not all. A woman's or girl's testimony is not even admissible in Pakistani court."

One judge stated, "Women and girls without counsel will rot in jail."

Imagine being locked up and confused and accused, with no idea of how to go about getting legal representation, and even if you could get help, no money to pay for it. "It is not uncommon for someone to be held for more than a year without even seeing a judge, simply because they don't know how to ask for their day in court," Kaia said.

The vast majority of Pakistan's female prisoners are poor and illiterate. But then, that definition applies to most of Pakistan's female population. According to the government-sponsored Commission on Women, Pakistan has one of the lowest female literacy rates in the world. Only 16 percent are functionally literate, compared to 35 percent of the men.

"What will happen to Majeeda in prison?" Michele asked.

Certainly Pakistan's prisons are of great concern to human rights organizations. In fact, the current Human Rights Report on Pakistan shows that children are detained along with adults and that the guilty awaiting trial are housed together with repeat offenders. Close to three-quarters of the female detainees report sexual abuse at the hands of guards and police.

"She could not fight off that one man," Kaia said sadly. "How can she fight off the other prisoners and the guards as well?"

"If Majeeda is found guilty, what could happen to her?" Michele asked.

Sentences handed down for capital adultery and fornication are severe: up to twenty-five years in prison, one hundred lashes with a whip and a heavy fine. Sometimes, a judge will even order an amputation.

"That is for Majeeda," Kaia said, her eyes flashing with anger. "It is not likely for her attacker though. The sentences usually fall most harshly on females. Muslim men see it as their duty to protect one another, which means the required witnesses won't testify against the man."

The most vulnerable among us…Surely no one could be more vulnerable than a poor, illiterate girl in Pakistan.

"A poor, illiterate girl in Pakistan who is a Christian," Kaia said. "Fewer than 2 percent of the people in our country are Christians. For them, life is especially dangerous."

Kaia told of a sinister trend in which a Muslim man will abduct a Christian girl, arrange a "quick marriage," then assign her a Muslim name. From then on, the girl will be his wife, a Muslim and the family's domestic slave.

"She can even be sold," Kaia said. Then she told us the story of another Pakistani girl.

Eleven-year-old Alira's parents already had a young man from a good Christian family in mind for their daughter to marry one day. But all their plans were destroyed when their daughter suddenly disappeared. Right away, they feared she had been abducted. But what could they do? If they went to the police, the child's honor and the family's reputation would be compromised. They could forget about her ever marrying into a good family. So Alira's mother went from neighbor to neighbor asking, "Have you seen my daughter?"

The neighbors matter-of-factly informed her that Alira was now married. And, oh yes, her parents would not be allowed to see her again because they were Christians and she was now a Muslim.

By paying the bribes Alira's husband's family demanded, her parents got one concession: a copy of her marriage certificate. It listed their girl as eighteen years old. And no longer was her name Alira. It had been changed to reflect her forced conversion to Islam.

"Do we have to just forget Majeeda and Alira and all the others like them?" Michele asked Kaia. "Can't anyone do anything to help them?"

"My father can," Kaia told us "He works with a group called CLAAS that not only arranges shelter for those who need it but provides them with free legal representation. It also supports them as they continue their education. This group has given many girls a new start in life."

It sounded wonderful, but it also sounded dangerous for the workers—a quick way to make enemies in high places.

"It is very dangerous work," Kaia said "But it's worth the risk. Our offices in Pakistan were attacked recently. My own father, too, while taking Samira to a safe house—"

"Samira? Who is Samira?"

"I didn't tell you about Samira?" Kaia said "She's a girl from a Christian family who was abducted by a Muslim man and held for sixteen days. She was forced to convert to Islam and to go through a marriage ceremony, and then she was raped. After weeks of mistreatment, she managed to escape back to her parents' house. But when her neighbors found out what had happened, they attacked the house and demanded that she go back to her husband. Samira's parents didn't know what to do. Fortunately they called my father and he hurried over. With the help of coworkers, he managed to get Samira into the car, but as they drove away, the mob of neighbors attacked them. They smashed in the front windshield, and the car swerved off the road and crashed. But before the mob could attack again, a police car drove up."

Samira's "husband" demanded that she be returned to him—in accordance with the law. And Pakistani law was indeed behind his claim. Even so, in the end Samira's CLAAS lawyers defeated his legal demand.

Some of Pakistan's youngest captives are finally being set free.

Taken from Forgotten Girls: Stories of Hope and Courage by Kay Marshall Strom and Michele Rickett. Copyright(c) 2009 by Kay Marshall Strom and Michele Rickett. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press PO Box 1400 Downers Grove, IL 60515.