Zahida Ilyas looks every inch the demure Muslim woman, dressed from head to toe in black, her face ringed by a head scarf, the epitome of outward modesty.
Then her eyes flash and her jaw hardens as she recounts how she was beaten dozens of times, saw her husband take away their five young daughters, divorce her without telling her and leave her with nothing, least of all her dignity and confidence.
“He could kill me and no one would care,” Ilyas, 32, said. “The police, courts, they’re all on the men’s side. No one listens to us.”
With divorce and domestic violence on the rise in Pakistan, all too often women are dealt a doubly bad hand, family experts say. Women have little say when the man wants out, yet little way to leave if he’s abusive and wants to keep her put.
Although statistics are difficult to come by in Pakistan and are often unreliable, the Aurat Foundation, which tracks women’s issues, found 608 police reports of domestic violence in 2009, compared with 281 in 2008. Experts say most cases go unreported. Violence in marriages may be as high as 90%, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan says, with most women unaware they’re being abused.
On paper, Pakistani family law is among the more progressive in the Islamic world, although there’s still no statute on domestic violence. But corruption, weak implementation, patriarchal thinking and legal gaps often leave men holding all the cards.
“The major problem is a feudal mind-set,” said Zia Awan, head of the Madadgar Helpline, which helps women in crisis. “Women are treated like chattel.”
When Zahida Ilyas married her husband, Mohammad, a distant relative, in Lahore in 1999, she saw a bright future, she said, fingering a cardboard album with snapshots of their big day, her in pancake makeup, him wreathed in red flowers, cuddling on the wedding platform.
They hadn’t spoken before the arranged marriage, and she blushed serving him tea, she recalled, dreaming of a loving household filled with happy children. “I had great hopes,” she said.
They had three daughters in rapid succession. When Mohammad lost his sales job in 2004, his parents stepped in to support him, and he started spending more time with his folks.
He started beating her, she said, blaming her for not having a boy. Her mother-in-law also abused her, she said, at one point kicking her so hard she had a miscarriage.
In 2004, they had a boy, Saim. But things only got worse, probably because, she said, her husband now had an heir and didn’t need her.
Shortly after their sixth child was born last summer, Mohammad moved out and went to live with his parents. In September, when she went to ask for rent money, she said, he emerged with a pair of scissors and slashed her wrist.
She started attending a teaching workshop. With no money for baby-sitters, she would leave their infant daughter with her in-laws. One day in October, she arrived at the house to find her husband, in-laws and five daughters gone, his parents’ house shuttered. She still has her son, who was in a different school when her husband made his getaway, she said.
She was unable to pay her rent, and her landlord threw all her belongings into the street soon after. She managed to get the landlord to relent, but she continues to live hand to mouth. She sits in a two-room apartment, mattress upended, bed broken, clothes strewn on the floor. She can’t afford cooking gas or food. “I’ve been turned into a beggar,” she said.
She discovered several months later that her husband had filed for divorce in August without her knowledge, let alone uttering the word “talaq” to her and waiting out a reconciliation period, as required for Shiite Muslims to divorce.
She eventually learned where her husband was living and tried to see her daughters -- Thooba, 10, Fiza, 9, Maliha, 6, Maryam, 3, and Maira, 7 months -- but he beat her again, she said. She shows a hospital report that lists “multiple contusions on leg and shoulder.”
Her son often asks where his sisters are. He doesn’t want to go to school, fearful of being snatched, she said. Her husband’s lawyer has told her that the family will get custody of the boy legally, she said.
Many of the details of Ilyas’ story could not be verified, although family counselors said her account was not unusual. Pakistan ranked 124th out of the 155 nations in the 2009 U.N. Gender Development Index, a measure of women’s position in their society.
Mohammad Ilyas, reached by telephone, said he was divorced under civil and Islamic law, with all procedures followed. He said his wife handed the daughters over to him a year ago, voluntarily. The girls opted to live with him and are happy, he said. The boy chose to stay with his mother.
“She threw knives at me, even a bottle, and tried to hit me,” he said. “I never beat her, was only unemployed for a year and even then gave her $50 a month.”
He said he is willing to discuss their financial differences, but he wants witnesses. “I don’t trust her,” he said. “She always lies.”
Divorced women are such pariahs in society, Zahida Ilyas said, that she’d get back together if his mother would stop meddling and he’d get a job.
She knows the safe thing would be to take her son and go live with her parents in Lahore, but that would mean never seeing her daughters again, she said.
“I don’t know what to do,” she said. “Do I go light myself on fire? And if I did that, who would take care of my son?”
She’s heard her husband has a new wife. Early this year, she got an anonymous call. “Don’t try anything or we’ll kill you and your son,” the voice said.
“It makes me very scared,” she said. “I pray to God for confidence.”
Many of the acts she says her husband committed contravene laws, regulations or religious traditions in Pakistan, which has a reasonably good legal framework, experts said.
Fathers aren’t allowed to take daughters from their mother before puberty or sons before age 7 unless their mother is a drug abuser or mentally incompetent. Women have certain protections under inheritance laws, and sexual harassment is illegal, including marital rape.
“The law is not half bad,” said Ali Dayan Hasan, South Asia researcher with Human Rights Watch. “How it plays out, however, is a different world altogether.”
In reality, ignorance, economics, intimidation, manipulation and the old-boys club all work against women, as does the writing of the marriage contract, often done by the man’s side. Women who discuss divorce before marriage, particularly in rural areas, are seen as jinxing the union.
Men also have significant leeway to influence local rulings, forge documents and intercept notices. “Men can get away with what they want,” said Khawar Mumtaz, head of Shertaz, a charity group working to educate women on their rights.
Calls by women’s groups and others to reform the system and strengthen enforcement tend to be batted down by religious conservatives. In response to calls for a domestic violence law, for instance, fundamentalists initially denied any problem existed and now argue that it doesn’t address the problem of elderly male abuse and would only increase divorce.
“The religious community always resists reform,” Mumtaz said. “From their perspective, a woman who gets more rights will become wayward, whatever that means.”