Twenty-seven-year old Faiza was brought to Bahawal Victoria Hospital with more than 70% burns on August 15. The resident of Islami Colony in Bahawalpur was eight months pregnant. The next day the baby was surgically delivered—it had died of the burns. On August 27, Faiza recorded her statement in front of special magistrate Nayyar Mustafa that her husband Anjum Naveed had doused her with petrol and set her on fire. Only a few days later she succumbed to her injuries. And despite her statement, her husband has been granted bail.
Faiza’s mother, Parveen Mariam, who works as a janitor in the Tehsil Municipal Administration said that there were so many times when Amjad beat Faiza and she came back to her parents. “We are poor people,” she said. “Her father has passed away and we could not afford her school-going son so each time we sent her back after some reconciliation with Naveed.” Mariam says that Naveed’s first wife was also found dead but such was their poverty that they gave Faiza in marriage to him.
Only three months prior to this case, another Christian man was accused of torturing his wife to death in the same district. On May 29, Safdar Masih attacked his wife Safia 27 times before she succumbed to her injuries. An autopsy report prepared by the doctors at Bahawalpur’s Quaid-e-Azam Medical College says that Safia, a mother of five, had lacerated wounds on her forehead, chin and left cheek. The report also mentions that there were semi-healed and healed wounds on her face, neck, shoulders, chest, shins and knees—proof that she had been attacked for years.
Safia’s neighbours, who did not want to be named, said that a few months before her murder, Safdar burned her leg with an iron and blamed the injury on the police who had raided their house to arrest him for illegally selling liquor. A lawyer working in Bahawalpur, Lazar Allah Rakha, says Safia thrice sought legal help for divorce before she was killed. “No matter how cruel the husband or in-laws are, our law doesn’t not allow for divorce, except in cases of adultery,” he said. “I explained this to Safia after which she didn’t come back.”
Christian divorce is governed by a British-era law in Pakistan: the Christian Divorce Act, 1869. The law had two sides: a traditional religious stand and a modern family law take. The Wijngaards Institute, an international organization that focuses on “key areas of Christian theology where the official Catholic teachings and practice are in need of reform”, notes that divorce in the UK was governed by ecclesiastical courts until The Matrimonial Causes Act, 1857. “Divorce was de facto restricted to the very wealthy as it demanded either a complex annulment process or a private bill, either at great cost. The latter entailed sometimes lengthy debates about a couple’s intimate marital relationship in public in the House of Commons.”
Section 10 of the Christian Divorce Act, 1869 has inherited the tradition of the ecclesiastical courts of the Church of England. It says that a man can only seek divorce if his wife is “guilty of adultery”. The law requires that the husband provide the name of the “co-adulterer” and if he can’t he says his wife is “leading the life of a prostitute”
Section 10 of the Christian Divorce Act, 1869 has inherited the tradition of the ecclesiastical courts of the Church of England. It says that a man can only seek divorce if his wife is “guilty of adultery” after their marriage was solemnized. The law requires that the husband also provide the name of the “co-adulterer” along with that of his wife’s. If not, then he says that his wife is “leading the life of a prostitute” if he cannot identify the co-adulterer(s).
Section 11 deals with a wife wanting to dissolve the marriage. It asks the wife to prove any of the following: Is her husband is guilty of converting to a religion other than Christianity? Is her husband guilty of incestuous adultery? Is her husband guilty of bigamy and adultery? Is the husband guilty of marrying another woman and has committed adultery? Is the husband guilty of committing rape, sodomy or bestiality? Is the husband guilty of cruelty and adultery? Is the husband guilty of adultery and has deserted his wife?
Section 7 was the only part of the law that Christian couples could rely on if they wanted to end their troubled marriage without disgracing their spouses. It conferred powers on the courts to decide matters under the Matrimonial Causes Act, 1857. It was a clause that opened a way to modernize personal laws that could decide divorce as a civil contract rather than a religious binding for better for worse. Section 7 remained on the statute books for more than a century until General Zia-ul-Haq struck it down in 1981. “I was the acting bishop but no clergy was consulted before omitting this section,” recalls Bishop Emeritus Alexander John Malik. Punjab Assembly member Shunila Ruth’s father was also the bishop of Raiwind at that time. Ruth, who is affiliated with the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf , confirms this. Her father was the Methodist Bishop of Raiwind when the section was omitted but no one from the government sought his opinion concerning Section 7.
In the absence of modern divorce laws for Christians, thousands of Christian women and in several instances married spouses have converted to Islam in order to quickly secure their right to divorce. “The safest bet for them to get a divorce is to convert to Islam,” says Bishop Malik. “The introduction of the Hudood Ordinance has dramatically changed the legal framework of our family laws. Who is going to testify to committing adultery, knowing that punishment for it under the Hudood Ordinance is flogging?” The deletion of Section 7 also brought the Act in conflict with the Constitution of Pakistan and several international treaties that Pakistan has signed. Fauzia Viqar, chairperson of the Punjab Commission on the Status of Women, says that the Christian Divorce Act has double standards for women and thereby it is in conflict with Article 25 which says that “all citizens are equal before the law … [and] there shall be no discrimination on the basis of sex”. It is also an insult to a woman if her husband has to accuse her of prostitution in order to divorce her. “Article 14 of the constitution [says] it is every person’s fundamental right to dignity and respect.”
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights Article 1 states: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” Similarly, Article 16(1) says: “Men and women … They are entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution.?” The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights Article 23 (4) says that state parties are to “ensure equality of rights and responsibilities of spouses as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution …” Similarly, Article 16(1)(c) of the Convention on Elimination and Discrimination against Women speaks of the “same rights and responsibilities during marriage and at its dissolution.” Hence, equality of spouses before law and the right to dissolution of marriage are guaranteed in international laws as well as the Constitution of Pakistan.
Keeping in view the abusive nature of the law, on May 30, Lahore High Court Chief Justice Syed Mansoor Ali Shah restored Section 7 on the petition of a Christian man who did not want to divorce his wife by humiliating her. The opposition from the Christian community was enormous. Marriage was for better for worse and insoluble, said Punjab Human Rights and Minorities Affairs Minister Khalil Tahir Sindhu while addressing a meeting of the Punjab government’s Minority Advisory Council on June 2, 2016. “Can a court touch the law ordained by our faith?” he asked the Christian clergy present at the meeting. Church of Pakistan Bishop Jamil and several other clerics responded that the biblical framework did not allow divorce.
Federal Human Rights Minister Kamran Michael took a somewhat similar stance and sought a further consultation on whether or not to sustain the restoration of Section 7. “A conference of religious leaders is being called. Their views will be publicised so that the masses also know the religious teachings regarding divorce. If the clergy permits, only then can Section 7 be implemented again,” he said. Another meeting was held on August 10 in Islamabad with several Catholic and Protestant bishops, advocates and a large number of pastors. “The participants said that except for the ordinances of the Holy Bible no amendment will be acceptable,” a Facebook post on Kamran Michael’s wall said.
For many observers, this all points to the insidious nature of Zia-era changes. “Zia did not Islamize alone, he Christianized,” says human rights activist Khalid Shahzad. Christians were behaving as if restoration of Section 7 were akin to blasphemy, says another human rights activist, Napoleon Qayyum, a supporter of the Pakistan People’s Party. Separately, MPA Shunila Ruth tabled a bill to amend the Divorce Act.
Columnist and social anthropologist Zaigham Khan feels there are similarities between what is happening with the Pakistani Christian religious right and Muslim clerics in India. “Despite the ulema’s best efforts, the leadership of Muslims remained in the hands of a secular elite, who had a diverse sectarian background, and involved Muslim identity rather than focusing on Islamic texts,” he says. “However, after Partition, clerics have come to dominate the Muslim leadership with disastrous consequences for social and economic development for the faith community. Today, Muslims in India are far more conservative than Pakistani Muslims and their leadership resists women’s emancipation.”
Luckily, though, not all clergymen in Pakistan agree that that divorce without adultery is not possible. Pakistani-born British Anglican Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali, the president of the Oxford Centre for Training, Research, Advocacy and Dialogue, says, “The teaching of Jesus only permits divorce on the grounds of porneia or sexual evil. This is, obviously, a wide definition but I think cruelty would come into it as it would affect marital relations between the couple.”
The reality of many marriages belies the biblical ideal. “A glimpse of biblical marriage can be defined as one man, one woman, perfectly suited to one another, joined in an intimate and exclusive, mutual and safe, life-long partnership,” says Rev. Dr. Liaqat Qaiser, principal of the Full Gospel Assemblies Bible College. “Sadly, several marriages do not live up to this standard and even much worse conditions arise when husbands torture their wives.” According to him, there were two schools of thought among Jews at the time of Christ. One wanted to be able to divorce the wife over something as small as even adding too much salt in the food. The other allowed for divorce only when adultery had taken place. “So because in those days divorce would expose women to social and economic vices, Christ was pro-women at that time.” It was St. Paul who gave the choice of divorce for reasons other than adultery. “He says that if an unbeliever spouse leaves, then the Christian believer ‘is not bound in such circumstances’. So, there is need to see how [we] deal with torture and other such situations that arise in marriage.”
Real life is much more complicated with a general lack of social welfare support available for people living along the poverty line. Divorce is not necessarily what many poor Christian women want even though they have been mistreated. The reason is simply economic. Take for example, 19-year-old Sonia, who lives in Shahdara, Lahore and has a two-year-old son. She was raised by her uncle after her father passed away about ten years earlier but he married her off when she was only 16 to her maternal cousin Sohail, a resident of Basti Balochaan, Sheikhupura. “Only a few months after the marriage, Sohail developed relations with another woman. He used to talk with her for hours in front of me,” she says. Her husband reminded her that he had been forced into the marriage. “only because [her] uncle wanted to get rid of [her].” For her part, she has repeatedly told her husband that he was free to marry someone else as long as he did not abandon her. “But a few months ago, he snatched the baby from me and threw me out of the house and since then I have been living with my mother.” Sohail works as a janitor and earns 12,000 rupees a month but gives nothing in support. “I don’t know what to do and I am illiterate and cannot earn on my own,” she says.
There are other instances where marriages take place under deception but the woman still has no recourse to divorce. Farah, 21, a mother of one, residing in Shahdara, was given in marriage two years ago to Shamoun. The only reason she got married was that Shamoun was an orphan and her family thought that he would take care her. Soon after the marriage, the family found out that he was a drug user and was part of a robbery gang. When he was arrested in a robbery case about five months ago, her mother spent fortune to get him released but when he was out he refused to take Farah back. Now she lives with her mother and one-year-old son.
Punjab parliamentarian Mary Gill, who belongs to the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz and is the lone crusader to dramatically amend this law, says that restoration of Section 7 will not suffice. Gill, herself a lawyer, says that the law does not reflect the times. “Marriage and divorce laws made by English clergymen and politicians are incompatible to our local context and sometimes contradict other laws.” For example, the marriageable age in the Christian Divorce Act was 16 years for boys and 13 years for girls, which contradicted the Child Marriage Restraint Act of 1929. “Also, many changes have been made in Muslim Family laws to facilitate women. Why have no changes been made to the family laws of Christians? This law is discriminatory and deprives Christian women of their fundamental laws rights guaranteed in the Constitution and international bindings and treaties.”