Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Inhuman Rights

Injustice. Abuse. Torture. Death. Silent victims. Will we be their voice? Or turn the other way?

In Disgrace, and Facing Death
By Nicholas D. Kristof
The New York Times
KHANPUR, Pakistan

Aisha Parveen will live another day. Indeed, at least another week.

Ms. Parveen, the young Pashtun woman I wrote about on Sunday, was kidnapped at the age of 14 and imprisoned in a brothel here in southeastern Pakistan for six years. She escaped in January and married the man who helped her flee, but now a Pakistani court has charged her with adultery and is threatening to hand her back to the brothel owner — even though she is adamant that he will then torture and kill her.

Ms. Parveen's court hearing was yesterday, and I was afraid that would be the end. But the court adjourned the case for one week for further investigation. And Ms. Parveen's lawyer thinks the mood is different now: the Pakistani press picked up on my column, and the attention will make judges more careful about handling her.

So the publicity may save her life, but it won't make much difference for thousands of other Aisha Parveens around the world. Asma Jahangir, the chairwoman of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, said she sees cases like Ms. Parveen's all the time.

"There is no such thing called justice in Pakistan," said Ms. Jahangir, a prominent lawyer in Lahore. "It has simply collapsed."

Ms. Jahangir fights heroically for poor women who have been charged — like Ms. Parveen — with zina offenses under Islamic law. Zina encompasses fornication and adultery, and accusations of zina are effective weapons against women.

Landlords often evict women tenants, for example, by accusing them of zina. Worse, women who go to the police to report rapes can be arrested for zina, because they have acknowledged illicit sex and yet usually cannot provide four male witnesses to prove that it was rape.

Even professionals like Ms. Jahangir are targeted if they confront the government. Last year, for example, the police attacked her and a group of other middle-class women demonstrating for women's rights. She says that an aide to President Pervez Musharraf gave the police instructions about her: "Teach the [expletive] a lesson. Strip her in public." Sure enough, the police ripped off her shirt.

Ms. Parveen, now living in hiding after several kidnapping attempts in the last few days, faces an even more brutal struggle. Her only stroke of luck is having her new husband, Mohamed Akram, who rescued her from the brothel, on her side. The young couple are lovebirds, and each keeps talking about being so lucky to have found the other.

But Mr. Akram, while unwavering in his love, has disgraced his family by marrying a supposedly fallen woman, and his older sister is suffering.

"My brother-in-law sent me a message: 'Unless you divorce her, I will divorce your sister,' " Mr. Akram lamented. "She has two kids. And he's also beating her now. He's very upset because I married a girl who was in a brothel, who is not a virgin."

The couple cannot seek refuge with Ms. Parveen's parents, because Pashtun parents routinely protect their family honor by killing daughters accused of zina.

"I cannot go back there because if I do, they'll kill me," Ms. Parveen said. "In their eyes I'm dishonored, because even if a girl is kidnapped, then in their eyes she still should be killed."

Saddest of all, her story isn't newsworthy in a classic sense. There's nothing at all unusual about a young Asian woman suffering years of sexual enslavement, or judicial malpractice or murder.

And that's the challenge for us all, Asians and Americans alike — to change our worldview and put gender issues like sex trafficking higher on the global agenda.

A quarter-century ago, Jimmy Carter plucked human rights abuses from the backdrop of the international arena and put them on the agenda. Now it's time to focus on gender inequality in the developing world, for that is the greatest single source of human rights violations today.

Political dissidents tend to get the world's attention. But for every dissident who is beaten to death by government torturers somewhere in the world, thousands of ordinary women or girls die prematurely because of the effects of discrimination. In India, for example, girls 1 to 5 years old are 50 percent more likely to die than boys of the same age, because the boys are favored. That differential accounts for the death of a young Indian girl every four minutes.

Since these victims usually are voiceless, I'll give Ms. Parveen the last word so she can prick our consciences.

"God should not give daughters to poor people," she said in despair. "And if a daughter is born, God should grant her death."

Photo credit: Nicholas D. Kristof. (Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times)


VIDEO: Trapped Between Love and Death

Women go 'missing' by the millions

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