A Week in the Life: Fighting the wife burners of Pakistan Fighting fire with ire to rescue wives

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The Independent Online
SHAHNAZ BOKHARI is a heroine. She doesn't look it with her round, smiling face, glasses and long, brown hair - more like a happy version of Hattie Jacques - but, in fact, she is a woman of iron, of stone and of fire.

Fire is her speciality. Shahnaz Bokhari is waging a one-woman war to fight the violence and discrimination that millions of women face in Pakistan's appallingly repressive, sexist society, and to stamp out its most horrific manifestation - wife-burning. Every year ,thousands of women are deliberately set on fire or scalded with water or acid by their husbands or in-laws. Shahnaz Bokari's weeks are devoted to getting them - and other frightened, scared, helpless women - medical help, legal assistance, shelter, protection and eventually, she hopes, justice.


LAST FRIDAY, Ms Bokhari dealt with the case of Safiya, a 16-year-old who fled her home after her husband told her to work as a prostitute and attacked her when she refused. When she went to her family, her husband bribed the police to raid their home to force her return. This took place in the capital, Islamabad, where Ms Bokhari is based. Islamabad is a purpose-built city where the rich come to do business with the politicians and bureaucrats who live in the huge, houses that line its broad, leafy streets.

Ms Bokhari contacted the second in command of the city police. He reprimanded the officers involved and assured her they would not misbehave again.


ON SATURDAY, she was contacting the Islamabad police again, this time about a 15-year-old servant who had been savagely gang-raped by her employer's three sons.

The afternoon was spent counselling another girl who had effectively been abducted and hidden from her family for two years by her husband.

Ms Bokhari was a clinical psychologist before starting the Progressive Women's Association (PWA) 10 years ago. She has four children of her own, looks after two more and says her age is "over 40".

ON SUNDAY, a call came in from the nearby city of Rawalpindi. Tahira - a young girl who had been married for only three months - had suffered 89 per cent burns in what her relatives said was an accident. Ms Bokhari was suspicious and sent a team to investigate. Later she went to the hospital to see another "accident" victim and record a statement. The girl died early on Monday.

Ms Bokhari says that almost all the 87 "stove-burst" cases recorded at the two major local hospitals between September and December last year were deliberate attacks.

Usually the motivation is financial - the women have not paid enough of a dowry, or their relatives are becoming a burden, or simply that their husbands have received what they consider better offers.

Very few of those who have committed the 1,600 attacks on wives logged by the PWA in the past 10 years have been brought to justice.


MONDAY SAW more of the same. Ms Bokhari usually gets up at around 6.30am and is at her computer - her office is a room in her house - within minutes. The PWA is opening its first secure home for women in two weeks and funds are needed desperately. Many women just turn up at Ms Bokhari's door.

Moments before her interview with The Independent, a young woman had arrived with two children, no food and no shelter. Ms Bokhari spent the next half-hour raising a bag full of cast-off clothes and 200 rupees (pounds 3) from neighbours. The PWA, as well as providing immediate aid to victims of domestic violence, also tries to rehabilitate them.

Subira, a beautiful young woman with horrific burns who is living with Ms Bokhari, was first taught sewing and is now learning to use computers. It is hard going, Ms Bokhari says, as Subira, like most of the victims who come to her has almost no education. To Ms Bokhari, this is the crux of the problem.

"The social system gives nothing to women," she says. "They leave them dumb from the day they were born. She is expected to be mentally alert but they keep her behind bars.

"Violence against women is a global issue but there is a support system in the West so a woman can get justice or protection. Here, if a woman goes to a police station they just stare at her with their mouths open. If she wants a divorce from her idiot husband she can't get it."


ON TUESDAY, Ms Bokhari heard that her grandmother had died so she travelled to Lahore - 250 miles away - to deal with the arrangements.

All the time, she was sorting out a court appearance later in the week and details of a survey on working children.

On Wednesday, she got back late after the bus broke down. The breakdown had one advantage, Ms Bokhari said. She got to watch some of an Indian feature film - the first movie she had watched in years.

Jason Burke