A disagreement between couples is their personal matter. If the discord transforms into a full fledge feud, it is not uncommon in Pakistani homes, to call the family elders for mediation. The matter is kept hidden from the judgmental public eye; the couple has a right to their privacy. But if the yelling escalates into kicks and punches, it is no longer a family matter. Domestic abuse is a crime and when a crime is committed the state has be involved- it is not a matter of personal choice.
Recently, Fatima Sohail, wife of TV personality Mohsin Abbas Haider, took to social media to expose the domestic abuse she had faced at the hands of her husband. Posting pictures of her bruised arm and face on Facebook and Twitter, she narrated the wrath she suffered upon confronting her spouse about his infidelity. Ms. Sohail claims the actor kicked and dragged her when she was three months pregnant with their child, in addition to several other instances of domestic abuse. In light of the matter, many people, including prominent celebrities, openly expressed solidarity with Mohsin Haider’s wife, condemning domestic abuse.
Although Mohsin Abbas Haider has denied all allegations, an FIR has been registered against him on behalf of Fatima Sohail under section 406 (criminal breach of trust) and 506B (criminal intimidation) of the Pakistan Penal Code. The TV host has been granted interim bail against a bond worth Rs.50, 000. But while the court will determine the truth in due time, the media trial has already taken place. Mohsin Abbas Haider has been fired from his job and Fatima Sohail’s intentions have been called into question.
Channels continue to call Fatima Sohail for interviews on television. Some groups have called her an attention seeker. The incident occurred several months ago, so why is she publicizing the issue now? It was her family matter, why did she have to make it public anyway? She could have filed the case without creating all this hype? Is she just thirsty for overnight popularity and sympathy? It is not for me or anyone else to establish Mohsin Abbas Haider as a cruel man guilty of domestic abuse or Fatima Sohail as a conniving liar- that is for the court to determine. But let us undo some misconceptions about domestic abuse and its victims.
When an individual is being beaten by someone from whom they expect love and care, both their mind and body becomes traumatized. It becomes difficult to speak up and take a stand against a person they begin to fear. Who amongst us finds it easy to face their fears? According to a survey conducted by the Punjab Commission on Status of Women (PCSW), only 43% of the victims choose to discuss the domestic abuse they face with their families and only 7% of the women manage to tell their friends and neighbors about it. Fatima Sohail in speaking about her experience has opened up a much needed discussion on domestic abuse which occurs behind closed doors in our society.
Two key social misconceptions pressure victims of domestic abuse into silence: 1) viewing domestic abuse as a private matter which, if discussed in public, will bring shame upon the family 2) using religion to justify domestic abuse as acceptable and normal behavior in a marriage. According to a survey conducted in 2013 by Rutgers WPF, 43% of the respondents said that the husbands had the right to beat their wives if they were disobedient. In another survey carried out in 2014 by the Aware Girls and Young Feminists Movement, 21.4% of the respondents believed that the husbands could beat their wives if she went outside the house without his permission.
With religious extremists preaching (“light”) violence against women as acceptable, domestic abuse becomes a non-issue. If the men are told it is their right to hit a woman and the women are taught it is their duty to take the beatings, it seems no one has a problem except “western” NGOs with a “hidden” agenda. But domestic abuse is rightly recognized as a punishable crime in Pakistan under the Domestic Violence (Prevention and Protection) Act 2012; no individual has the right to be violent to towards their spouse.
To protect victims of domestic abuse, the Domestic Violence (Prevention and Protection) Act 2012 mandates that a hearing date for such cases must be set within seven days of receiving the complaint and that the case must be dealt with within a span of ninety days. A felon convicted for domestic abuse faces a minimum of six months jail time and a Rs. 100,000 fine. Additionally, in a recent decision, more than 1,000 courts dedicated to tackling violence against women are also being set up in Pakistan. But the legal measures alone are insufficient to curb the domestic abuse being carried out within the privacy of people’s homes.
According to a survey by the Human Rights Watch, 70 to 90 percent of women in Pakistan have suffered some form of abuse in their lifetime. Most of these cases go unreported because a stigma is attached to women who come forward with their stories. Somehow women are held responsible for the crime of which they are victims. Television dramas and films continue to paint women as helpless in the face of such circumstances; the message ends up being ‘this is your fate so put up with it.’ Fatima Sohail’s story paints an opposite alternative: you can do something about. Implementation of the law is an important aspect when it comes to curbing domestic abuse. However, it is ineffective on its own.
The government needs to focus on building narratives which render domestic violence as unmanly and despicable through two key methods. Firstly, the government must take Muslim scholars, Moulvis and Muftis on board to help preach against domestic abuse. Many modern religious leaders like Mufti Menk strongly condemn domestic abuse. The government must engage Imams in local mosques to preach respect and kindness towards wives in their Friday sermons. Secondly, the government must work with the entertainment industry to produce films and dramas which promote female empowerment. Changing mindsets lies at the heart of curbing crimes. If punishment was enough, there would be no thieves or murderers in the world today.