February 11th, 2021 

By Ahmed Saeed & Shahrazad Agha


LAHORE 

In a hidden location somewhere in Faisalabad, Maria* spends her days living in her own prison. She is not free to travel where she wants, and the happy life she was leading, has now taken a turn towards despair.

One late evening, in September 2020, when Maria was alone at home, four men barged into her home in Faisalabad, abducted her, and left with her to an unknown area.

“They took me to a small cabin in a desolate place – we were only surrounded by fields around us, nothing else,” says Maria, her eyes still fearful as she recalls the traumatic incident. “Over the next two days, they repeatedly raped me. I would scream and cry but no one could hear me. On the third day, they took me to a madrassah, where they forced me to change my religion and convert to Islam. But even though I pretended I was obeying them, in my heart of hearts, I never accepted it, nor did I ever accept the marriage that they tried to impose on me.”

The 19-year-old girl is now fighting her way through life and through the country’s criminal justice system that does not even sometimes recognize a crime even if the victim or survivor stands up to say it happened.

“Whatever they did to me was through sheer force,” adds Maria. “They even forced my thumbprints on the nikah nama. And if I didn’t obey them, they told me clearly that they would come and kill my family, and set fire to my house. In fear, I did everything they asked me to – even ended up lying in front of the judge.”

For two horrifying days, Maria was gang-raped. The relentlessness did not end there. On the third day, they took me to a madrassah and had me married off to a man called Talha Haider. I never accepted it but had to do as they told me. I thought they would stop, but even then they would all continue raping me. It went on for a month and a half.”

One day Maria heard Talha Haider talking to someone on the phone saying that they wanted to sell her off to some other group. It was a miracle that she got lucky.

“By chance, I discovered that Talha had left his mobile phone in his shirt pocket. I instantly got the phone out and called my younger brother Rehman and gave him details. I had to climb the wall of this place to escape. Once I ran, I didn’t stop running.”

Since her release, Maria has left her own home and has moved to another place, which she has kept confidential due to security reasons. But living like this only seems as if the victim has become the prisoner, while the criminals roam around scot-free.

“I have been filing several applications and at all possible platforms – the police, the courts – even the high court – to complain against those four, but each time my requests were turned down,” she says. “They keep saying that the girl consented to the marriage, and nothing can be done about it.”

Maria is wearing a mask to hide her face but her eyes reveal her torment and suffering.

“I want to ask, even though everyone knows what exactly happens in such situations, why does no one hear my helplessness?  Why do they not hear my cries of anguish? It has been two months since I went to court for justice but there doesn’t seem to be any justice. All they do is show the judge my picture, and declare that whatever I did, I did of my own free will. Well, even if I did it voluntarily, I would have still been Talha Haider’s wife – yet still, all of the others continued to rape me.”

Apart from the country’s rape laws, under the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC), to force someone into contracting a marriage, through false or fraudulent means, is clearly a criminal act. Various courts have also used these Sections for their verdicts.

Advocate Qamar Hanif Ramay, a lawyer associated with the Asma Jahangir Legal Aid Cell,  says that Sections 468 and 471 deal with forgery and cheating of documents.

“Marriage is a civil contract where there is a proposal and an acceptance,” he says. “It will never be a valid marriage if one of the parties is coerced into accepting it. And if the woman is pressured into signing the contract or accepting the marriage proposal, and later decides to open up and complain about it, there are still several precedents in the law that require some kind of probing and investigation based on her statement.”

Meanwhile, Christian activist Intizar Gill is helping Maria and her family.

He says he has met with the police officers several times regarding the case but still nothing has happened.

“I am astonished at the fact that the CCPO actually asked us, ‘what if there was no rape?’” he recalls. “The girl (Maria) stood up and told the CCPO, “I have been raped by four men, and I am standing here and telling you that I have been raped.’ But despite her statement, no one took notice. This could only point to two things. Either we are minorities that is why this is happening to us, or else the police are so incapable of handling this case that they are not doing so.”

Maria maintains that she did nothing of her own free will, that she was forced.

“From my marriage certificate to every other document, my thumb impressions were forced,” she says. “There is no doubt within me, that I am a Christian. I was a Christian yesterday, and I remain a Christian today. This is why I see this whole incident as nothing but rape.”

Absolutely no one is helping her access justice, despite whatever happened, she adds. “I am a Christian – I have never accepted Islam and I have never accepted this marriage. Today my family and I, are suffering from severe depression because of what happened.

But seeking justice seems to feel like we are losing ourselves in the darkness. There is no ray of hope. I want to ask if we are equal citizens of an independent state, why are those who I have accused of sexually abusing me out of the grasp of the law?”

A tear falls out and slowly rolls down her cheek.

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