Finding the path to voice, choice and agency
by Paula Baker | May 7, 2021
Noor’s name means light or brightness in Urdu and Arabic. It’s a name that depicts the determined 20-year-old woman and it was given to her – not by her parents – but instead by my colleague. It’s one way we could protect her identity and guarantee her safety after telling us her story.
It’s been almost two years since she left her family home in Karachi, Pakistan and the violence and abuse that she faced regularly from her father. Noor describes the domestic violence as “extreme” and “full of darkness.”
Domestic violence in Pakistan has been labelled an endemic social and public health problem – and the numbers support it. Just over 24 per cent of women and girls report physical and/or sexual violence in their lifetime. Statistics on child marriage – those married before age 18 – aren’t any better at 21 per cent. And looking at the country’s Global Gender Gap Index Ranking, they’re at the bottom of the pile, ranking number 151 of 153.
All that to say, it’s not easy being a young girl or woman in Pakistan. Violence against women and girls in Pakistan remains a common issue. Abuses include the physical – abduction, rape, forced marriage, acid attacks, and honour killings – to the psychological. Even though domestic violence is a punishable crime in Pakistan, a predominant patriarchal mindset coupled with women’s fears around reporting violence create serious barriers and limits the reported cases. Much of the toll on women is lost in the numbers.
For Noor, the eldest of four children, escape came from knowledge, determination and not settling for the societal norm.
Noor shared that growing up, she was told the only way to get out of an abusive family environment was to get married.
“And I just hate that word from any of my family. I was even younger than 18 when I heard all of them talking about it. So it was really disturbing for me especially when I thought of my parents and all the suffering [they put each other through with the abuse]”.
“The only escape [I] have is education. You want to be strong? You want to be independent? It’s through education.”
Access to education is a recognized building block to gender equality across societies. Women completing higher education have wider reaching access to opportunities; and women entering the workforce helps to change patterns of discrimination about the role that women have in society as well as building their financial independence.
But Noor’s father did not make that route an easy one. Looking back, the now 20-year-old describes her childhood and young life as one full of restrictions and violence – no mobile phone, no internet, no friends, cameras in her house, and abuse, both physical and emotional.
It was when she was finally allowed to study economics at the University of Karachi that change came to her through an unsuspected path – new friends. After noticing something “wasn’t quite right,” her friends, two young men and a woman, peppered Noor with questions and eventually connected her with the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan and in turn, a women’s shelter called Panah.
Panah is a shelter that provides an option for women who want to escape violence due to exercising their choice in marriage or divorce, forced marriages, sexual abuse, assault, exploitation, or under threat of honour killing. Oxfam has been working with Panah since 2019 to ensure that women like Noor have the services and resources they need to escape violence and affirm their rights.
It took a considerable amount of trust for Noor to accept help from her new university friends but her overwhelming desire to be out from her father’s house and abuse was what pushed her to leave. Her friends remained with Noor throughout the entire process.
“They were my new friends but they were concerned. I was dependent on them and yet, I was scared about them as well. Why are they doing this? Why are they helping me? But I had to do it,” Noor said.
“[My friends] told me that the place you’re going to go to, it’s not going to be easy – but you have to survive, no matter what.”
Leaving her family home meant escaping her father but also meant leaving behind her younger siblings and in particular her brother, who also suffered from the same domestic violence. When Noor told them she was leaving, they were scared but understood why she had to escape.
“They all agreed that [our father] was not doing right by me. Not with me or the brother after me. And honestly, my brother, he supported me getting out,” Noor said.
Even though he suffered similar abuses as Noor, he helped his older sister escape by gathering her clothes, a bag, her documents and most importantly, turned off the cameras in the house so their father couldn’t see what was unfolding.
That was in March 2019 and Noor was able to stay at the Panah shelter for three months, where she received legal advice and psycho-social support on dealing with next steps and disconnecting from her father. The support Noor received at the shelter helped bolster her courageous step to get out of an abusive situation. Through Panah, Noor and other survivors like her, are helped with achieving their goals.
But again, Noor was forced to make decisions that would not only impact her.
“[I was given] legal options but the steps I would have had to take against my father [legally] would have, in the long-term, affected my siblings as well. And I have no other family members in Pakistan that could take care of my siblings. They’d have been moved into an orphanage. They wouldn’t survive there. It would have gotten really tough for them,” she said.
“And plus, my education. I knew my exams were ahead of me, so I just couldn’t step into it. The law procedures – with him being a lawyer – it gets really risky for an 18-year-old me against a really experienced man with contacts. I just wanted a legal document that kept him away from me. I didn’t want [him to have] any authority over me.”
But as a young woman living in a heavily patriarchal society, Noor still needed his legal and financial help to move forward with her life goals – which the Panah shelter stepped in to facilitate. She was able to speak to her father in a safe way with the help of the shelter, and get his financial support for university.
And while Noor has made gains in her independence – she’s currently in second year studying economics at the University of Karachi, she has a room in a hostel on campus and a part-time job – her life is still perched precariously due to the country’s societal norms and her father’s attempts to control her.
“He knows I’m going to university and where I work. He knows where I study and that I have exams going on,” she said. “I just disguise myself. I cover myself properly and try at the maximum level to not stand out to him.”
For the most part, Noor says she feels safe, though she feels she sticks out when it comes to how people and society perceive her situation.
“To be alone is really difficult but at least I feel independency doing whatever I want. I can go to university. I can get a job but, you know, living in a hostel and being away from your family… that is the thing that makes people look at me in weird ways and ask me weird questions,” Noor said.
“But I deal with it. I have good friends supporting me and their parents look at me like I’m their daughter. That really motivates me and that really makes me feel like life is beautiful.”
Her father still tries to coax Noor home, directly by saying he’s changed and indirectly by controlling her finances, especially after the COVID-19 pandemic hit Pakistan.
“When [my father] found out I got a job and got financially stable, he got worried,” she said. “And when the pandemic started, he tried to mess things up for me. [Without my knowledge], he handed in my resignation at my job because he wants me to be completely dependent upon him.”
Regardless of what her father does, Noor’s commitment to her goals and education stay on track. She says she’s obsessed with what she wants to become and her big picture of going to graduate school. Friends, school and her dreams – all that, Noor says, “is what makes me feel that yes, I’m doing something with my life.”
Noor and girls like her are leaders, says Isma Sana, who as a gender justice specialist and manager of the Creating Spaces program, works with semi-government institutions like the Panah Shelter Home (that is monitored by the Sindh Commission on the Status of Women), to strengthen their services, and procedures around providing shelter to the survivors of gender based violence and abuse.
“At this age of [Noor’s] life she has been through so much but still she’s continuing with courage and strength against our norms that are patriarchal,” Sana said.
“And that is hopeful.”
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Credit: Name / Oxfam