In a black abaya, her headscarf wrapped tightly around her hair, a middle-aged woman stands outside the gate. She is holding a photograph of her twenty-year old daughter gone missing for nine months. Someone at a legal aid office told her to check with the Edhi office and this women’s shelter. She says young women from her extended family often disappear. Why? Because they fall in love, then marry of their own choice.
When two watchmen open the gate to the shelter home, they say they haven’t seen her daughter. It’s a weekday when traffic gets heavy near Karachi’s Superhighway with cars honking for space and loaded passenger buses tilting sideways but we hardly notice the hullabaloo. The woman standing outside the gate with her sister, pleads with me to check if her daughter is taking shelter inside; promising she won’t ‘harm’ her if she comes home.
Tucked away on a residential street, Panah, a women’s shelter home has been around for nearly twelve years housing victims of violence seeking refuge because they fear they will be killed if they exercise their choice in marriage or divorce. When the Panah Trust was handed the Darul Aman premises, this government-run shelter for women was in a dilapidated condition says Justice (retd) Shaiq Usmani who is on the board of trustees. Legal activist, Zia Awan explains the very few government run shelters do not accept women victims of violence without a court referral unlike the Panah shelter home.
Panah housed 32 residents including 11 children when I visited last month: a daily routine for the fourteen or so women means the usual chores, cooking, cleaning, looking after their children, sewing, watching television. Usually they would never get the chance to learn computer skills, or learn to read or even study to become beauticians, but here the focus is to teach them skills that will serve them when they leave. The only thing is that they can’t leave the shelter until their cases have been resolved. But for most that isn’t an issue: they either fear they will be killed [by their male relatives] and even if they wanted to leave they’d have no where to go.
The sewing room is packed with women of all ages sitting against the walls, some with toddlers, some cradling crying infants. An embroidery class is mid-way and there’s a sense of eagerness. They want to learn to read and write as well, so that they can deal with their lives better, some say. Looking around this room, nineteen-year old Sagheera from Bahawalpur sits with her three year old son next to Badam Gul who appears sadder and more aloof than the rest. Shelter manager, Madiha Latif, a trained psychologist explains “When these women experience the kind of trauma that they do before they come here, we need to deal with them slowly. Counseling sessions for post-traumatic stress disorder are helpful. With cognitive behavior therapy we change negative thoughts to alter their behaviour patterns,” she says. They teach women how to use yoga techniques to release pain through deep breathing exercises and the tightening and opening their fists, Latif adds.
Badam Gul is in a white polyester shalwar kameez suit with bright silver sequins as if she were a traditional Pashtoon bride on her honeymoon weekend. Fists tightly clenched, her dangling amber earrings calling attention, she hides behind her chiffon dupatta. She has spent around a fortnight at Panah after running away from her husband’s home in Karachi. She went to the Malir court for help. Gul was regularly beaten, dragged by her brown hair, and strangled at night by her husband and his brothers. At twenty, Gul from Peshawar has been married for two years to Dad Mohammad, a fifty-year old suffering from severe mental illness. Gul was sold when she was eight years old because her father was unable to repay a 20,000 rupee loan. “My mother told him to kill me but not marry me to this man. But he was desperate so he sold me,” tears stain her face. She has seen her mother once since then and misses her. Now Gul wants a divorce and to return to her family home in peace. Her once carefree life haunts her present. I walk past the yellow marigolds in the garden and question why.