By Umer Ali and Amna Nasir
GUJRANWALA, Pakistan – Nearly three years after Saba Qaiser’s father and uncle shot her in the face, rolled her in a rug and threw her in a river for marrying without their consent, the 21-year-old from Pakistan’s Punjab province is again afraid for her life.
After surviving the attack in the city of Gujranwala, 225 kilometres (140 miles) from Islamabad, Qaiser was determined to ensure the men were brought to justice.
It was a rare move in a nation where hundreds of women and men are killed each year by their families over perceived damage to “honour” for slights such as eloping or mingling with the opposite sex.
Even though Qaiser’s father and uncle were arrested and jailed, Qaiser was pressured by relatives to forgive them under a law that until last October allowed killers who had been pardoned by family members to walk free.
Since the case did not go to trial, the men were released after two months in jail.
“Although I had to tell the court that I had forgiven them, I never did from my heart,” said Qaiser, whose story was told in the 2016 Oscar-winning documentary, “A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness” by filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy.
Her uncle never forgot the “dishonour” she had brought on the family, and when he came across a trailer for Obaid-Chinoy’s film last year, he was furious, Qaiser said.
“He came to my house at night and asked for me and started shooting from his pistol. I was lucky to survive his attack,” said Qaiser, whose left cheek bears a scar running from mouth to temple from the previous attack.
Qaiser’s father and uncle were once again taken into custody, in April 2016, and are expected to be freed later this month after Qaiser decided not to press charges against them.
Women’s rights campaigners say the case illustrates the difficulties of prosecuting such crimes despite new legislation against “honour killings”, which removed the loophole that once enabled pardoned killers to go free.
The new law was passed in October, three months after the murder of an outspoken social media star, Qandeel Baloch, whose brother was arrested in connection with her death by strangulation.
The new law still gives victims’ relatives the option of forgiving attackers, but only in cases where the culprits have been sentenced to death. Even if a pardon is given, attackers face a mandatory life sentence.
Yet the nature of honour violence means many crimes are never reported in Pakistan since most attackers are close kin often living under the same roof as their victims, activists say.
After the attack, Qaiser’s mother was forbidden by her husband from seeing Qaiser and forced to move to the northwestern city of Sargodha in Punjab province, 175 kms (110 miles) away from her daughter.
She visits her husband in prison every week. But as soon as the visit is over, she secretly sees her daughter.
“My husband is not angry at her. It’s his brother who provokes him and after they are out of the jail, we will break ties with him,” she said.
But Qaiser fears the matter will not end there.
“He’ll be madder at me and will want to harm me for sending him to jail for the second time,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in the dimly-lit room where she lives with her husband and two children.
Holding her two-year-old son, whose plastic tricycle is parked on the concrete floor, Qaiser said she remembers everything from the night she was attacked, including her father and uncle swearing on the Koran that they would not hurt her.
The men had gone to her in-laws house on her wedding day after finding out Qaiser had married against their wishes. Persuaded to return home with them, Qaiser was then attacked, thrown in a river and left for dead.
“I didn’t lose consciousness. I held onto some bushes in the water and came out,” she recalled. “I started walking on the road and reached a gas station, where people saw me bleeding and called an ambulance.”
Bushra Khaliq, the executive director of the rights group Women In Struggle for Empowerment (WISE), said Qaiser “might be” safe while her uncle and father are locked up.
“However, we fear that they might avenge their detention after coming out of the prison,” Khaliq said.
“It is also possible that her brothers or someone else in the family might decide to attack her again, considering she is responsible for the imprisonment of her father and uncle.”
Asad Jamal, a Lahore-based lawyer who took on Qaiser’s case, said the importance and complex nature of family bonds in Pakistan meant honour violence is likely to persist.
“If a father attempts to murder his son and goes to jail for doing so, being the sole breadwinner for the family, the son will be forced to forgive him,” he said.
He also cited the lack of witness protection programme and pressure from families on victims to withdraw their original statements as obstacles to ending honour violence.
“Unless the government understands these nuances, it’s not entirely possible to prosecute and convict the culprits of honour killings,” he said. Reuters