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Family laws like all other laws are applied by the courts in consonance with the existing
circumstances of the prevalent living conditions. One thing that strikes me time and
again, at the Legal Aid Center run by PAWLA, is the level of poverty prevailing in
Pakistan and in particular, that of women.
A recent newspaper headline read “Labourer Kills Three Daughters”. The responsible
father surrendered and confessed to the Police saying “I picked up my daughters one by
one from their cots to the courtyard of my house and slaughtered them. I had learnt over
time that I would never be able to generate enough resources to give honourable lives to
Poverty in Pakistan is rampant. According to the World Bank estimates, twenty five to
twenty eight percent of the people live below the poverty line. Women are the poorest of
the poor. No doubt, the government is making all efforts to reduce poverty through
development, especially industrialization. In addition to the present scenario regarding
excessive riches and abject poverty, there exists in practice, a seriously misguided,
misunderstood and a misapplied concept of Honour of Women.
Cases of Honour are a regular constituent of family life. Quite often, one witnesses
newspaper headings such as “Court allows wife to live with her husband”. To join in
marriage of their own free will is a basic right of men and women. Nevertheless, it is
disputed time and again in Pakistani Society.
The Zina Ordinance brought into existence by a dictator, General Zia-ul-Haq, declared
sex without marriage to be a criminal offence. In many cases, where a woman married
without the consent of her parents , she was subjected to accusations along with her
husband and consequently was prosecuted for Zina. It is considered as a personal insult
by a father that his daughter, whom he presumed to be his property, marries of her own
choice against his wishes. Zina cases emanating from complaints through parents, exhusbands
and even relatives, are filed by the Police in our courts, against married
couples accusing them of illicit sex. A large number of such cases are decided by the
lower courts, mostly in favour of the couple and at times, against them. Some cases end
up in appeals before the High Court, the Shariat Court and the Supreme Court, more so
when the factum of the marriage is disputed.
CONSENT OF WALI
In some cases that negated the right of women to marry in accordance to with their free
will, the Lahore High Court, for the first time, held that even an adult woman required
the permission of her father or a guardian (Wali) in order contract a valid marriage (PLD
1995 Lah. 364). This was contrary to the previous decisions of the superior courts, which
had previously upheld that a woman is free to choose her own husband. This ruling
caused quite an uproar.
An appeal was subsequently filed in the Honourable Supreme Court. The court
unequivocally supported the right of women to marry according to their own choice
without any intervention of the father / guardian. The Honourable Supreme Court of
Pakistan held that as per the judgment of the Federal Shariat Court, noted in para 6,
“consent of wali is not required and a sui juris Muslim female can enter a valid
Nikah/Marriage by her own free will.” This has finalized the question on the legal field,
yet complaints and cases continue to pour in this matter.
MUSLIM FAMILY LAWS
Due to Pakistan being a Muslim state, laws relating to family issues which include
marriage, divorce, inheritance, custody and guardianship of children are governed by
Islamic Law in conjunction with other statutes. Most of these laws are not codified. There
are a number of rulings of the Superior Courts on several issues, which highlight the
judicial perception of Family Laws.
Marriage is advocated in the Holy Quran. It is the basis of a family life. An important
innovation under the Muslim Family Laws Ordinance 1961 was the mandatory
requirement of registration of marriages. For the first time, it became obligatory for
parties to use the prescribed standard form of Nikahnama. Unfortunately, few people
have taken note of the importance and contents of the prescribed Nikahnama. I have
with me some pamphlets published by PAWLA explaining its importance so that woman
can achieve equal rights in marriage through the proper use of the standard Nikahnama.
In the Pakistan of today, Quranic verses are not only misinterpreted but are manipulated
to the extent of denying women their Quranic Rights.
DISSOLUTION OF MARRIAGE – THE FATAL PRONOUNCEMENT
Misinterpretations of Islam have made it possible to unilaterally pronounce talaq three
times resulting in the commonly accepted and valid form of Talaq / Divorce. All was lost
to the wife; her home, husband and children just because of a fatal pronouncement of
talaq. The husband seldom fulfills his obligations in complying with the wife’s needs and
the granting of her rights of maintenance, her share in property or the custody of the
children. For such basic rights, the wife has to repeatedly knock the doors of courts and
yet, redressal of her grievance could take indefinite time.
The 1961 Muslim Family Laws Ordinance lays down the procedure to be adopted by the
husband after the pronouncement of Talaq. It is obligatory for the husband to give notice
of the pronouncement of Talaq to the Chairman and a copy thereof to the wife. Talaq
does not become effective before the expiry of 90 days starting from the day of the
receipt of the Talaq by the Chairman. The Chairman is required to try and bring
reconciliation between the parties. He is not empowered to put a stop to the Talaq from
becoming effective, nor can he ensure that the divorced wife receives her due share in
the property, her haq mehar, dowry, her due role in her children’s life and sufficient
means for her maintenance as well as her children.
DIVORCE BY WIFE
There was a misconception that Muslim women had no rights to obtain a divorce through
the courts. As a remedy to this situation, the Dissolution of Muslim Marriages Act of
1939, brought sweeping changes in the law. Section 2 of the Act specified a number of
grounds on which a woman married under Muslim Law could sue for divorce, including
cruelty, non-maintenance and impotence as well as any other ground that could be
recognized as valid for the dissolution of marriage under Muslim Law.
One of the recognized forms under the Muslim Law for Dissolution of Marriage through
which a woman can obtain divorce is that of ‘Khula’. In pre-partition India, Khula was
only accepted as a ground for divorce by the British Indian Courts subject to the
husband’s agreement to the dissolution of marriage via Khula.
The law has undergone considerable change thereafter. The first case bringing in
changes in the concept of Khula was that of Bilqis Fatima, in which it was argued before
the High Court that Khula is a right of the wife. The judge ought to grant Khula if he finds
that the husband and wife will not observe the limits of God otherwise.
In a leading case decided by the Honourable Supreme Court of Pakistan, Khurshid Bibi
versus Baboo Mohammad Amin (PLD 1967, SC 97, P 112), it was held that:
“The Husband is given the right of divorce to his wife, though, of course,
arbitrary divorces are discountenanced. Similarly, wife is given the right to
ask for Khula in case of extreme incompatibility ……”
This ruling changed the concept of the right of Khula by the wife. In a large number of
cases concerning dissolution of marriage, Khula is the main ground and often resorted to
as an alternate plea.
A large number of Ulema even today, refuse to recognize Khula granted by courts
without the consent of the husband as a valid divorce. Confusion is caused by two
parallel and conflicting interpretations of the Islamic Law. On one hand, there is the
statutory law and interpretation by the Superior Courts of Pakistan and on the other, is
the archaic interpretation as preached by the Ulema and supported by their fatwas
PROCEDURE FOR KHULA
Formerly in the case of Khula, women had to face the same stress delay and difficulties
as in cases for dissolution of marriage on other grounds such as cruelty or nonmaintenance.
The husband usually refused to grant Khula to the wife and in order to
defeat this right, the husband claimed huge compensation for Khula, often making false
allegations of having given the wife huge sums in the shape of jewelry and property and
even claiming the property in the name of the wife as belonging to him. This placed a lot
of strain on the judges for such cases required heavy sifting of evidence thus leading to
President General Musharraf has tried to curb this through amendments to the Family
Law Courts Act dated
1st of October, 2002. Presently in cases of Khula, the procedure
has been shortened and simplified. When the wife files a case for dissolution of
marriage, the court issues notice to the opposite party being the husband. If he fails to
appear after the due process of posting and publication, the court can proceed with the
case ex-parte. In case where the husband or his representative appear, he is required to
file a written statement following which the court has to fix a date for pre-trial
proceedings for reconciliation.
The amendments require that “the family court in a suit for dissolution of
marriage, if reconciliation fails, shall pass Decree for dissolution of
marriage forthwith and shall restore to the husband the mehr received by
the wife in consideration of the marriage at the time of marriage.”
This change in the procedural law has brought much needed relief to suffering wives
who had to bear insurmountable delays or long drawn out legal battles for the
enforcement of their right of Khula.
The consequences of Khula differ from that of Talaq by the husband since following a
Khula, the ex-husband and the ex-wife can remarry without the necessity of any
intervening marriage to another person by the wife, as required for under the doctrine of
Halala which is recognized by most jurists.
Khula has become an easy and a quick form of relief to many women suffering from
miseries of violence in circumstances where they were unable to sustain a happy
marriage within the limits prescribed by God.
FEDERAL SHARIAT COURT
Article 3A, Federal Shariat Court (FSC) was inserted in the Constitution in 1980. Apart
from appellate powers, the FSC was granted legislative powers. The Federal Shariat
Court has jurisdiction to determine whether any law or provision of law is repugnant to
the injunctions of Islam.
CHANGE IN LAW OF CRIME
The Judgment of the Shariat Appellate Bench of the Honourable Supreme Court,
reported at PLD 1989 SC 633, recommended amendments to certain sections of the
Criminal Procedure Code 1898 and the Pakistan Penal Code 1860. The court
considered that in Islam “the individual victim or his heirs retain from the beginning to the
end entire control over the matter including the crime and the criminal”. Sweeping
changes were ordered which were made in the areas concerning the law of crimes.
Sections 299 to 338 of the Pakistan Penal Code were replaced and the Criminal
Procedure Code was amended. These are commonly known as the Qisas and Diyat
Following these amendments, abortion was allowed in the early stages of pregnancy not
only to save the life of the woman, but also for the provision of necessary treatment to
her. The relevant amended section 338 of the Pakistan Penal Code pertaining to the law
on abortion provides as follows:
Section 338. Isqat-i-Haml.
Whoever causes a woman with child whose organs have not been
formed, to miscarry, if such miscarriage is not caused in good faith for the
purpose of saving the life of the woman, or providing necessary treatment
to her, is said to cause ‘Isqat-I-Haml’.
Explanation: A woman who causes herself to miscarry is within the
meaning of this section.
Isqat-I-Haml concerns abortion before the child’s organs have been formed, which can
be within eight weeks and according to some authorities, within twelve weeks of the
pregnancy. The change in law permits abortion within eight / twelve weeks of pregnancy,
not only to save the life of the woman but also to provide the woman with necessary
With the changes in law, especially the inclusion of the provision ‘providing necessary
treatment to the woman in good faith’ makes conviction for Isqat-I-Haml (abortion before
the limbs are formed) quite difficult. In cases of complaint or prosecution, several
defenses would become available, where the consent of the woman is also available.
The scope of legal abortion for family planning purposes has expanded considerably.
‘Providing necessary treatment’ can include several reasons for abortion.
The Qisas and Diyat amendments brought in a sweeping change in the laws of abortion
in Pakistan. The one thing that should be a topmost priority on the agenda of the
Government of Pakistan is Family Planning or Population Welfare as it is often referred
to by the government. In many Muslim countries, the efforts made for family planning are
supported by the Ulema and religious scholars. Unfortunately, in Pakistan such efforts
are often met with objections raised by the so- called religious scholars who condemn
family planning. In either case, sufficient funds are not allocated to the cause of family
planning services in Pakistan.. According to reports, nearly one-third of married women
in the reproductive age group do not have access to family planning services. In
Pakistan, an extremely high number of abortions are carried out by untrained people
which inevitably leads to added suffering and often death for women. Attitudes
harboured by husbands to family planning are at times negative which acts as another
The status of women in Pakistan is often reduced to just that of the child bearer. This
along with a lack of education and training, especially in circumstances of poverty, is one
of the main reasons for the dependent status of women leading to their exploitation. The
economic well being of families and the progress of Pakistan as a nation is being
severely hindered by an ever increasing population.
Cruelty to women, unfortunately has gained momentum, especially in cases of Karo-
Kari. A high number of judges have to deal with cases of honour killings which has given
rise to the need to provide special training to judges at the trial court level.
The High Court and the Honourable Supreme Court have at times exercised their suo
motu jurisdiction and taken up cases, through press reports, of gross violation and
cruelty to women. Courts must encourage people to come directly with their complaints
in cases concerning violation of Human Rights. There must also be a network of pro
bono lawyers and paid lawyers through the aegis of government to protect the inherent
human rights of women.
The pronouncements and judgments of cases decided by the Superior Courts do not
always reach the judges or the police officers in several parts of the country. They
continue to be guided by obscure traditions and practices and often interpret laws in a
manner detrimental to women. The lack of knowledge and biased attitudes needs to be
addressed. It is strongly recommended that the Honourable Supreme Court of Pakistan
directly, or through any collaboration, publish the special judgments of the last 50 years
which have brought about a landmark change in the laws, in all local languages and
distribute them to all courts, judges, bar associations with strict instructions to adhere to
There must be a cell where the public can lodge a complaint when a trial judge fails to
apply the judgments of Superior Courts following which an enquiry must be carried out
and the erring judge punished.
Life is a changing process and it is essential that changes in law be part of the legal
system in Pakistan. There must be an end to distress and delays in litigation. The
environment in courts must improve. We all need to work to realize Justice for All.
* The writer is a prominent lawyer and activist. She is Advocate of the
Honourable Supreme Court of Pakistan and President of the Pakistan
Women Lawyers’ Association. She has authored four books:
Law in Pakistan
, Islamisation of Laws in Pakistan, Socio-Economic
Political Status of Women
and,Woman Versus Man, Socio Legal Gender
Inequality in Pakistan, published in 2003.
Address:F-21/1/A, Block-8, Clifton, Karachi, Pakistan.
Mrs. Rashida Mohammad Hussain Patel