The tail of a salmon and the words of a girl are the slipperiest things on the planet.
“Several women who have stayed at Dastak have been murdered by their families when they have dared to venture out.”
Who: Dastak shelter
What: Offer protection to women who have been subjected to violence or threats of violence. Lahore’s only private women’s shelter.
There are three or four bunk beds in each room. Some women are talking loudly and making phone calls from the phone on the floor in the dining room. Another woman, Kulsoom, is making plans for her move abroad. She has a little money and a new fiancé and thinks she will be alright. But she will lose her three daughters.
She has run away from home.
Many women lie motionless on their beds. They are depressed; some fear for their lives. Several women who have stayed at Dastak (which means ’knock’ in Urdu) have been murdered by their families when they have dared to venture out.
The large house behind the undistinguished gate is protected by armed guards, but that is hardly unusual in Pakistan. This is a violent society, where a uniformed man carrying an automatic weapon stands on every street corner.
She has run away from home.
In the state of Punjab alone there are 34 state-run women’s shelters, Dar- Ul Amans, at least one in each district. The demand has risen as more women have become aware of their rights – and women who demand their rights are more likely to be beaten. The state shelters often have a bad reputation, as a place ‘where bad women go’. They become a mixture of protection and prison. The women cannot move around freely, officially out of concern but also because if they are involved in ongoing legal proceedings they might find themselves accused. There are many examples of women who have reported a rape but who, because they have been unable to prove the abuse took place – for example with the help of witnesses – have themselves been charged and convicted of ‘adultery’.
At Dastak, the private shelter which was started by lawyer sisters Hina Jilani and Asma Jahangir, there are no rules which restrict the women’s movements, although they are all urged to take care outside its walls.
The women share a room and a bed with their children. The shelter can accommodate 25 women and 45 children, but in the summer the house sometimes takes 70 women and their children. No-one is turned away. The violence increases in the summer. The heat intensifies the aggression.
Most of the women stay at Dastak for at least three months, during which time they receive an education which it is hoped will give them a job. But there are some women who have stayed for several years. One young girl who lives under a constant threat of death is driven to her work every day by Dastak staff, and picked up at the end of her working day.
You have to be very strong, and very rich, to be able to live alone when you are a woman in Pakistan.
This is one of the organisation’s main problems: what should they do with the women who have left their families?
“All women find it hard to get a job in Pakistan,” says Victoria Bajan, who is the manager of Dastak. “And it’s even harder if you are a single parent and uneducated. Even if a woman can get a job in a household somewhere, her employers often don’t want to take in the children. Sometimes women who have found a job move in with other women who have come from here, but that’s very unusual. You have to be very strong, and very rich, to be able to live alone when you are a woman in Pakistan.”
Most of the women have to go back to their family, or sometimes to the husband’s family where the abuse took place, or to their own parents.
“Around 70 per cent of the women who have been here go back to their family, most of them after mediation. The women leave here with a greater sense of self-worth and more knowledge of what the law says – that it is, in fact, possible to report abuse. From now on, she can threaten to go to the police. Despite everything, it is unusual for women to come back here, so we hope that means it works.”
Nasreen is 21 years old and speaks perfect English. Her dream was to become a doctor. Now she does not know what will happen to her. She has run away to save her life and does not believe she will ever be able to go back.
“My family is very wealthy, and have a lot of influence in our village, but I haven’t spent much time at home in the village because I’ve been to boarding school all my life.
Last time I went home for the school holidays my mother told me I’d be getting married – to my 15-year-old cousin who can’t even write his own name! I said no. I don’t want to get married, not to anyone, but if I do have to, I’d rather marry another young man, who has actually proposed to me. I don’t know him, but at least he’s had an education, and he’s 25.
My uncle was furious and called my father who lives in Europe. My father agreed with him. I had brought dishonor on the family. No girl in our family has ever got married against the wishes of the family. My uncle would be shamed in the village. I believe he’s right. It would be hard for him. And for me. Boys and girls in the village aren’t even allowed to talk to each other.
They’ve killed girls before, so I know they mean it.
My cousin came and warned me – “They’re going to kill you” – and I took the first bus out of the village. They’ve killed girls before, so I know they mean it.”
Sunila Amman has worked as a project co-ordinator at Dastak for five years. She loves her job.
“Every evening when I go home I feel I’ve done something which has had an impact on another person’s life.”
A psychologist comes to Dastak several evenings a week. She is loved, and her visits looked forward to, by all the women who– perhaps for the first time – can sit down and talk about their feelings.
Akhtar, LÄNK TILL ÖVERLEVARE AKHTAR with her black eye and her six children, is in no doubt. She will find a job so she can support her children. Maybe she will be able to live with her uncle, or with her married sister. She can’t manage alone. But she will manage somehow.