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Pakistani couple married for love, hiding in fear of tribal justice

Frightened and penniless, Saira Jatoi knows nothing of marital bliss. Since eloping, she and her husband have camped out in a Pakistani police station, terrified that relatives will kill them.

world Updated: Jun 11, 2009 12:44 IST

Frightened and penniless, Saira Jatoi knows nothing of marital bliss. Since eloping, she and her husband have camped out in a Pakistani police station, terrified that relatives will kill them.

"I've just sold a gold ring, which was my last asset and now we have nothing left for a better life," said 22-year-old Saira, in the dirty cement room where she lives with her husband Ismail Soomro and their eight-month-old baby.

The couple married in Pakistan's southeastern city of Sukkur more than two years ago without the permission of their elders, provoking the wrath of chieftains in Saira's conservative Jatoi tribe.

Saira's parents wanted her to marry a wealthy but elderly man from their own tribe.
But after meeting Soomro at a wedding -- where she was a guest and he had been hired to make the video -- Saira defied her parents and married the man she loved.

Sensing danger, the newlyweds fled into the arms of the police. Jatoi elders convened a tribal court -- outlawed but prevalent in feudal and conservative rural Pakistan -- and sentenced the couple to death in absentia.

In parts of the southern province of Sindh, where little has changed for centuries despite how cosmopolitan the regional capital Karachi feels, tribes kill men and women they deem "karo-kari," or involved in illicit relations.

Police sought a protection order for Saira and Ismail, and were ordered to take them to Karachi, a teeming city of 14 million, for their safety.

For more than a year they have lived in a room at the city's southern district police headquarters, a sprawling compound near the zoological gardens.

They rarely go out and Soomro does not work as they live in fear that one day tribesmen will find, capture and kill them.

"They are secure here, but this place is not fit for them because there is little privacy," said one police officer at the station.

Statistics compiled by the Aurat Foundation, an independent women's rights group, show that last year there were 550 victims of honour killings across Pakistan. More than half those murders -- 204 women, 96 men -- were in Sindh.

In one case, tribesmen buried three teenage girls alive to punish them for trying to choose their own husbands; in another, a young woman was mauled by a pack of dogs before being shot by a tribal elder.

Human rights groups say Pakistani women suffer severe discrimination, domestic violence and "honour" killings, and are increasingly isolated by spreading Islamist fundamentalism.

A recent video showing a woman being held down and flogged in the northwest raised alarm about growing Taliban encroachment and underscored the extent of female misery and vulnerability in Pakistan.

"The reported cases present just a small number of actual incidents of violence against women, which are hardly ever reported outside the family," said Anis Haroon, director of the Aurat Foundation.

Saira and Ismail sleep on a rundown wooden bed, where Saira went into labour with her first child. The only time they left the compound was when Saira gave birth to Husnain in a nearby maternity clinic.

In the tiny room, they have strung up a cradle for the baby between their bed and the wall. The only other piece of furniture is a small box in the corner where they keep their clothes.

Money is non-existent. They frequently go hungry and struggle to find enough to buy food for the infant.

"We have no money left even to get cereal for Husnain," Saira said.

The child looks ill and suffers from a rash. The heat in the room is stifling and a small, ancient fan provides no relief.

"The food we are given once a day is unhygienic and sub-standard which has made me ill. How can we offer this to the baby?" Soomro said.

Saira's tribe is one of many that dispense justice through tribal courts called jirgas, which were banned in Sindh five years ago but endure nevertheless.

In dishonour cases, when a woman is marked as a kari, she can be killed by any member of the tribe with impunity.

In some cases, women and girls are used as currency to settle disputes.

"Despite a ban, 61 jirgas were held on women-related issues last year in which 38 women or girls were given as compensation to settle tribal conflicts or free-will marriage issues," said rights activist Lala Hasan. "This menace is on the rise and the government is doing little to curb it effectively," Hasan said.

Saira and Ismail have no means of supporting themselves in hiding and want now to find asylum oversees, believing their country is unable to protect them.

"Life is too difficult, but we want to live for our son," Saira said.

First Published: Jun 11, 2009 12:43 IST