By: M Ilyas Khan
The family of a teenage female Pakistani cricketer who accused cricket board officials of sexual harassment last year has told how she took her own life.
Relatives say Haleema Rafiq, 17, drank acid soon after finding out that she had been summoned by a court in a defamation suit filed by one of the board officials.
Ms Rafiq was one of five female cricketers from Multan who said in a television show in June last year that the chairman of Multan Cricket Club (MCC), Maulvi Sultan Alam, and a team selector, Mohammad Javed, had demanded sexual favours in return for putting them on the regional teams or recommending them for the national team.
Both the officials, who appeared on the same show, denied the allegations and countered by accusing the women of indulging in immoral activities.
A Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) inquiry found there was no evidence to support the women’s claims.
She started to feel sick when we received a notice on Friday from Mr Alam’s lawyer, asking her to explain her position regarding her allegations”
Rashid Latif, Haleema Rafiq’s cousin and brother-in-law
It slapped fines and a nine-month ban on all five for breach of discipline and for bringing women’s cricket into disrepute.
However, given the seriousness of the charges and the storm they had kicked up in the media, the PCB also placed the MCC under observation for a year.
Attempts by the BBC to contact Mr Alam have been unsuccessful.
The ban on the women ended in April and all returned to the game, except Ms Rafiq.
“She did not look like someone who would have cricketing ambitions – she was more like a schoolgirl out to have fun,” says Mohammad Nadeem Qaisar, a Multan-based journalist who covers sports for Pakistan’s largest newspaper, Jang.
“Also, I think that even though she appeared on that TV show last year, she was unnerved by the events that followed. That’s probably why she chose to stay away from the PCB inquiry.”
Female cricketer Kiran Irshad bowling at the MCC
It is alleged that sexual harassment in women’s cricket is a major impediment in bringing the best players forward
Members of her family say that fear gripped her during the past few days of her life, especially when MCC chairman Mr Alam took out a 200m rupee ($2m; £1.2m) defamation suit against the five women and two officials of Express TV, which had aired the show.
“She started to feel sick when we received a notice on Friday from Mr Alam’s lawyer, asking her to explain her position regarding her allegations,” says Rashid Latif, Ms Rafiq’s cousin and brother-in-law.
The family consulted a lawyer who told her not to worry as such notices were just a matter of routine and could be taken care of.
“The very next day there was a court hearing in which the judge issued notices to all the respondents to appear in the court,” Mr Latif said.
“Haleema’s brother read the news in Sunday’s paper and told the family. That was the last straw.”
According to the family, around late afternoon on Sunday, Haleema went into the bathroom and drank a whole bottle of drain-cleaner.
They say they took her to Multan’s largest hospital twice that day. On the first occasion she was given a stomach wash and sent home, but her condition worsened. The family took her to hospital again but she died on the way.
However, the head of emergency services at Nishtar Hospital, Dr Pervez Haider, contradicted this view.
“She was brought in at 10pm on the night of 13 July, she was already dead. They probably took her to some other hospital the first time,” he said.
With Haleema’s death, women’s cricket in Multan is likely to suffer a major setback”
Mohammad Nadeem Qaisar, journalist
A police officer said the family had not reported Ms Rafiq’s death as a case of suicide. Mr Latif said they did not want to report the matter to the police because they did not want the legal complications, nor any post-mortem surgery.
Suicide is illegal in Pakistan.
“We were not informed of the incident, and no autopsy was performed,” police official Nadeem Mujtaba told the BBC.
“We don’t intend to proceed in the case for now, but are consulting our legal department for action if it becomes necessary.”
Rishad Mehmood, the sports editor of Pakistan’s largest English language newspaper, Dawn, says that in his view Ms Rafiq appears to have been caught in the “murky world” of women’s sports where claims of sexual harassment go hand in hand with fierce competition among players to land a place on a team.
“Getting selected on a team means a lucrative job in one of the sponsoring departments, occasional prizes and domestic as well as international travel,” he says.
“There have been a couple of incidents in the past when cricket officials, both men and women, have been suspended for alleged sexual misconduct, or players have used sexual favours to ensure they get a place on the team.”
The episode hurt women’s cricket in Multan, one of the sport’s more fertile catchment areas across Pakistan.
“Last autumn, the district board had to ignore its standards in order to recruit enough girls for the team because there were widespread misgivings,” said Mr Qaisar.
Over the next few months the board worked hard to restore its image and was able to recruit a decent team for the springtime inter-district senior girls’ competition.
“With Haleema’s death, women’s cricket in Multan is likely to suffer a major setback,” Mr Qaisar added.