KARACHI: Frightened and penniless, Saira Jatoi knows nothing of marital bliss. Since eloping, she and her husband have camped out in a police station, terrified that their relatives outraged by their marriage will kill them.
“I’ve just sold out a gold ring, which was my last asset, and now we have nothing left for survival,” said 22-year-old Saira, in a dirty room of the police station where she lives with her husband, Ismail Soomro, and their eight-month-old baby.
The couple got married in Sukkur more than two years ago without the permission of their elders, provoking the wrath of the chieftains of 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 Soomro was hired to film the ceremony, Saira decided to defy her parents and marry the man she loved. And she did it at her free will.
Under death threats, the newlywed couple fled their town and took refuge at the police. In Sukkur, Jatoi elders convened a ‘Jirga’ (tribal court) – outlawed but prevalent in the feudal society of the conservative country – and ‘sentenced’ the couple to death in absentia through a decree that declared them ‘karo-kari’, the term used for those indulging in illicit relations.
In parts of Sindh, where little has changed for centuries despite the provincial capital, Karachi, having become a cosmopolitan city, tribes kill men and women they deem Â‘karo-kari’.
Police sought a protection order for Saira and Ismail, and were ordered to take them to Karachi for their safety.
For more than a year, they lived in a room in the south district police headquarters, a sprawling compound near the zoological gardens. They rarely go out, and Soomro does not work for fear of being killed.
“They are secure here, but this place is not fit for them because there is little privacy,Â” said one police officer at the station.
Statistics compiled by an NGO show that last year, 550 people fell victim to honour killings in Pakistan and more than half of them – 204 women and 96 men – were killed in Sindh alone.
In one case, tribesmen buried three teenaged girls alive to punish them for trying to choose their own husbands; and in another case, a young woman was mauled by a pack of dogs before she was shot by a tribal elder.
“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 Soomro sleep on a rundown wooden bed, on which 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 in which they keep their clothes.
The couple doesn’t have money. They frequently go hungry and struggle to find cash 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, old fan provides no relief.
“The food we are given once in a day is unhygienic and sub-standard and this has made me ill. How can we offer this to the baby?” asked Soomro.
Saira’s tribe is one of the many that dispense ‘justice’ through Jirgas.
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 during 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.