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Why Haleema Rafique’s death should matter, and why it won’t

By: Amber Rahim Shamsi

Last Sunday night, according to her family, Haleema Rafique went into the bathroom, drank the handiest poison she could find — toilet cleaner — determined to end her life.

“She was fasting,” her brother-in-law Rashid Latif told me over the phone from Multan, as if he couldn’t understand why someone would ingest acid when they weren’t eating or drinking. I could hear birds chirping in the background and the exhaustion in his voice.

Media reports are calling her death controversial; her family says it is suicide.

Teenage cricketer Halima Rafique dies under mysterious circumstances

But Haleema’s family has had enough of the media. They kept persistent cameramen and hungry reporters as far from the burial rites as possible and they did not report her death as a suicide to the police when they should’ve.

They have reason to be wary. Last year in July, Haleema along with three other girls from the Multan Cricket Club (MCC) appeared on a TV talk show and made allegations of sexual harassment against the chairman of the club Maulvi Alam, a former judge. If you watch the show, Haleema is the quiet, subdued one sitting in the corner while the others — the accusers, the accused, and the counter-accused — slug it out amongst themselves.

Hina Ghafoor is one of the girls who appeared with Haleema on the show. She describes Haleema as a simple girl whose family subsequently did not support her during the distressful year following the broadcast. “Like the rest of us, Haleema had been receiving threatening phone calls to drop the allegations,” she claims. “I last spoke to her a month ago and she was very disturbed by the affair.”

The Pakistan Cricket Board constituted an inquiry committee after the show, but couldn’t find enough evidence to support the accusations. Haleema and another girl refrained from making a statement to the committee. But all four women were banned from playing cricket for six months. While the women’s cricket team manager Ayesha Ashar maintains that the case was dealt with and over, Hina says the findings were incomplete.

On the other hand, Haleema’s brother-in-law says she didn’t know she was to appear on television to support the claims the other girls were making.

“She took her kit with her and thought she would be playing in Bahawalpur,” he says. “Instead they took her to the studio in Lahore. She never talked about the harassment with us, her family.”

Haleema was just 17. She had done her matriculation but spent a year at home, taking up praying five times a day and helping out her widowed mother. She hadn’t even applied to a college yet.

I asked her brother-in-law what occupied Haleema in the last year of her life.

“She just wanted to play cricket,” Rashid replied. “She was a fantastic all-rounder and I used to play with her too. She even played with the children of the family. She followed cricket passionately and knew every statistic.”

As a career in cricket appeared to pass her by, the final straw, says Rashid, was the Friday before she committed suicide. It was the day she received the summons to appear in a defamation suit of 20 million rupees filed by the MCC chairman Maulvi Alam against the TV channel that broadcast the show, and the women who had made the allegations.

“She was so young,” he says. “It rattled her. And when news of the summons was published in newspapers that Sunday…she just went quiet after that.”

It is clear that Haleema — a fragile teenager from a lower middle-class family — did not have the support system to cope with the pressures that come with the ill-wind of media exposure. But the rest of the details of what happened are murky, depending on the agenda of who one speaks to. Hina stands by the allegations, Rashid denies them, and a local journalist I spoke with them believes them to be true. None of the stories quite align yet.

Was this young girl dragged into some kind of mud-slinging row? She was underage. Did she ask her family before appearing on the show? Were they consulted by the producers or her fellow cricketers? Was the procedure laid down by the sexual harassment law properly followed by the inquiry committee? Was she pressured by her family to withdraw? Did the media with its love of sex scandals demonstrate due care to protect her? Who or what entity is to blame for the accretion of lapses that led a young girl to end her life? Haleema can no longer tell her side of the story. I suspect she didn’t want to once she discovered that cricket is not just a game.

The writer works for the BBC World Service.