ISLAMABAD -- A once-veiled woman from an orthodox Muslim family is challenging Pakinstan's traditional social system: she married the man she loves rather than the man her father chose for her. Saima Waheed has taken the landmark case to the nation's second highest court, where a ruling is expected later this month. The Lahore High Court's judgment will affect the lives of thousands of educated women in Pakistan. 'Pakistani family laws allow a woman to marry the man of her choice, ' said Rukhsana Aslam, a member of the Women Action Forum, a group campaigning for women's rights in Pakistan. 'We had to struggle hard to get this right and we are not about to give it up for anyone.' But orthodox Muslim men, including Saima's father, Abdul Waheed Ropri, insist that Islam, the dominant religion in Pakistan, does not recognize marriage unless it is approved by the parents. Saima met her husband, ArshadAhmad, in 1993 when he came to her home in the central Pakistani city of Lahore to teach her younger brother and sister. They fell in love and on Feb. 26 she secretly married him. Saima continued living with her parents and kept the marriage a secret. But on March 9, when Saima's father tried to force her to marry another man, she had to disclose her secret, immediately earning the wrath of her family. The family locked her in a room for more than a month, 'often forcing me to starve' while 'my relatives used to beat me up,' she told the Lahore High Court.
Her attorney, Asma Jehangir, said, 'Thousands of women are forced to marry against their will every year. What makes (this case) different is Saima's refusal to accept her fate and her determination to fight it out.' Saima's father, determined to make Saima marry the man of his choice, approached her husband and obtained a divorce. 'He threatened to kidnap my sisters,' Ahmad said. Ropri showed Ahmad's divorce certificate to Saima and got a similar declaration from her saying she no longer was Ahmad's wife. But on April 9, Saima fled. Saima recounted for the court her tale of being forced from her husband and tortured by her family. She said she still loved Ahmad and the two want to live together. She also told the court that the divorce decree is invalid because she was forced by her father to sign it. Ahmad made a similar claim, saying that Ropri had forced him to sign the divorce certificate and he still considered himself Saima's husband. Ropri argued to the court that, 'Islam does not allow a woman to marry without her father's consent and if she does, the marriage should be considered null and void.' Until Ropri's testimony, the case was an ordinary lawsuit. But his claim to Islamic law soon drew the attention of the country's key orthodox scholars and leading women's activists. 'We support the father because we fear that a judgment in the girl's favor in such a publicized case would encourage other girls to desert their parents and elope with their lovers,' said one of Ropri's many supporters who come to the court for each hearing. Human rights and women's activists were alarmed. 'We could not remain indifferent any more. A decision disallowing love marriages would be a big blow to the Pakistani women and a victory for the orthodox mullahs,' said Shahnaz Khan, a women activist who traveled 170 miles (275 km) to Lahore from Islamabad to express her support for Saima. 'Saima wore a veil when she was living with her parents and now she wears jeans,' Ropri's lawyer told the court. 'While the daughter has rights in Islam, it is the father's obligation to restrain his wayward children,' he said. Ropri argued that Saima's wedding was 'too secret to be called a marriage. Islam does not recognize such marriages.' But Nasim Hassan Shah, one of the country's most prominent jurists and the former chief justice, countered, 'Islam allows a woman to marry the man of her choice and also to divorce him if she wants.' The case is being closely watched as an example of the growing number of conflicts between traditional thought in Islamic Pakistan and the increased awareness of Western-style freedoms and rights, especially among the educated elite. The fact that a woman, Benazir Bhutto, has twice been elected prime minister of Pakistan, does not mean women have achieved equality under the law, adding to the significance of the case. 'No matter how the case is decided, it will have far-reaching implications for women,' Jehangir said.