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What a Trial in Pakistan Reveals About Women Who Choose Fundamentalist Islam

Uzma Qayyum’s controversial case set her against the men who would rescue her.

“I have settled the matters with my parents and intend to go with them. I [can] be sent with my father, Sheikh Abdul Qayyum, petitioner. I am making this statement with my free consent and will.” This statement was uttered by 26-year-old Uzma Qayyum to the judge in an Islamabad Sessions Court earlier this year. The court proceeding, whose end was marked by these words, had centered on the right of Uzma Qayyum to remain at Jamia Hafsa, a women’s religious seminary affiliated with Islamabad’s Red Mosque. In his petition before the Human Rights Cell of the Supreme Court, Sheikh Abdul Qayyum had alleged that his daughter had been “indoctrinated with extremist ideologies by Maulana Abdul Aziz and his wife Umme-Hassaan,” the leaders of the Red Mosque and Jamia Hafsa, who together command the support of thousands of students, male and female. The pair also have a history of standoffs with the Pakistani military, which conducted a bloody raid on their compound in 2007. A few months before the court announced its judgment in Uzma’s case, Jamia Hafsa had also declared its allegiance to the extremist Islamic State (ISIS).

Uzma Qayyum’s case reveals the heady mixture of empowerment, escape, and militant purpose offered to girls around the world by the all-female cadres of extremist groups. The ironies of the case are worth examining. On one side was Uzma Qayyum, an unmarried Muslim girl, and Jamia Hafsa, a militant religious seminary, together arguing for the right of young women to choose their occupation. On the other stood Uzma’s father and his young attorneys, arguing that, based on Pakistani law and precedent, a court must compel an unmarried woman to return to her father’s custody, since he is, under Islamic law, her legal guardian.

This story is based on my conversations with the attorneys, Muhammad Haider Imtiaz and Owais Awan, and Sheikh Abdul Qayyum.

The Red Mosque

In the final days of 2014, the murder of almost 150 schoolchildren in Peshawar sat heavily on a grieving Pakistan. On December 16, a Tuesday, seven gunmen cut through a wire fence that enclosed the grounds of the Army Public School and Degree College and began killing students and teachers. The siege of the school lasted for hours, and Pakistan, courtesy of its many 24-hour news channels, watched in horror as events unfolded live. In the days that followed, the small coffins of schoolchildren would be an admonition against apathy, and an accusation against ordinary Pakistanis who had looked away for far too long, allowing their children to become the targets of terrorists. Within hours, the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan took credit for the attack, while the rest of the country, its politicians and public figures, issued condemnations.

One cleric, however, refused to join that chorus: Maulana Abdul Aziz, the leader of the Red Mosque, which was established in Islamabad in 1965 and has a fraught history. Founded by Qari Abdullah, Maulana Abdul Aziz’s father, the mosque was a transit point for foreign jihadists on their way to Afghanistan in the 1980s. In 1998, Qari Abdullah was assassinated just after he’d established Jamia Hafsa, with separate facilities for boys and girls. The mosque is a kilometer from the headquarters of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency and the diplomatic enclave. In the summer of 2007, it became the site of a military operation, after the maulana’s followers barricaded themselves inside and refused to let state authorities in. That standoff, and the ensuing massacre led by the Pakistani military, called Operation Silence, contributed to the fall of Gen. Pervez Musharraf’s administration. At least 58 people died, both soldiers and madrassa students, and Maulana Abdul Aziz became a household name.

Interviewed on television last year, hours after the attack in Peshawar, Aziz refused to condemn the massacre. Smug and belligerent, he insisted that both the military and the militants had to be condemned; the carnage at the school was the fault of both. State action – in this case, the Pakistani military’s ongoing Zarb-e-Azb operation to root out militants in the country’s northwest – had provoked the attack, he said. Aziz’s refusal to shed a tear for the dead schoolchildren struck many Pakistanis as brazen and cruel.

Muhammad Haider Imtiaz was one such angry witness to the carnage and then to the maulana’s statement, which quickly made the headlines on every Pakistani TV talk show. A young lawyer who had just begun his own practice, Imtiaz had recently filed a petition in the Human Rights Cell of the Supreme Court of Pakistan, urging the court to take action on the lack of investigation into the 2013 murder of Parveen Rehman. Rehman, a renowned community activist in a Karachi slum where land-grabbers and extremists vied for control, had been gunned down in Karachi. No one had been brought to justice, and Imtiaz was involved in changing that. In a country where few have faith in the law or justice, Imtiaz was one of the believers. A few days later, he attended a protest organized outside the Red Mosque to mourn the schoolchildren and call attention to the callousness of the maulana. It was high time that peaceful Pakistanis, men like himself who favored the rule of law, raised their voices above the cacophony of hate-filled extremism that rang out from the loudspeakers of hard-liner mosques. Imtiaz had always loved his country; now it was time to defend its freedoms.

The way Imtiaz tells it, there were many speakers at the protest, most of them people who worked with the NGOs and human-rights organizations, all frustrated by what they saw as government inaction against the extremists, Aziz among them. One of the people who spoke that day was Sheikh Abdul Qayyum, a short, bearded man dressed in a plain shalwar kameez. To the small crowd of activists gathered outside the Red Mosque, he told his story. His daughter Uzma had for several years been a student at the Jamia Binaat-e-Ayesha madrassa in Rawalpindi. Before she started there, Uzma had told her family that she wanted to learn more about her faith, instead of simply spending all her time at home waiting for marriage.

Theirs was a middle-class neighborhood in Rawalpindi, the twin city of Islamabad, which is not far from the Pakistani capital. As a simple man with few means, Sheikh Abdul led a pious life and had not hesitated when Uzma asked his permission to become a student at the madrassa in 2010. Two of his sons were Hafiz al Quran – that is, they had memorized the entirety of the holy Koran – and now his daughter would also have a religious education. But he was totally unprepared when, after several years of studying there, Uzma failed to return home one evening. He contacted some of her friends and was told that she had been seen leaving the madrassa earlier that day with Umme-Hassaan, the principal of Jamia Hafsa. With Uzma’s family frantically awaiting news, the phone finally rang late that evening; it was Umme-Hassaan herself. “Your daughter is with me in Jamia Hafsa,” she told Sheikh Abdul. “She has come of her own will, and you do not need to worry about her.”

This had happened on the evening of June 16, 2014, and since then, Sheikh Abdul declared tearfully to the crowd outside the Red Mosque, he had never once been able to speak to his daughter alone. There had been meetings, but all of them on the premises of Jamia Hafsa, and all of them in the presence of women whose faces were entirely covered. The identities of these women – save for Umme-Hassaan, who always proclaimed herself – were unknown to him. Uzma had refused to come home, at one point sobbing that when she left home, she carefully laid out her burial shroud on her bed. This meant that she was now dead to them.

Sheikh Abdul and his family believed that Uzma had been brainwashed, indoctrinated into Jamia Hafsa’s militant ideology and forced to leave her home. In the months since she’d disappeared, he had pleaded with Abdul Aziz and Umme-Hassaan, but they would not give her up. He had written letters to religious clerics, to the president of Pakistan, the prime minister, the interior minister, to every important official he could think of; he had waited in their reception rooms, stood in their queues, beseeched lesser officials for an audience, for any assistance at all in recovering his daughter, who was imprisoned inside Jamia Hafsa, he said. But nothing had come of it. That Friday, at the protest outside the Red Mosque, he begged the NGO workers and human-rights activists gathered there for help.

That’s how Muhammad Haider Imtiaz got drawn into the case – at a protest denouncing terrorism, listening to a man who said that his daughter had been brainwashed by the militants inside Jamia Hafsa. No longer satisfied with preying on Pakistan’s young men, Imtiaz thought, these extremists were now targeting young women.

A few days after the protest, Imtiaz and Owais Awan, another young lawyer enlisted to help, met with Sheikh Abdul, who showed them the letters he had written to various officials; gave them a detailed accounting of the handful of meetings he’d been permitted to have with his daughter; and even showed them photographs of his son and nephew after they had been beaten up by armed guards at the Red Mosque. At the end of the meeting, Imtiaz and Awan agreed to file a petition on behalf of Sheikh Abdul with the Human Rights Cell of the Supreme Court of Pakistan. Both lawyers were optimistic.

The Supreme Court of Pakistan rewarded their efforts by remanding the case to the Islamabad Sessions Court, with specific instructions that the court “entertain [it] as a Petition of Habeas Corpus.” The order was a victory for the lawyers, since it ensured that the case wouldn’t disappear amid Pakistan’s huge judicial backlog. On January 14, 2015, Sheikh Abdul and his lawyers appeared before Nazir Ahmad Gajana, a judge in the sessions court. At the end of a short hearing, Gajana ordered the station-house officer of the Aabpara Police Station (under whose jurisdiction Jamia Hafsa fell) to produce Uzma the next day.

Uzma’s Story

When Uzma Qayyum appeared in court on January 15, it was the first time that she had been seen publicly outside the premises of Jamia Hafsa since June 2014. She was in the company of Umme-Hassaan and two other women, all of them in black and in full-face veils, representing their belief that no unrelated male should be permitted to see a Muslim woman’s face. Owais, Haider’s assistant counsel, noted that Umme-Hassaan wore neon-pink socks. The respondents from the Red Mosque insisted that Uzma had not been kept against her will. Before proceedings ended that first day, the judge ordered everyone except Uzma Qayyum to leave the courtroom so that he could have an ex parte conversation with her. No official records exist of that meeting.

Subsequent hearings and proceedings did reveal new facts and new truths. From statements made by Uzma, Imtiaz learned that Sheikh Abdul had arranged her marriage to a cousin, and that Uzma had not been in favor of the match. Time and again before the court, Uzma insisted that she hadn’t been kept at Jamia Hafsa against her will, that there was no coercion – only devotion to a life of faith. Her arguments were repeated by Umme-Hassaan, who told the court that she taught all the girls in her seminary “to defend themselves and to be strong against the bullying of a corrupt state.” She accepted all sorts of girls, she said, and kept them safely under the umbrella of the faith to which she and they were committed. Uzma was free to stay and free to leave. After learning more about Islam at the madrassa, Uzma had decided to run away to Jamia Hafsa because “she did not have a correct Sharia environment at home, and her family members wanted her to enter into a nikah [marriage] against her will.”

As the case progressed, both Haider and Owais were beginning to have some doubts. They had taken the case pro bono because they believed they were rescuing a young girl from the grasp of a militant seminary. Now that they could listen to the actual Uzma, whom they described as assertive and determined and completely unafraid to make her point, they were beginning to have their doubts. The law was on their side. Imtiaz’s argument was built on cases in the Supreme Court of Pakistan, stretching as far back as 1972, affirming the rights of fathers over their daughters. In Zafar Iqbal v. Malik Godha (1996), the court had written that it “could not ignore the social values, traditions, Pakistani culture and code of morality,” and that “arranged marriages are seen with respect in the society and the marriages contracted as a result of love bring hatred and shame to the parents.” If a father didn’t consent to the marriage, the court could reject its legitimacy altogether.

Even so, Uzma insisted that she was not being kept at Jamia Hafsa against her will, and at one point she even interrupted the proceedings to assert that she was not the gullible girl depicted by Haider in his arguments. (“You are presenting an incorrect version of my situation,” Imtiaz recalls her interjecting as he made his argument before the judge.) She knew full well the decision she had made, Uzma argued, and her desire to remain at Jamia Hafsa was a rational and considered one, not the consequence of any brainwashing.

The law did not support her. As Imtiaz argued, in case after case Pakistani courts had ruled that the proper place for an unmarried woman was in her father’s home. It didn’t matter that she had run off to a religious seminary, not the home of a lover. The judge tried to explain this to Uzma; he did not want to be seen as “forcing” her to return. To facilitate a more collaborative solution, he ordered Uzma to move out of Jamia Hafsa to a “neutral” location, a government-run shelter for women (the first of two she would live in temporarily). Her parents and their lawyers – and perhaps also the judge – hoped that this change of location would lessen the ideological hold under which they believed Uzma to be suffering. It may also have signaled to Umme-Hassaan that Jamia Hafsa was not likely to win this battle for choice.

The Final Order

The period during which uzma was ordered to move out of Jamia Hafsa and into interim locations also provided some time for Imtiaz and Awan to mull things over. The last thing they’d expected to be arguing was that a 26-year-old woman did not have the right to decide, without her father’s permission, where she would live. Yet this is where they had ended up. “I felt that I could not trust any side in this,” Imtiaz recalled. “Who is telling the truth, and could there be a real possibility that she was coerced?… There are many ways of coercion, sanction, or incentive to maintain the honor of Jamia Hafsa,” he added. Based on his doubts, Imtiaz insisted that Uzma be permitted to speak to her parents, without the presence of anyone from Jamia Hafsa. However, during this conversation, Uzma still refused to return, insisting that she had left home of her own accord. Feeling conflicted, Imtiaz and Awan realized that she needed to be provided with a different neutral place so that she could decide what to do. Thus, before the final hearing, Uzma was moved to the Shaheed Benazir Bhutto Shelter and Home.

On February 9, 2015, Judge Gajana ordered Uzma Qayyum to return to her father’s house. Umme-Hassaan had stated at the earlier hearing that she didn’t have any objection to Uzma doing so of her own free will. A document titled “Undertaking” was attached to the judge’s order. Its stipulations, signed by both Sheikh Abdul and Uzma, included this promise by her father: “Any decision with respect to the marriage of my daughter Mst. Uzma Qayyum will be taken in line with her wishes and consent.”

For her part, Uzma asked that she be granted permission to visit Jamia Hafsa whenever she wished. Sheikh Abdul had agreed to this – but only with the added stipulation that a family member would accompany her. Uzma’s requests to be permitted to pursue “higher education” and teach in “educational institutions” were also included. In conversations after entering the agreement, Uzma told Owais Awan that, ideally, instead of returning home, she would have preferred to continue her education at the International Islamic University in Islamabad and live at the women’s hostel there.

Two months after the decision, Sheikh Abdul said that Uzma had left Rawalpindi with her mother, owing to the death of her maternal grandmother, to whom she was quite close. The maternal grandmother’s village is in a remote portion of Pakistan-controlled Kashmir. At this point in time, then, there seem to be no plans for Uzma either to continue her education or to marry the man her father had chosen for her. In interviews, Sheikh Abdul has also said that he and his wife are still wary of Uzma’s involvement with Jamia Hafsa, and that it’s going to take time to reconstruct their relationship with their daughter. Since Uzma herself can no longer be contacted, it is unclear whether her exile to her maternal grandmother’s village – a place far from the seminary – is her choice or simply a circumstance imposed on her. I’ve tried repeatedly to call the number Sheikh Abdul gave me (after much cajoling). There was no phone service in the remote village in Azad Kashmir, where they were, he had insisted earlier. I tried anyway; each time, the phone rang and rang, but there was no answer. Uzma Qayyum seemed lost, gone forever into another impenetrable realm of family and seclusion.

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