Pakistan: Life in a Karachi Shelter

Aisha Afzal moved to a women’s shelter in Karachi after her family threatened her life. Image by Hilke Schellmann. Pakistan, 2011.

“He said if he didn’t get me he will die,” Aisha Afzal explained as she sat on the floor in the women’s shelter in Karachi. She wore the traditional shalwar kameez and giggled nervously as she spoke.

“I said you don’t need to die. I also love you and can’t live without you,” she said in a mixture of Urdu and Punjabi, the main languages of Pakistan.

“I love him,” she added.

And that love led her to defy her family’s wishes and marry the man she loved. But in a place like Pakistan, such decisions come with a price.

We met Aisha for the first time last year at Panah shelter, one of the very few places where Pakistani women who have been shunned by society for dishonoring their families can live in safety.

The shelter is located in a middle class neighborhood in Karachi, a city of 15 million people. Outside of the large, neatly kept shelter complex are large black gates watched by armed security guards at all times.

The living conditions in the shelter are good—up to 45 women and their children have access to clean water (certainly not a given in Pakistan) and a bathroom. They have enough to eat and there is even a small garden with a few shady trees.

But at night, when the administrators of the shelter leave for the day, the main door is locked and reality sets in. No one can get in or out. The women are shut out from the outside world by two fortified gates and walls topped by barbed wire.

"We have all the security at the gate because we have to protect these women,” said Majida Razvi, the founder of the shelter. “We have some barriers so that people who come to the offices they are kept away from the women and there is no danger to them."

Razvi says about 60 percent of the women come to live at the shelter via a court order. That means that many women at Panah are not allowed to leave the premises unless the court grants them permission. This makes Razvi uncomfortable.

"We at Panah believe that shelters are a place where people come of their own free will and they go back of their own free will. But court cases have started coming and courts pass orders that the women should be here until the case is over. We are very reluctant, but we have to follow the court orders,” said Razvi, who served as the first female judge on Pakistan’s high court. Now retired, running the shelter takes up most of her time.

Even the women who are allowed to leave are often too scared to do so. Some of them are hiding in the shelter because they married against their family’s will and the family is threatening to kill them.

And that’s what Aisha’s family threatened to do to her. The couple married in 2009 and, according to Aisha, she and her husband were kidnapped later that year by her family. She said they were subsequently tortured, and Aisha showed us deep blue and black marks on her leg where hints of cigarette burns remain.

The couple managed to escape. Aisha took refuge at the shelter while her husband fought a legal battle against her family’s allegations that he had kidnapped her.

Aisha said she felt somewhat safe at the shelter, but feared for the safety of her husband, who stays with friends and changes houses every few days.

Sometimes her husband visited her, but she is afraid to leave the shelter.

"My brother and sister say they will kill me. If we find you we will kill you. So we are threatened," said Aisha.

But even the shelter can’t be a permanent home—women are only allowed to stay for three months. After that, they are forced to face their realities.

When Aisha's time at the shelter was up the couple fled to a different part of Pakistan where they hoped they could start over without being found.