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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

True Love Gives Way to Islamic Law

LAHORE, Pakistan -- Shamaila and Wamiq fell in love, and decided to wed despite her parents' objections. One hot day last May, she and her sweetheart signed the formal contract that is the centerpiece of the Muslim ritual of marriage.

It should have been the beginning of a happy union between the 19-year-old Lahore student of nursing and the accountant eight years her senior. But it wasn't.

In one of the handful of hotly disputed cases about a woman's right to wed the man of her choice that are roiling overwhelmingly Muslim Pakistan, Shamaila Munir's father has gone to court to insist that under Islamic custom his daughter, though legally an adult, must marry a man he approves.

And so far, the judges have agreed.

On Sept. 26, Wamiq Mumtaz, the unhappy bridegroom, was arrested and thrown into Lahore's squalid Central Jail for allegedly kidnapping Munir "for the purposes of sex."

His bride, five months pregnant, pale and suffering from low blood pressure, has fled to the safety of a women's shelter.

At a time that should be among the most joyous in her life, the young woman is consumed with fear that her parents will try to abduct her and abort her unborn child.

"Every time my parents come to see me, they tell me, 'See things our way or we'll not only have Wamiq kept in prison but beaten up,'" says the gentle, soft-voiced Munir. "According to the idea I have of Islam, I haven't done anything wrong at all."

For Pakistan's small but vocal and courageous band of women's rights activists, Munir's case and similar marriages now being disputed by the brides' parents are a benchmark issue that bares the generally second-class place of women in society, whatever the laws on the books say.

"If we are to go by the court's position, it would make women the slaves of men,'' said Shahtaj Qizilbush, one of the founders of the Lahore-based Women's Action Forum. "We women in Pakistan have come to feel that for every two steps forward we achieve, we are then forced to take two steps backward."

Pakistan has a female prime minister, a female ambassador to the United States, a woman in charge of state television and prominent women in numerous other fields. Yet the lot of most women here remains one of decided submission to parents or husbands.

The marriage cases have been seized upon by some Muslim mullahs in Punjab, Pakistan's most populous and politically important province, as a vehicle for pushing their vision of a genuinely Islamic society.

Under proper Muslim practice, they contend, a woman of any age may only marry with the consent of a "wali,'' or male guardian.

A woman's father, or even her brother, should decide the best match for her, even if she is a legal adult, fundamentalist clerics and their sympathizers contend.