Khadija Saddiqi is a soft-voiced, wispy woman. Her clothes and Muslim headscarf are rigorously modest. The only suggestion of her unusual boldness is the bodyguard who stands outside her home in Lahore.
The only evidence of why she might need a guard is the scar near Saddiqi’s wrist.
As Saddiqi picked up her 7-year-old sister from school last year, a man lunged at her with a knife, stabbing her in her throat, arms, breasts and back.
“I thought it was the end of my life,” says Saddiqi, 22. “I was full of blood.”
She knew her attacker well.
Shah Hussein was a classmate and friend in law school. They hung out at McDonald’s and took selfies.
After an argument, she cut off their friendship — and that’s when the menacing behavior began. He hacked into her social media and sent her messages saying he’d tell her father she was promiscuous.
Saddiqi is exceptional in Pakistan: She ultimately jailed her attacker. But that rare achievement underscores the challenges that Pakistani women face.
Even talking about “sexual harassment is still a taboo in Pakistan,” let alone fighting back, says Nighad Dad, director of the Digital Rights Foundation, which helps women who are threatened online. The attitude is “if something had happened to her, she should have just stayed quiet.”
Instead of burying the matter, Saddiqi’s parents paid for a lawyer and took the case to court. People in her extended family were shocked.
“Even if you get justice,” she recalls them saying, “what good have you achieved?”
Although Hussein’s identity wasn’t in doubt, getting the case to trial was. His father, Tanwir Hussein, is a powerful lawyer who formerly worked in the attorney general’s office. He made sure his son got out on bail, and the trial kept getting delayed.
This went on for a year.
“There were times that we would actually consider giving up,” she says. Then a friend put her in touch with Hassan Niazi, a young lawyer. He advised her to convince the public — and that the court would follow.
“Let me make the pictures of your bruises public,” Niazi recalls asking Saddiqi, referring to older images of her wounds, when they were still raw. “Let’s see how the public responds.”
“Obviously,” he smiles, “I did have a following on the social media and I did know the right people.”
One of his first tweets got nearly 2 million views, he says. Sadiqqi’s story went viral. Niazi created a WhatsApp group with journalists, updating them with Saddiqi’s attempts to get to trial.
The campaign took on momentum after Saddiqi discovered that she and her attacker would both be taking a law exam in the same university hall. Her friends started a petition. It reached a popular television anchor, Shahzaib Khanzada. He got angry in prime time: Why wasn’t Saddiqi able to get her case to trial?
Days later, the chief justice ordered the trial to begin — and finish promptly. Bodyguards were dispatched to her.
The ordeal continued, though. In court, her attacker’s lawyers called her “modern” — shorthand for promiscuous. Hussein’s lawyers printed out selfies of her with other men from Facebook and asked how many boyfriends she had. They asked if she was a virgin.
“It was like a nightmare,” she says. She was attacked physically, and now she felt her character was on trial. She refused to give up.
“I wasn’t the one who attacked him — he attacked me,” she says. If he wasn’t punished, “I am opening an avenue for further crimes for people who have power.”
On July 29, about six weeks after the trial began, her attacker was convicted of attempted murder and imprisoned for seven years.
Tanwir Hussein says his son is innocent, that the media coverage was skewed. “Journalists are ignorant,” he says. “They scribble down hearsay and skew justice.”
Feminists say the conviction wouldn’t have happened without the media attention. Although Pakistan has laws against assault, the conviction rate “is almost zero — I think it is less than one percent,” says Farzana Bari, the former director of Gender Studies at Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad.
Saddiqi’s case reflects how Pakistan is changing, says Bina Shah, a Pakistani writer and feminist.
“We’ve got a whole new generation of women who are willing to speak up and say I was sexually harassed,” she says. “Women are getting very tired of the silence surrounding the indignities and the violence that they have to suffer.”
Social media is playing a key role, Shah says, in “getting conversations out there in a way that was never happening before.”
But social media is also amplifying the backlash against women. Consider the case of Ayesha Gulalai, which occurred as Saddiqi’s attacker was sentenced.
Gulalai, a young parliamentarian, accused her party leader of sending her indecent text messages.
She asked for a parliamentary investigation but was hit by a backlash: On Twitter, a man threatened to shoot her. Another threatened to douse her with acid. She and her family fled their home.
Gulalai won’t show the text messages that she alleges her boss, Imran Khan, sent her in 2013. She ignored it for years because she wanted to focus on her political career but says she gave up hope. Khan had no comment.
Now, instead of a headscarf, Gulalai sometimes wears a turban. It’s typically worn by men in Pakistan. She says it makes her feel powerful.