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Legal Aid Society and Sharmeen Obaid-Choy documentary film series stills

Advocates’ Corner Series: Stories of Pakistani Women’s Fight for Right to Property Narrated in 3 Documentary Films

Mujhey sab kehtay hain ab chordo kuch bhee nai hoga magar mein tou yeh soch rahi hoon k jabtak mein marti nai hoon mein nai choron gi.

“All of them tell me to stop fighting and leave all of this now. They are sure that nothing will come of it. But I am determined, and I think that I will not stop fighting unless I die.”

 – Tahira Sultana has been fighting for her share in her late husband’s property for 57 years.

Women in Pakistan form a unique relationship with property. The public-private sphere divide in Pakistan has meant that women have been confined to the private sphere, cutting them off from knowledge about all things outside the home. Therefore, property ownership has historically been a black hole for women. Patriarchal anxieties about a woman’s financial independence that is possible through property ownership further solidify these conservative notions of women’s property ownership. Interestingly, at the same time, inherited or marital property is also one of the few routes to financial independence for women in Pakistan. Currently, only 3% of women in Pakistan have inherited land, despite women’s rights to inheritance defined and codified in both the law of Pakistan and the Shariah. 

Legal Aid Society (LAS) is working towards increased access, acquisition, and protection of women’s property. LAS approaches issues of access to justice in 3 ways – know the law, use the law and shape the law. While LAS’ work on women’s property includes providing legal aid and increasing legal literacy, it also pushes for policy reform. 

‘Insaaf ki Talash’ (def: seeking justice) is a 5-part documentary film series that showcases the journeys of women as they meander through the legal system in Pakistan to acquire their inherited land. Developed in collaboration with the internationally acclaimed journalist and award-winning filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy and the National Commission for Human Rights, each of the films highlights different facets of the struggle. Featuring a woman from each of Pakistan’s four provinces, it zooms into their lived experiences and highlights critical institutional, legal, and cultural roadblocks that deter women’s rights to inheritance.

Though these stories cut through different geographies, the fundamental issues remain the same – a legal landscape that is ridden with corruption and fails to ensure implementation of court orders, overburdened courts that take years to decide cases and inherited land that is closely intertwined with family, an institution which culturally thrives on a woman’s ability to sacrifice – and the impact of all of this combined limiting pathways to justice for women. Indeed, in Pakistan, legal legitimacy alone cannot protect and ensure a woman’s right to her inherited property. 

🎥 The Story of Huma – Peshawar, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa

Peshawar is the capital city of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa near the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, with the largest Pashtun majority in the country.

This film features Huma, a young educated woman fighting for her right in her late husband’s inheritance. Huma’s struggle extends from her battle with her property claim to her struggle to rebuild her life as a widow. Those around her expect her to offer a financial sacrifice to her late husband’s family along with herself in marriage to save the family estate. Her refusal to do so leads to coercion, social boycott, and violence, along with filing a case for her unregistered land. 

Through Huma’s story, we see how a widowed woman is stripped off her financial rights as soon as her husband dies, not allowing any space for her to grieve or heal. Often, a woman’s vulnerability is cashed in by her in-laws – by forcing her to relinquish her share of inheritance or secretly dispossess her from her moveable property. 

🎥 The Story of Tahira Sultana – Lahore, Punjab

Lahore is the capital city of Punjab located in the east of Pakistan with the highest population density in the country. Tahira’s case sheds light on the issue of implementation of court orders for women. With limited access to knowledge and socio-economic capital that governs the institutions of Pakistan, women often find themselves severely disadvantaged. 

Tahira’s fight for her property stretches beyond 57 years. Widowed in 1964, filed a few years later and having Supreme Court orders in her favour since 2003 she is still dispossessed.

This film forces us to look beyond courts and judgements as real-time solutions for women and tells us to confront the failure of state institutions and its implications. 

🎥The Story of Dr. Shafia – Quetta, Balochistan

Quetta is the capital of Balochistan with a prominent tribal and Jirga culture. The Jirga system is a “meeting of a group of tribal men that has the authority to settle a dispute in a way acceptable to both sides.” The geographical expanse of the province combined with women’s decreased mobility poses many issues of disconnect with their rightful property. This is worsened by the conservative culture where women are excluded from public affairs, resulting in an information deficit of the details of inherited land. 

Dr. Shafia has fought for her inheritance as a single woman for over 33 years. Her marital status in a conservative tribal setting has distinguishably weakened her position. This film pushes us to see the violence involved in property cases along with the logistical difficulty that comes from fighting for land situated at a large distance.

Call to Action

It would not be an overstatement to say that economic fetters have bound women in a cycle of abuse.

Despite the right of inheritance enshrined in Islam and the law, it is often taken through force or emotional blackmailing. Given the patriarchal culture of Pakistan and its rank of 167 out of 170 countries on the Women Peace and Security Index, property ownership offers decision-making power – a possibility of escaping from abuse. 

These films highlight the different layers of issues in women’s access to justice concerning property in Pakistan. Not only are they a commentary on how inaccessible the legal system is, but they also unveil issues of women’s mobility, lack of knowledge of their finances, familial exploitation, and gender-based violence. Property in Pakistan has too long been only considered relevant to men. It must now be reimagined by arming women with knowledge to fight for their property rights and an equal place in family estate. This vicious cycle can only be brought to an end through inclusive socio-economic frameworks that guarantee women’s access to property.

Javeria Kamran is a gender rights activist and an accredited mediator with extensive experience in field research and community engagement on socio-legal gender-based issues in Pakistan. Her work on women’s property rights leverages the intersection of education and technology to increase legal literacy. She is also involved in advocacy for marital property law reform. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Anthropology and Sociology from the Lahore University of Management Sciences.

Legal Aid Society is a not-for-profit, non-governmental organization with the primary objective of serving marginalized and underprivileged communities to reduce challenges in accessing justice. Over the last nine years, LAS has spread its operations to 13 judicial districts in Sindh, Gilgit Baltistan, and Islamabad Capital Territory (ICT). In the short span since its inception, it has gained recognition regionally and internationally as one of the key organizations working in the domains of law, justice, and development.