Tuesday 15 March 2022

Murdered women: Adiba Parveen, the quietest girl in the valley


“People in the village would say Adiba was an example for us,” Sajina says. “They would refer to her when they would scold us, reminding us, ‘She is so shareef, so quiet and polite, she does not gossip or waste her time with idle chatter.’” When her friends were old enough to whisper about boys, she found it amusing. “Why would you waste time on them?” she asked.

When friends and family members talk about Adiba, there is a common refrain: she was a good girl, a well-behaved, responsible, polite girl. But she loved to sing – even when she did not know the lyrics, even when she deliberately changed them to make people laugh – and the only times this good, well-behaved girl seemed to do exactly as she pleased was when she was singing.

“She had this habit of standing outside her house and singing very loudly,” recalls Sajina. She knew her neighbours laughed at her. Sometimes, Sajina would join in. The girls would stand outside and sing at each other, scrambling lyrics and singing through their giggles, their voices spilling over into their neighbours’ homes. “Tu hai pagal, tu hai joker (you’re crazy, you’re a joker),” Adiba would shout to Sajina, a lyric from one of her favourite songs, from the Bollywood film Raja Hindustani.

There was another game the girls loved to play. Like most of the homes here, they did not get running water, and every day women walked to the Shimshal river to fetch water. When it was time to head there, one of the girls would stand outside her home and whistle a tune. “That’s how we would summon each other,” Sajina says. The neighbours learned their code: the sweet, clear signal followed by the girls’ chattering voices as they traipsed off.

The river is a five- or six-minute walk from Sajina and Adiba’s homes.

“That’s where they found her on that day,” Sajina says.

They found her by the riverbank, her legs in the water. She would have been washed away were she not pressed against some stones. For a moment, Bakhti Baig believed his sister lay there sleeping.

A crowd quickly gathered and whispered amongst themselves. It was all too common, they knew, for young men and women in the region to commit suicide. While they had not dealt with this in Shimshal, it was so prevalent in Ghizer, Gojal, Chitral, Baltistan or Gilgit, that in 2017 a government committee had been formed to investigate. There were a range of contributing factors: unemployment, mental health issues, domestic abuse, despair at the lack of economic opportunities. The villagers knew that in most instances, families did not bother to report the deaths and quietly buried the victim.

It took the police a few hours to arrive from Hunza. Bakhti Baig was bewildered, unsure of what to do next. The police told him the body needed to be taken to Gulmit, three hours’ drive away. Someone would have to stay with the body overnight until samples for a post-mortem could be collected in the morning and sent to Lahore for processing. There are no facilities to conduct a post-mortem in Gilgit-Baltistan.

By the time the samples collected at Adiba’s post-mortem made their way to Lahore, they were entirely unusable. There was no conclusive report on the cause of her death.

“Adiba was not the kind of person who would kill herself,” Rahat explains. “We want the tasalee, the gratification, of knowing this for sure.” The brothers filed a First Information Report (FIR) with the police, accusing Adiba’s father-in-law Sameem Shah, mother-in-law, husband, brother-in-law Fahim and sister-in-law of killing her and attempting to dispose of her body in the river. The suspects were arrested, but by mid-June, all except Sameem and Fahim were set free. On August 9, they were also released on bail. The accused all denied responsibility for Adiba’s death.

Adiba’s family refused to stay quiet. “I received a message from one of her brothers asking me to write about the case,” says Noor Muhammed, founder and editor of Pamir Times, an online news service covering Gilgit-Baltistan. Muhammed’s wife, Amina Bibi, is one of the administrators on a strictly private Facebook group for women from the region. She decided to reach out to the members and they organised protests against the Shahs’ release.

In August, people gathered in Shimshal, Gulmit, Islamabad and Karachi to call out, “Justice for Adiba”. “When I saw the number of women at the protest in Gulmit – young and old, their children with them – I began to weep,” Amina says. “I have grown up seeing women with bruises, blackened eyes, making excuses for how they got the injuries, being told, ‘Bardasht karo’ (you must bear it). But that day, the women didn’t want to be silent any more.”

Noor Muhammed says he was “pleasantly surprised” by the protests and the determination of Adiba’s family to get her story out. “We are a tribal culture – we live in close-knit communities and when you take a stand against someone in your community, you risk being cast out,” he explains. “This generation is no longer taking the vow of silence our elders did for the sake of the family or tribe’s honour and respect.”

By the end of August, the Shahs’ bail was cancelled. The victory has come at a cost for Adiba’s family. “I have spent Rs500,000 so far on legal fees and the expense of travelling for every hearing,” says Bakhti Baig. “We sold whatever we could. I am so tired, I don’t know how to go on.”

They persist as it is the only way they can make amends to Adiba. “I wish I could tell her, ‘This will not happen to another of our girls’,” Rahat says. “We want this case to be a lesson for people in Shimshal.”

Mehrunissa’s children saw the protests for their aunt Adiba. They do not understand what happened to her, but in the days after, they played a new game: they would march through the house mimicking the calls they had heard, chanting, “Justice for Auntie Adiba!” The case did not receive much media coverage outside Gilgit-Baltistan. “But at the protests, even strangers had Adiba’s name on their lips,” says Mehrunissa. “If it weren’t for them, who would know about her? Adiba was an ordinary girl. She died. That’s it. Why would they care?” 


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