Pakistan's highest court of law, the Supreme Court of Pakistan, ruled earlier this month that an adult Muslim female was entitled marry any man of her own free will without having to obtain the consent of her wali, or guardian. In its judgment, the court observed that a Muslim female, on reaching the age of 18 years, was not required to seek the permission of her guardian or father to enter into a valid contract of nikah, or marriage, and that an attestation by the couple was sufficient proof of marriage.
The verdict has overturned the ruling of a provincial court, in two separate decisions in 1997, confirming that marriage without the approval of a guardian was invalid.
Pakistan's human rights groups have welcomed the landmark decision, saying that it represented a major step in the advancement of women towards gaining their due rights in the country.
"The present ruling is of great significance in Pakistan's legal history. It will certainly have a positive impact, as the verdict would be exemplary for the cases filed on the same grounds, and the lower courts will have the binding [obligation] to follow the Supreme Court's judgment" Sadia Mumtaz, an advocate and programme coordinator at the Aurat Foundation, an NGO working for women's rights, told IRIN in the capital, Islamabad.
"Islam has already empowered women to exercise their free will while they are getting married. These are the tactics of our male-dominated society to suppress the women, either in the name of religion or the deep-rooted so-called traditions of society," Mumtaz added. "Marriage is a bilateral agreement and not a multilateral [one], [and one] for which the willingness of two individuals entering into that very contract is essential, while the approval of other members of the family is of secondary importance," she stressed
"The Supreme Court ruling is a good sign towards bringing positive changes in the status of women in Pakistan," Fariha Hameed, a working woman in her late twenties, said, noting that urban women belonging to educated families already enjoyed this freedom. "This is the problem of backward and more traditional areas of Pakistan, where the women enjoy nominal freedom, but the introduction of such supporting laws will hopefully bring change in the lives of those women also," she told IRIN.
However, observers noted that such a change in the law also demonstrated the need for a change in the Pakistani mind-set. "The relaxation in laws is certainly laudable and it will bring a healthy change in society, but [only] over time. There is nothing going to be changed overnight; it will take years to alter the thinking and approach," Mumtaz noted.
"Women's discrimination is widely prevalent in Pakistan's conservative society and it will take a long time to change that in rural and more traditional areas of the country," she added. "Gradually, as women's rights get more space in law, the society will also have to accept it."
Meanwhile, there has been progress. Last year, Za'faran Bibi, a pregnant young woman, was convicted of adultery after complaining of rape, and was sentenced to death by stoning by a district court in North West Frontier Province. However, in August 2002, the Federal Islamic Court acquitted her, ruling that pregnancy was no proof of adultery. The case paved the way to a new approach, and later the National Commission on the Status of Women formed a committee to review the relevant laws on the status and rights of women.