Psychologist Naushaba Anjum asks Dua Zehra a question: “What law are you talking about? What rules do you know? Have you read law books at 16?”
Dua Zehra does not answer. She cannot answer. Because she is not part of this conversation that is taking place on Sidra Iqbal’s morning show, Aaj Pakistan, on Aaj News at 10am on Friday morning.
Dua Zehra has not been part of many conversations but she is the topic of discussion in almost every Pakistani home. She has, as many teenage girls before her, become the grist for our national outrage machine.
Her case is one we have heard before. Teenage girl runs away from home. Parents panic and go public, say she has been kidnapped. She resurfaces in some obscure part of Pakistan as a married woman. A court battle ensues to challenge her freewill marriage. A bone ossification test is commissioned to ascertain her age. For if she is underage, her marriage is illegal.
In Dua Zehra’s case, which played out exactly like this, a court declared Thursday that she could live with whoever she wanted to: her parents or new husband. The court declared that she was not kidnapped. The medical test said she was 17 years old.
These cases seem to hit a raw nerve with Pakistani society. The psychologist, lawyers and politicians on the show were deeply disappointed with the court verdict.
“Kidnapping can look like enticement and coercion as well as manipulation,” argued lawyer Jibran Nasir.
“I don’t think anyone has ever really taken the history of the case, but she met the boy on PUBG,” said Naushaba in disgust. “In your normal everyday life, do you let a 16-year-old decide their own fate? She was missing for so many days, do you think she had the capacity to make life decisions?”
The interpretation of her actions extended to speculation on her psychological state. “When you are detached from your family group, your mind can be hypnotised or it [the mind] can be traumatised,” said Naushaba. “You cannot make the decision to marry in such a state, even when parents separate the law requires the children to stay with a parent of their choosing till 18 years.”
Much of the debate has focused on underage marriage, which is illegal for anyone under 18 in Sindh but Punjab upholds 16 years. “I haven’t even gotten around to the marriage,” said PPP lawmaker Shehla Raza. “I challenged her age. She is not 17.” She questioned how the court could hand the teenager over to the police and approve sending her to Punjab.
Advocate Danish Soomro felt that the decision of courts in Sindh to settle underage kidnapping and marriage cases with medical tests was “a sad affair”.
“It is customary to send young girls for medical tests, despite compelling evidence,” he said. “According to her parent’s martial documents, the girl is probably just 14.”
Despite the medical tests, the court’s verdict and Dua Zehra’s own statements alleging that her father would beat her up and not send her to school, the trial is far from over. The medical test has already been challenged and the case will run its course till the next big thing comes along and we forget, depending on what side you are on, Dua Zehra’s audacity or ordeal.