The women awaiting death

October 10, 2021

On the World Day Against the Death Penalty dedicated to women at the risk of being sentenced to death, a look at how gender and class prejudices impact women’s trial

Image courtesy: Istockphoto
Image courtesy: Istockphoto

Kanizan was 16 when she was arrested by the police on the suspicion of murdering her employer’s wife and children. The allegation that made rounds was that she had an illicit affair with her employer and that was motive enough. After decades of custodial torture and a wrongful conviction, Kanizan suffers from severe schizophrenia.

Kanizan Bibi has been Pakistan’s longest standing death row prisoner and was perhaps the only woman in the country close to being executed until her death sentence was stayed in 2000 by the President of Pakistan. To date, Kanizan awaits her fate at Central Jail in Lahore.

Rani Bibi was married off to a distant relative at the age of 13. Six months into their marriage, her husband was found murdered. The police arrested Rani Bibi and her entire family on the suspicion that she had killed her husband. What began as a mere suspicion left Rani Bibi in jail for over 19 years. While the rest of her kin were set free, she was forgotten about until the Lahore High Court acquitted her in 2019.

Arrests like Rani Bibi and Kanizan’s were made on the suspicion of ‘character’, ‘some illicit affair’ or some femme fatale narrative which is often the easiest guess for law enforcement agencies because of gender and class bias. Arrests are often made on the assumption that a ‘woman of that class’ must have committed ‘a crime that heinous’. This is a dramatised guess that just fits for the police because it is easy to pressure women belonging to lower income backgrounds by creating an imminent threat of violence if they don’t comply.

That threat of violence often poses a very real danger. In 2017, two sisters in a jail in Lahore were accused of murdering their employer. In reality, he had attempted to rape one of the sisters when they went to him for a job due to their ailing financial condition. The girls claimed that their statement was not heeded to and the police beat one of the sisters into confessing.

A 2018 report found that 33 of the Pakistani death row prisoners were women. Many await their appeals or decisions on mercy petitions as they continue to languish in prisons.

Often, these stereotypes stand right on the intersection of sex-based discrimination exacerbated by class and structural inequalities. A 2018 report by the Cornell Centre on Death Penalty worldwide found that most female inmates on death row belonged to lower income backgrounds. This meant that not only were they not able to pay for their legal representation, but often they were unable to communicate the simplest details to police officials or judges due to illiteracy. This level of discrimination leaves several mitigating factors, such as age and custodial torture, unconsidered during trials.

This week marks the 19th World Day Against the Death Penalty and is dedicated to the women at the risk of being sentenced to death. It is dedicated to women particularly because these prejudices significantly impact women’s trials and their access to justice and due process. This could not be truer for Pakistan; a country which will hold dear the death penalty but will refuse to reform the process leading up to it.

The country barely recognises that biases of law enforcement agencies coupled with an almost broken judicial system have significantly impacted women, especially those belonging to lower socio-economic backgrounds. A significantly burdened trial judiciary often ignores the loopholes in police investigations, the false assumptions, torture and the lack of evidence which form the basis of a trial. The outcome is a severe miscarriages of justice leading to dire financial, physical and emotional effects on female prisoners.

According to the Ministry of Human Rights’ 2020 Plight of Women in Pakistan’s Prisons Report, 1,121 (almost 1.5 percent) of Pakistan’s prison population is female. More than half of that number consists of under trial prisoners. A 2018 report found that 33 Pakistani death row prisoners were women. Many await their appeals or decisions on mercy petitions as they continue to languish in prisons. Many wait to hear from their loved ones who have abandon them and moved on with their lives. Most are hopeful things might turn around, but the anguish is clearly immense.

Even if no woman is hung till the death today, keeping them on death row is equally bad. Not knowing whether you will see another morning every waking day causes a form of psychological trauma that is impossible to recover from. Imagine living like this but never knowing how to stop it.

This World Day Against the Death Penalty is for women like Kanizan Bibi and Rani Bibi, languishing in prisons without adequate healthcare, facilities or emotional and financial support. It is for those women who never stood a chance against the biases that had them convicted.

The writer is a lawyer. She tweets at @noorejazch

The women awaiting death