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Can women marry for love? Pakistan court says maybe

March 10, 1997

LAHORE, Pakistan (AP) _ Saima Waheed, a conservative Muslim who has worn a veil outside the home since puberty, never thought she’d fall in love. She did though, and when she got married her parents took her to court.

On Monday, Pakistan’s High Court ruled that Waheed can stay with her husband. But the court made no solid ruling on whether women can marry for love, avoiding a decision on whether a woman can defy the strong Pakistani tradition of arranged marriage.

Waheed always assumed she would marry the man her parents chose for her, whether she loved him or not. That all changed when she was 20, and her parents hired an English-language teacher to tutor her younger brothers.

Waheed fell in love with Ershad Ahmed, and after a brief, secret courtship, he asked for her hand in marriage. Waheed’s father refused; he already had decided that she would marry her first cousin.

Last year, in a show of independence that is rare in Pakistan, Waheed defied her father’s wishes and married Ahmed.

Her parents were enraged. Her father, whose land holdings made him a relatively rich man, accused Ahmed of abducting his daughter, and Ahmed was thrown into jail for four months.

Waheed moved into a women’s shelter, where she has lived for a year.

Her parents went to court to try to have the marriage declared invalid. They argued that the tenets of Islam forbid ``love marriages″ and require a woman’s parents to consent before she can marry.

The case went to Pakistan’s High Court. Pakistan’s legal system, a mix of British common law and Islamic Shariat law, allows the high court to decide on some religious questions.

On Monday, the court handed down its decision: Waheed’s marriage is legal. But the judges disagreed over whether a woman can chose her own husband.

One of the three judges on the panel said the marriage should be annulled. Another said it was legal. The third came out somewhere in the middle, saying women normally need their parents’ permission to marry, but that Waheed’s parents gave their tacit consent by allowing Ahmed into their home.

``I feel as if I am reborn,″ Waheed said. ``This verdict proves that one can still get justice in Pakistan and that the rights granted to women in Islam and our constitution are genuine.″

Her lawyer was less enthusiastic. She said the ruling was ambiguous, and that she would appeal it to the Supreme Court if Waheed’s parents don’t do so themselves.

``Saima’s marriage is valid, but we just got through by the skin of our teeth,″ attorney Asma Jehangir said. ``The next time we may not.″

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