I wish to use my voice to make everyone equal before the law
Following a brutal attack in which she was stabbed 23 times, alumna and LLB graduate Khadija Siddiqui's long campaign for justice ended in a hard-won victory.
I have met many alumni in the last decade. Everyone has a story. Some have a definite plan: degree, job, family. Some have no idea. Some have overcome many barriers to achieve their degree, been the first in their family to get a degree, have changed their life with education.
I had heard about Khadija Siddiqi and “what happened”. I did not get a chance to meet her on her graduation day earlier this year in March – a day perhaps even she may have thought at some stage would not happen. So when I did eventually get to meet her, I tried to imagine what she would be like. Would she be a staunch, angry feminist, shy or just weary of meeting in general.
As I write this, almost a week after meeting her, I can still recall her smile and the joy that shone out through her eyes with wonderment as we toured Senate House. She gave me hope for all. She made me feel content and find joy as we took pictures and chatted. I felt lucky to have met her and for her to have shared her story with me. The world is truly a better place with her in it.
I’m guessing in the last few years you have been asked a lot about the incident in 2016 that almost took your life. Can you tell me about it?
It was a routine day, 3 May 2016, when I went through an unanticipated twist of fate, a life-threatening experience which opened my eyes to many bitter realities and showed me the power of our voice. I had gone to pick up my six-year-old sister, Sofia, from school. I let my little sister Sofia in the car first on our way home. As I was about to make my way in, a man wearing a helmet came running from behind, pushed me inside the car and started stabbing me, not once or twice – he stabbed me 23 times, uninterruptedly, with an unwavering force. When my little sister helplessly tried to intervene in an attempt to save me, she was stabbed too.
You can call it a twist of fate. Do you feel that over time you truly see it as that and have removed the pain and anger towards it?
It was indeed a twist of fate. I was busy preparing for my Tort law exam which was to take place on 6 May 2016. In my car I had my tort notes which were smeared in blood when I got attacked. Little did I know I’d be battling death the next moment and would be unable to appear for the four exams I had studied for the entire year.
Your case is still ongoing. Do you ever have days when you do not think about it?
My struggle for justice culminated in a three-year-long battle which finally ended on 23 May 2019 when the perpetrator was resentenced by the Supreme Court of Pakistan.
Who attacked you?
I was attacked by my ex-friend whom I stopped talking to after being continuously manipulated and blackmailed by him. His over-possessive and overpowering attitude had choked my sanity. People often raise questions, saying why did I even start talking to him if he was like that? So I say reply if we only knew what the future holds for us we would never make mistakes, our lives would be impeccable.
How did you cope with all that has happened and still manage to finish your degree?
In May 2016 I missed all my law exams, but that did not break my morale or my will to continue with the degree. I remember the tormenting days on the hospital bed when I couldn’t eat or speak but only perpetually moaned for painkillers. I was going through extreme mental and physical anguish and it felt as if life would never normalize. I was grateful that God gave me a second chance, a new life.
I began afresh, rose from the ashes and geared up to appear for the exams I had missed. It wasn’t easy to shift focus from the ongoing court proceedings to studying at the same time. The opponents would appear in court with dozens of lawyers who would intimidate us and pressurize us into an out of court settlement, and would blackmail my dad that if he didn’t surrender, his daughter’s (my) honour would be at stake.
There were many points when we considered giving up as the struggle seemed endless and without any outcome. People around us started telling me to concentrate on my education rather than fighting a legal battle, but somehow my inner voice told me to continue the fight. My parents’ support was integral through this trying time. Not only did they help me fight this case, but they also encouraged me to continue my studies and to move on with other aspects of my life.
You said social media gave you courage and motivation to keep fighting. How important was it to feel supported – not just by friends and family but your country?
It was only after a year of constant struggle that my voice got heard and the case began proceeding in the right direction. In May 2017, there was a massive social media uproar when people started talking about my case on various platforms. This was also the time when I had to sit the exams I had missed the previous year.
I remember juggling between Trust law and back-to-back TV interviews. More and more people joined my struggle and wanted to hear my story from me directly. I received massive support at a point when my hope in getting justice was hanging by a thread. This really strengthened my morale and hope, and it did not matter whether I would get justice or not, what really mattered was the collective voice of our society which steadily got so powerful that it all felt worth it. The best part was that all the young lawyers which came forward in my support were also University of London alumni.
You started your LLB in 2014 but said you felt that you had no clear path or motivation towards entering the profession. Has that changed now?
Absolutely. It has given me a direction to follow. My vision got clearer after this life-threatening incident. My sole aim is to give back to my people the voice they have lost or the voice that always goes unheard in the depths of misogyny.
What drew you to study with the University of London?
I was keen to receive the qualification in three years. It is an internationally recognised degree and can easily be done from your home country.
How did it feel when you walked across the stage to graduate?
That feeling cannot be described in words. Simply what once felt impossible after the attack had finally become a reality. That feeling of accomplishment renewed my zeal and zest to fight for the rights of the disadvantaged. I had simultaneously completed my degree while also fighting my case, both of which were demanding to say the least. This was so even when others around me were either telling me to choose between the two or bringing me down by saying that I could never win the case. I was proud of myself as I remained persistent in the pursuit of my dreams while also being undeterred in the fight of my life.
Women and education in Pakistan is something that is often up for discussion. Why do you think there is still so much controversy about educating women?
There is indeed still hesitation amongst certain strata of society when it comes to educating girls and women, which is a culmination of many factors such as poverty, misinterpretation of religion and stereotypical gender roles. However, a shift is slowly occurring in peoples’ mind set and while much more work still needs to be done, we should continue raising awareness through grassroots programmes to ensure that Pakistan one day reaches the milestone of 100% female literacy.
Coming from a culture where you often hear of “honour”-based violence, sexual violence and cultural stigma of reporting crimes, what would you like to see change legally and culturally in your lifetime?
When I was fighting my case, I was once called by a judge in his chambers and asked to show my wounds, and asked me to forgive my assailant as this was the trend in such kind of cases involving family honour. This shows how insensitive some judges are. There should be proper training and workshops in sensitive areas such as child abuse, domestic violence and family law. There should also be at least one female and one male in each case which involves such sensitive areas to ensure that all parties are given a fair chance to participate. There is currently no federal law which provides any assistance to victims of sexual crimes. At the very least, I would like the victim to be screened from the defendant when he/she is in court. Judges of lower courts must be sufficiently empowered to manage case hearings and not get overpowered by the tactics of the defence counsel.
Women in Pakistan are considered to be the custodian of the family’s honour. This perception has led to the character assassination of many women who even dare to stray from the typical societal definition of what a ‘good woman’ is. This thinking needs to change for our society to progress in the right direction and for women to come forward with their harrowing experiences of assault. The blatant double standards that exist in our society between the genders also need to be eliminated. For instance, in my own case the opponents tried to portray me as a girl of loose character for having taken pictures with my assailant, but no finger was raised about his character.
The stigma around divorced women also needs to end. We have countless women who stay in unhappy and abusive marriages just to protect their reputation and prevent being labelled as a bad omen. Divorced women are considered a contagious deadly disease in Pakistan, someone from whom ‘decent’ people should stay away.
Once you are called to the bar will you return to Pakistan?
Yes, that is the ultimate plan – to return and strive for a brighter future of my beloved Pakistan.
What are your ambitions for the future?
Before my attack, I was confused as to what path I would take after my law degree – but this changed. Going through my own three-year ordeal has given me a sense of direction. I now want to use my platform and voice to advocate for the voiceless – women, minorities, the poor and disabled – and to make the legal system more equitable for all.
Currently in Pakistan there is a dichotomy in the rule of law for the rich and poor. I wish to use my voice to make everyone equal before the law. Moreover, many criminal laws in Pakistan, such as rape legislation and the blasphemy law, are either outdated or draconian. I want to work to modernise and humanise these laws.