Don’t be so quick to condemn Aasia Bibi for poisoning her husband’s family

Consider the circumstances of forced marriage in Pakistan before passing judgment

20-year-old Aasia Bibi of Pakistan was forced into an arranged marriage with Amjad Akram by her parents in early September. To get out of it, her boyfriend gave her some poison, which she put in Akram’s milk to kill him. Her plan went awry when Akram’s mother used the glass of poisoned milk in a batch of lassi (a common yogurt-based South Asian drink) after he failed to drink it.

As of November 2, 17 members of his family had died of the poison, and 10 remained hospitalized. Bibi initially made denials, but later admitted to having intended to kill her husband, though she regretted having caught his family in the situation. She defended her actions by explaining that she has the right to resist forced marriage, and that she had, as reported by the Associated Press, “warned her parents that she was capable of going to any length to get out of the marriage.

It’s easy to condemn the woman for wanting to kill her husband, and for accidentally poisoning his entire family. But one has to consider the circumstances that led her to take such measures.

Many who have commented on the story have wondered why Bibi did not simply escape her situation, rather that attempt poison. For instance, one user who commented on the Washington Post article on the matter suggested that Bibi should have simply “walk[ed] away” from the marriage, and speculated that the poisoning was “a convenient way to keep both her lover and family status” rather than legitimate self-defence. They also opined that she was in no way “imprisoned or otherwise restrained.”

But as Human Rights Watch’s World Report 2017 outlines, forced marriage and child marriage in countries like Pakistan are not such simple matters. “Violence against women and girls . . . [remains] routine,” they noted, and roughly 1,000 ‘honour killings’ take place in Pakistan per year based on their recent estimates. Amnesty International’s numbers claim that approximately 512 women and girls were subjected to ‘honour killings’ in 2016.

Human Rights Watch also reported that several women have been burned to death by their own families for attempting to escape arranged marriages or pursue their own relationships. Furthermore, until 2016, because Pakistani law gave family the right to pardon their relatives’ killers, families who killed their daughters themselves used to face no consequences for doing so. Though that loophole has now been closed, this means the culture surrounding honour killings has had a long time to ossify.

So, no, Bibi couldn’t have just run away from having essentially been sold into sexual enslavement.

One might not think of the sexual activities in an arranged or forced marriage as rape, but they are. Sex is only consensual when both parties want it. In the case of Bibi and her arranged husband Akram, it was definitely rape. She did not love him, nor is there any possibility of consent with the power dynamic that would be present in such a relationship.

If Aasia Bibi had tried to run away from her husband to live with her boyfriend, or be a disobedient wife, she could have easily faced death. There are good odds that Bibi would just be another woman receiving no justice for her life.

Everything I’ve outlined above may or may not sway your viewpoint on the poisoned milk situation. You might sympathize with her, or think she’s a heinous criminal. There’s no right or wrong answer. But under the environment she had no choice but to live in, she might have only been trying to save her own life.