The Times

Friday, March 26, 1999

Abused women can seek asylum


TWO women who were victims of abuse and threats in Pakistan won a landmark ruling from the House of Lords that will allow them to claim asylum in Britain.

The law lords said the two women formed a "particular social group" that could seek asylum under the Geneva Convention on Refugees, 1951.

By four to one, the law lords said the abused Pakistani women were entitled to seek refugee status because they were "unprotected by the Pakistani state".

The decision means that a wider range of social groups who face persecution anywhere in the world, including homosexuals, will be able to seek asylum as refugees.

Nicholas Blake, QC, counsel for the omen, hailed the ruling as having "very significant implications for women and others who face persecution because of their sexual identity, throughout the world".

The ruling was won by Shahanna Islam, a trainee teacher from Karachi, and Syeda Shah, a "simple and uneducated" woman who was beaten by her husband and turned out of her home when pregnant.

In the judgment, Lord Hoffmann said in Pakistan "women form a social group of the kind contemplated by the Convention".

Mrs Islam faced a threat of violence from her husband and his friends after a playground dispute between rival political gangs of boys nine years ago.

If she returned home, the law lords were told, it would probably be useless for her to complain about her husband because the police were likely to accept his allegations of infidelity and arrest her because "the evidence of men was always more credible".

If she were not prosecuted "as a woman separated from her husband she would be socially ostracised and vulnerable to attack, even murder, instigated by her husband."

Lord Hoffmann said: "The State would not assist them because they were women. It denies them a protection against violence it would give to men. These two elements have to be combined to constitute persecution within the meaning of the Convention.

Mrs Islam won a declaration that it would be contrary to the UK's obligations for her to leave the country.

After yesterday's rulings, the case of Mrs Shah was sent back to the Immigration Appeal Tribunal. Lords Steyn, Hope of Craighead and Hutton also allowed the appeals.

In a dissenting judgment, Lord Millett said: "The evidence shows the widespread discrimination against women in Pakistan is based on religious law, and the persecution of those who refuse to conform to social and religious norms, while in no sense required by religious law, is sanctioned or at least tolerated by the authorities."

But the norms, he said, were not a pretext for persecution nor had they recently been imposed. "They are deeply embedded in the society in which the appellants have been brought up."

Lord Millett said that in his opinion the women had failed to establish that the reason they had been left unprotected by the authorities and were liable to be persecuted by their husbands was "because they are women".

He said, however, that he would have accepted that homosexuals "form a distinct social group" entitled to claim asylum if persecuted.

Mr Blake said the ruling cleared up confusion of inconsistent rulings in the UK.

Copyright 1999, Times Newspapers Ltd.