Recently, a story emerged on the BBC about how gossip changed a woman’s life, completely. And the second I read it, I understood that the story is from our part of the world. And I wasn’t disappointed. Well, I mean I was, but that’s for entirely different reasons.
Wajiha Arooj was a student in a reputable university in Pakistan, when her life changed for the worse.
17 odd years ago, she was enrolled in an English Master’s degree at the University of Punjab, Lahore. During her exams, an invigilator failed to mark her present and ended up marking her absent for the entire exam, which led to her failing the course. Minor human error, right? But what followed the incident changed her life forever.
Upon confrontation, university officials targeted Wajiha and ‘suggested’ to her father to check where exactly his daughter had been during that time and what exactly she was doing there.
In a society like Pakistan, where even talking to someone of the opposite gender creates societal headlines the next day and here was someone suggesting that she was missing for an indefinite period of time under the farce of an exam.
And of course, if you’re saying that a girl is missing without her family knowing her whereabouts, the assumption is she’s out with a boy.
As the news of her absence spread across everyone she knew, people started treating her differently. Her mother looked at her with disappointment, her cousins started questioning her, her peers at university started talking about her behind her back.
It got so bad to a point where Wajiha was suicidal because of all the taunts, even though she knew she wasn’t in the wrong.
People started objecting to her taking classes in the evenings, they started presuming that she’d been skipping university classes all year round, as well.
But she fought back. She took the matter to the Lahore High Court and filed a case against the university.
Her family stood behind her throughout and her father, a practicing lawyer, represented her. It took the university four months to produce her actual exam sheet in court and admit the fact that the invigilator failed to mark her present when she was, in fact, at the exam.
While the university corrected the error, produced a new result for her, the High Court wasn’t having it and said that the university, on the whole, had been negligent in this case.
Sounds like a happy ending, right? Wrong. According to Wajiha, the damage had already been done and for her to gain the respect, that she had lost, again was extremely difficult. She, then, in her efforts to clear her name further, sued the university for damages.
In Pakistan, if your character is tainted even slightly, regardless of how baseless the allegations may be, the stains remain for a really long time.
In order to ‘protect’ her, Wajiha’s parents got her married four months after her university ended. She wanted to study further and become a civil servant, however, her parents thought it’d be best for her to not go back to university and not have to face the gossip, again.
Over the last few years, the case was still progressing in courts. The university tried doing all they could in order to avoid paying the damages that Wajiha had filed for and kept challenging her in higher courts. A civil court ordered the university to pay Rs 800,000/- in damages, which they challenged. The decision was upheld by the courts.
While there has been no payment of damages, so far (17 years), Wajiha still considers it a victory for herself, as she was able to prove to the world that she was right, all along.
Wajiha’s new family moved to Canada a few years later, where they had a new beginning. However, Wajiha still hasn’t gotten to establish a career for herself. She has three kids that she takes care of and is happy with her life.
It’s almost sad that if a girl is faced with a similar situation today, not only will societal isolation go hand in hand with the accusation, it will take her a really long time to prove to the world that she isn’t wrong. More so, in today’s day and age, the Internet will have its way with the gossip before anything and anyone else. We all need to be more responsible when the matter concerns another person.
The story first appeared here.