For one mother, the country’s judicial system has become a nightmare
“I remember being on the phone and the first thing this guy – the lawyer – says to me is:
‘Your husband would like full custody of Zahra B Dogar.’.
I couldn’t understand – why was he talking about custody?”
In 1997, Mirjam Lahdeaho married Mehmood Dogar and came to live in Pakistan. Following the Laal Masjid incident, he started stressing about the security situation and made plans to have the entire family – including Mirjam’s in-laws, move to Canada. While he eventually elected to stay in Pakistan, Canada is now where the majority of his family resides – including Mirjam and their three children, who are now all Canadian nationals.
In 2016, the younger two children came to Pakistan to visit their father for a few days.
Seven months later, they’re still here. Their father – a DIG in Lahore – has somehow managed to gain guardianship of them without their mother’s knowledge. And Miriyam has dropped everything in Canada – including her job – to come to Pakistan and get her kids.
We spoke to Mirjam to find out more about her case.
“Let me tell you how it is,” she started, “because in one newspaper, they didn’t have it quite right.”
2008-2009, Mirjam remembered, was when, after the Laal Masjid incident, her husband started stressing about the necessity of the whole family – the kids, Mirjam, himself, his parents and siblings – moving to Canada.
“Why would I have wanted to move to Canada?” she mused. “My family basically lives in Finland. I studied in the US – that’s where I met him. But when I married him and moved to Pakistan, I even said that our kids could study here.”
But, as the security situation in the country escalated, and her in-laws grew concerned, her husband grew more determined to move his family to Canada. His oldest brother was already settled there, he said, and it made sense for the family to move.
Mirjam and her children – who have Finnish and Pakistani nationality – moved in 2009, with the understanding that her husband would come and go.
She remembers that it took the older children some time to adjust, though they did eventually get used to living there.
When asked why they didn’t live together, she said that he had, at one point, talked about getting a job in Canada, but that it hadn’t panned out.
“I don’t even know how absolutely serious he was about it. I know he did apply. He would have had to work as a technician there for a year. Here he had status, prestige because of his original job.” She conceded that in comparison, job prospects that would result in the same standards of living must have looked significantly bleak. And yet, things stayed pretty much the same. Mirjam, her in-laws and her kids lived in Canada, her husband visited on and off.
“She was very upset,” Mirjam said.
“She was crying and crying and crying.”
In 2014 though, things started changing. By then, the kids had also gotten Canadian nationality. On a visit to his family, he took Zahra for a drive, and told her that the next time he visited, he’d be taking her back with him.
“She was very upset,” Mirjam said. “She was crying and crying and crying. So I spoke to him. I said if Zahra’s coming back, we’re all coming back. And the words he said to me at that time were ‘There’s no future for you in Pakistan.’”
“Zahra is very strong willed. She has a lot of her father in her. She has a lot of her grandmother and her two aunts in her. She’s very strong willed and she’s very stubborn. She knows what she wants. She’s studying Pharmacy – but she’s always viewed it as a stepping stone to get into medicine. She used to talk about being a plastic surgeon and I remember she talked about acid burn victims in Pakistan and helping them.
And I knew that, if I had made her come back when she was not willing – she’s such a strong girl – I knew she wouldn’t have been happy.”
A year earlier, Mirjam recalled, her mother-in-law had returned to Pakistan. She also called, asking Mirjam to talk to Zahra and make her return to the country.
She had, since 2013, been trying to get her son to somehow bring Zahra back to Pakistan. When her husband proved he wasn’t in favour of her or the boys coming back, and Zahra herself refused, Mirjam decided it wasn’t going to happen.
“When she called me, I asked ‘how can I force my daughter to go there?’
“I said if Zahra’s coming back, we’re all coming back.
And the words he said to me at that time were:
‘There’s no future for you in Pakistan.’”
But of course, that could have been written off as one bad incident. It’s very easy to paint the mother-in-law as the villain of the story – after all, our soap operas do an excellent job in laying the ground work for that. And yet, Mirjam spoke of both her husband’s parents with respect.
“I always had good relations with her,” she said of her mother-in-law. “I always lived with her in Pakistan because my husband would be away. In fact, when we moved out of my brother in law’s house in Canada and bought our own, she lived with me. But you know, over time, with family politics… the relationship got soured.”
In 2016, Mirjam and the children came to Pakistan for three weeks. And when we were leaving, he said: “You know, why don’t you come for vacations in the winter time?”
“I said I probably would not be able to come because of my job and because I’d have to get a visa.”
They agreed and she and the children left on September 5th.
Some sources had been wrong in their reports of that time, she said.
“There was no situation where he did not allow us to leave at that time. That is incorrect.”
The first time he sent the sponsorship letter, the High Commission told her there was a problem – he hadn’t signed it.
Talking about the following travel plans, Mirjam explained that she used to have a Pakistan Origin Card when she was living here, but that it had expired in 2011.
She was referring to the Pakistan Origin Card (POC) program, which was created to help foreigners who were found eligible access to Visa-free entry and indefinite stay in the country as well as facilities like permission to buy or sell property and open and operate bank accounts. It also provides exemption from registration requirements generally imposed on foreigners.
As a result, in order to come back to Pakistan, she would have had to get a visa. She said they had looked into her getting her POC renewed.
“But the guy at the office said that we’d have to do that online. So I thought, okay, I can just do that online. Which I did try to do back in October-November. But I was not able to do it because it would not accept the number – and somebody has told me that they (the Pakistani government) have actually stopped that whole POC card.”
In fact, in a press conference in April, 2017, then Interior Minister Chaudhary Nisar Ali Khan announced that the services would be re-launched as the Temporary Residence Card – a drastic change meant to keep in check what he called haphazard issue of visa and lack of security clearances. In reports of the time, it was estimated that the changes had affected over 3,500 foreign nationals married to Pakistani citizens, who now had to worry about their assets – including bank accounts – to be frozen or seized, not to mention serious obstacles in gaining access to their families in Pakistan.
Of course, at the time, that was the least of Mirjam’s concerns. Unaware of the changes, and under pressure from her husband and mother-in-laws’ requests, Mirjam decided that she could just apply for a visa instead. Upon approaching the Pakistani High Commission in Canada for a ten year, multiple entry visa, she was informed that since her husband was a Pakistani, he would have to provide a sponsorship letter to the Commission. Considering it a simple enough matter, she let him know.
The first time he sent the sponsorship letter, the High Commission told her there was a problem – they said he hadn’t signed it. He denied that, claiming he had, but was told he’d have to send a signed letter again. This time, he sent her the receipt of the courier service he used, so she could track the document, but when she tried, the tracking ID didn’t work.
In the meantime, Qasim and Jafer came to visit their father.
“Mum, mum, mum,” he said,
“this is the worse it could get.
You need to talk to Baba.”
When they were leaving in September, the agreement had been that the two boys would be coming for their winter vacations. Zahra, 19, who is studying Pharmacy, had decided not to make the second trip, since her classes would be starting at University. In hindsight, Mirjam admitted that the boys, Qasim (17) and Jafer (now 13) had been “a little bit hesitant” – but they had mostly been concerned about making the trip “halfway around the world” on their own.
“I’ve always tried to bring the kids together with their father. Because even when we were living here in Pakistan (we got married in 1997) he was usually away. He was in Bosnia, he was in Karachi, he was in Quetta – all these different places – and he moved to Lahore in 2006. But even then, he was always so busy with his job, that there was never, you know, that close bonding between him and the kids.”
“…there was some property matter. He’d mentioned that he was going to sell it. That was actually why he wanted Zahra to come back to Pakistan
– because the property was in her name. “
On the day of their flight back, Qasim and Jafer were brought to the airport where a protocol officer took the pouch with their documents and tickets and left them to wait while he took them to be processed. A little while later, he came back. Jafer’s passport was missing.
“Qasim was texting me the whole time. And – I hadn’t seen it – but his sister told me that he’d sent her a picture on Snapchat. It was a picture of an American woman’s passport, which had gotten mixed up with Jafer’s.”
Mirjam’s husband told her that the situation would be resolved. It would only take four or five days, he assured her.
In the meantime, there was a pending property matter that he needed the boys’ help resolving.
“I never really understood it. He never fully explained it to me. But, from what he did tell me, and what I did understand, there was some property matter. He’d mentioned that he was going to sell it. That was actually why he wanted Zahra to come back to Pakistan – because the property was in her name.”
Sometime after the incident at the airport, she recalls asking her husband to explain the property matter, and he’d suggested talking to his lawyer and had arranged a phone call.
“I remember being on the phone and the first thing this guy – the lawyer – says to me is: ‘Your husband would like full custody of Zahra B Dogar.’. I couldn’t understand – why was he talking about custody?”
Before she could ask though, the call had been disconnected and the phone shut off.
Her mother-in-law had also been asking what – at the time – Mirjam had thought were strange questions. “‘When you come back, will you live with me or your husband?’ she’d said. I kept asking why she said that – because there had been no plan of me coming back permanently.”
And then her husband told her that he needed the boys to go to his office to sign some documents related to the property issue.
The day that the boys were supposed to be with their father, Qasim contacted her.
“Mum, mum, mum,” he said, “this is the worse it could get. You need to talk to Baba.”
It was all about the property, Mehmood explained when she got him on the phone. The other party – the people who had been interested in buying it – had somehow found out that Zahra – whose name it was under – was not in the country. Claiming that she could very well return and challenge the sale in the future, they’d gotten the courts involved, and now the boys were being held in Pakistan.
When we spoke to legal experts who specialise in property and family law, we were told simply that that didn’t make sense. Not only were the boys minors, the property was in the name of their sister – a legal adult. The father should not have been able to sell the property in question anyway – only Zahra had that authority.
For seven months, these boys have been forced to stay in the country. In that time, their father has also managed to somehow gain guardianship of the two – all without their mother’s knowledge.
When we got in touch with experts to ask about this, they told us that, unfortunately, that is quite possible. Ex-party orders can allow one parent to gain custody of minors without getting the other parent (in this case, Mirjam, the children’s mother) involved.
The boys are miserable, and want to go home. They’ve been told by their father and grandmother that they’re going to stay in Pakistan.
During that time, the boys had been growing increasingly agitated – and for good reason.
“Qasim told me that his grandmother told him and Jafer to take their clothes out of their suitcases and start putting them in the closets – because they were here to stay. When I asked her why she’d said that, she said she’d only been joking.”
And since then, the boys have been stuck here.
Her mother-in-law had also been asking what – at the time – Mirjam had thought were strange questions. “‘When you come back, will you live with me or your husband?’ she’d said.
I kept asking why she said that – because there had been no plan of me coming back permanently.”
Sweet, compliant Jafer, who “everybody loves” and Qasim who, Mirjam says, was always very quiet – more into his sports. When he first arrived in Canada, he hadn’t even known how to ice-skate. By the time he came to visit his father in 2016, he’d improved – he’s Assistant Captain of his high schools’ ice-hockey team. In the time that his father retained him and his brother in Pakistan, Mirjam said, the boys had told her that their father had tried to get the boys occupied with decidedly more Pakistani pursuits – polo, and the all-mighty cricket. Not surprisingly, the boys were not impressed.
“They felt he was trying to change them. Like he didn’t like them the way they were. He’s also been buying them things, trying to win them over.”
Their father had already been slowly trying to berate their mother in front of them, she explained. Her son had kept her informed of how Mehmood Dogar had – with increasing frequency – been lecturing the boys about the favoured bogey-man of the South-Asian parent – white people. The boys were outraged.
“Of course they were. He was saying – you know – she’s a white woman, and white people aren’t good people. And of course they got upset – they had family who were white people, they themselves are half white.”
More worrying, she admitted, was something Qasim had recently told her: that his father had started verbally attacking the boys.
“He’s told them things like: you’re zombies. You’ve got no personality. You’re addicted to Canada.”
Mirjam has not been in direct contact with her husband since she arrived in the country. The boys kept her updated regularly via Viber. And then, last week, their father took away their wifi access.
“Qasim does still text me – he’s got a Canadian number. But I don’t know if his father knows about that or not.”
“They were supposed to be produced in court on Thursday (August 3rd),” she said. “But they weren’t there. Later, I found out that the day before, Mehmood had taken them to Sheikhupura, where he had a farm house.”
Her husband tried to suggest she join them there to meet the boys.
“It was a one-and-a-half hour drive out to his property. No one – my lawyer etc. – thought it was a good idea for me to go.”
“They felt he was trying to change them.
Like he didn’t like them the way they were.
He’s also been buying them things, trying to win them over.”
This was not the first time he’s pulled a disappearing act. The Lahore High Court has repeatedly demanded that the boys be produced in court. Each time, Dogar’s lawyer has agreed. Each time, when the court re-convened, the boys were missing. On one occasion, Mirjam said, he’d even kept the boys in a Rangers’ room – for eleven hours.
At some point, the Judge ordered the police to raid the father’s house and bring the boys.
“He must have been tipped off,” said Mirjam. When the police returned empty handed, they said they couldn’t find him. The address he’d provided in his paperwork had been found locked. The police had taken that to be the end of the matter.
Sources told us that he had another house in Defence. Mirjam confirmed that.
“I know he has it. I don’t know the address, but I know he owns a house in Defence. That’s where he’s keeping the boys.”
It would appear though, that over a month and a half of constant pressure from the courts has had some affect.
“He has friends who’ve told him to let the kids meet me, he’s being pressured by the court. And I know that the CCPO summoned him and told him off for this ‘tamasha’ so I know he’s under a lot of pressure.”
The real concern for Mirjam right now, is time.
The Pakistani High Commission had told her they couldn’t issue her a visa without the sponsorship letter, they also informed her they could consider giving her a three month visa on humanitarian grounds. She’s spent over half of that time waiting in the court rooms. If the case isn’t resolved by the time her visa expires, she’s going to have to leave – or risk losing her job and source of income.
She can, of course, give power of attorney to someone here to represent her in the court – a friend, a relative – even her lawyer.
Hina Jilani, who is representing her in this case, is a renowned lawyer, well respected and experienced. But there are still concerns about how the case will fare should the mother not be available.
For all intents and purposes, it would appear that that is exactly what Mehmood Dogar was aiming for. Pakistan’s judicial system is notorious for its delayed verdicts. Simple property matters can be dragged in the courts for decades and custody battles are a nightmare for all involved – the children most of all.
And yet, in theory, it shouldn’t take this long. When we spoke to a lawyer specilising in family law, he argued that this should have been an open and shut case – and that he couldn’t understand why this had been dragged on for the time it was.
In practice though, he acknowledged, this is Pakistan – anything can happen.
Sometime before the matter was brought to our attention, Khadija Siddiqui’s case made waves after the judges’ verdict. Shah Hussain had stabbed her 23 times and her six year old sister three times – because Khadija had refused his proposal.
He calmly stood in front of cameras after the verdict and said “No problem. I’ll appeal it.”
On Friday, August 4th, as we talked to Mirjam, we were told that Mehmood Dogar’s lawyer had guaranteed her a meeting with her boys. We found out later that the boys had indeed met her – and that they’d been escorted by three plain clothes policemen who had wanted to sit in on the private meeting. Mirjam’s lawyer had to resist and stop them. After seven months apart, the boys just got two hours with their mother before they had to leave.
Throughout this case, we’ve seen evidence of the Mehmood Dogar’s use of his position to influence matters again and again. We saw it when he hid the boys, and the policemen sent to recover them returned claiming they couldn’t find his residence. We saw it when he gained an ex-party order and sole guardianship. He’s avoided talking about the property matter and has kept the boys from their mother on dubious grounds.
Power, goes the old saying, corrupts. Whether this will be remembered as a case of a father regretting the distance he imposed between himself and his children, or another entitled Pakistani man fuelled by the patriarchy exercising what he believes is his right, the fact is that the situation has slowly yet gradually snowballed out of his control.
A week before the matter was brought to our attention, Khadija Siddiqui’s attacker stood before a gaggle of reporters after the Court gave its verdict. He’d attacked her and her six year old sister, stabbing her 23 times and the minor three times – because Khadija had refused his proposal. What was he thinking when he carried out the brutal attack in broad daylight? What were onlookers thinking, when they witnessed the attack and let him get away? When they gathered around the girls, bleeding out on the road, and instead of hurrying them to a hospital, stood there staring at the spectacle.
Her attacker, Shah Hussain, is the son of a prominent lawyer. When he was sentenced to seven years in prison for attempted murder, he calmly stood in front of cameras and said “No problem. I’ll appeal it.”
The audacity we breed in men isn’t limited to Pakistan, but living here certainly exposes us to it more often than we’d like to be. It exists in the cat calls and the stares of pedestrians. It exists in the inappropriate messages and the threatening phone calls. It exists in every boy who thinks girls should be salivating over their “proposals”. And it exists in the men who think they can defy court orders because they work for the police.
Whatever the verdict of the courts, this audacity is a curse bred into our society. The decision in favour of Khadija gave us some hope in the independence and sanctity of the judicial system, which too often proves too long and too inefficient. As this article goes to print, we can only hope that Miriyam and her children won’t join the ranks of its other victims.
Update: The boys were produced today (Monday, August 7) in court. They were taken to the Judge’s retiring room where she interviewed them at length. Following that, she allowed them to meet there mother, and gave the order for the court to reconvene on the 9th, stating that the boy’s testimonies would be recorded, following which she’d give her verdict.
Pakistan Today will continue to follow the case as it develops.