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Polygamy, Purdah and Political Representation: Engendering citizenship in 1950s Pakistan

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 December 2008

Royal Holloway, University of London, Egham, Surrey TW20 0EX, UK Email:


Debates on Islam, citizenship and women's rights have been closely interconnected in Pakistan, from the time of the state's creation in 1947 through to the present day. This article explores the extent to which during the 1950s campaigns to reform Muslim personal law (which received a boost thanks to the outcry against 1955 polygamous marriage of the then Prime Minister, Muhammad Ali Bogra) were linked with wider lobbying by female activists to secure for women their rights as Pakistani citizens alongside men. Through a close examination of the discussions that were conducted on the pages of English-language newspapers, such as Dawn and the Pakistan Times, it highlights in particular what female contributors thought about issues that were affecting the lives of women in Pakistan during its early, and often challenging, nation-building years.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2008

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1 Jamal, Amina, ‘Gender, Citizenship and the Nation-State in Pakistan: wilful daughters or free citizens’ in Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, Vol. 31, No. 2 (2006), p. 285CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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3 The Basic Principles Committee of the Constituent Assembly, which took 18 months to author the Objectives Resolution, sought to produce a statement of intent that ‘could pass muster with secularists, Islamic modernists and traditionalists alike’, but, in the process of doing this, the process revealed ‘profound disagreements about the scope of the state, the rights of individuals and the nature of institutions to protect them’, see Newberg, Paula R., Judging the State: courts and constitutional politics in Pakistan (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), pp. 3839CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

4 While his marriage was technically ‘polygynous’ (i.e. a man marrying more than one wife at the same time), it was consistently referred to by the more commonly-used term ‘polygamy’.

5 For instance, in Turkey the Union of Turkish Women (established in 1924) had been abolished in 1935, on the grounds that since women had gained rights under Ataturk, there was no longer any need for a women's movement, see Kathryn Libal, ‘Staging Turkish Women's Emancipation: Istanbul, 1935’ in Journal of Middle East Women's Studies, Vol. 4, No. 1 (Winter 2008), pp. 31–52. In Egypt in 1954 Duriya Shafiq's Bint al-Nil party, like all other politically-independent organisations, was closed down by Nasser's government, as was her Bint al-Nil magazine. The Egyptian state in 1956 likewise dismantled the long-established Egyptian Feminist Union, allowing only a much smaller social welfare society named the Huda Shaarawi Association to function in its place, see Badran, Margot, Feminists, Islam, and Nation: gender and the making of modern Egypt (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995), p. 249Google Scholar, and Botman, Selma, Engendering Citizenship in Egypt (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), pp. 6566Google Scholar. It was a similar pattern of events in Iran where the Federation of Iranian Women's Organisations was dissolved in 1961 and its place was taken by the High Council of Women's Organisations under the presidency of the Shah's twin sister. Later, in 1966, it too was abolished in the interests of further uniformity and tighter control from above, and was replaced by the Women's Organisation of Iran also under the presidency of Princess Ashraf, see Parvin Paidar, Women and the Political Process in Twentieth-Century Iran (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), pp. 142, 149.

6 Miles, Kay, The Dynamo in Silk: a brief biographical sketch of Begum Ra'ana Liaquat Ali Khan, 2nd ed. (Karachi: All-Pakistan Women's Association, 1974)Google Scholar.

7 Jalal, Ayesha, ‘The Convenience of Subservience: women and the state in Pakistan’ in Kandiyoti, Deniz (ed.), Women, Islam and the State (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1991), pp. 77114CrossRefGoogle Scholar. It is interesting that Jalal is prepared to be more lenient in her assessment of later generations of female activists in Pakistan. When it came to the Women's Action Forum (WAF) of the 1980s, many of whose members belonged to precisely the same kind of privileged families, their pragmatism (as a means of surviving and so contesting the policies of the Zia regime) is described by her as ‘a tactical decision’, understandable and acceptable under the political circumstances of the time. But from the perspective of those campaigning for women's rights in Pakistan's early years, it is possible that constraints on their activities caused by the nature of society and the character of political life at the time meant that they too needed to tread carefully and operate according to ‘rules’ that may not necessarily have been of their making or to their liking.

8 Abbot, Freeland, ‘Pakistan's New Marriage Law: a reflection of Qur'anic interpretation’ in Asian Survey, Vol. 1, no. 11 (January 1962) pp. 2627CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Sylvia A. Chipp, The Role of Women Elites in a Modernizing Country: the All-Pakistan Women's Association (unpublished PhD dissertation, Syracuse University, 1970), pp. 170–174; Chipp-Kraushaar, Sylvia, ‘The All-Pakistan Women's Association and the 1961 Muslim Family Laws Ordinance’ inMinault, G. (ed.), The Extended Family: women and political participation in India and Pakistan (Columbia: South Asia Books, 1981), pp. 263285Google Scholar.

9 Jalal, ‘The Convenience of Subservience’, p. 93.

10 Muhammad Ali Bogra was appointed Prime Minister in April 1953, following the dismissal of the premier Khwaja Nazimuddin in the wake of anti-Ahmadiyya disturbances and demands that the latter had sought to resist.

11 Pakistan Fortnightly Summary, pt II, 1–14 April 1955, DO 35/5285, United Kingdom National Archives (hereafter UKNA).

12 Pakistan Fortnightly Summary, pt II, 15–28 April 1955, DO 35/5285, UKNA.

13 Begum Chaudhri Muhammad Ali was the wife of the then Central Minister of Finance, Chaudhri Muhammad Ali, who would later become Prime Minister (see below).

14 Dawn, 16 April 1955, p. 10.

15 Morning News, 17 April 1955, quoted in Chipp, Role of Women Elites, p. 172.

16 Wife of the Secretary of the Interior and prominent APWA member, Begum Ghulam Ahmed represented Pakistan at the United Nations in 1954 on questions affecting the status of women, see Pakistan Fortnightly Summary, pt. II, 24 November–8 December 1954, DO 35/5284, UKNA. By March 1955, she had been elected vice-chair of the UN Status of Women Commission, see Dawn, 16 March 1955, p. 8.

17 Dawn, 23 April 1955, p. 1. Shafiq later sent a second telegram addressed to ‘feminist leaders’ in East and West Pakistan in which she urged them not to vote for any man with more than one wife, Dawn, 11 May 1955, p. 10.

18 Dawn, 25 April 1955, p. 6.

19 Dawn, 27 April 1955, p. 6.

20 Dawn, 28 April 1955, p. 6.

21 Dawn, 5 May 1955, p. 1.

22 Dawn, 6 May 1955, p. 10.

23 Dawn, 15 May 1955, p. 1. According to Begum Liaquat Ali Khan, Bogra had apparently been prepared to divorce his first wife, but because this was not what his wife wanted—she wished to retain her security and status as a wife—so her supporters were forced to accept this compromise, see Masroor, Mehr Nigar, Ra'ana Liaquat Ali Khan: a biography (Karachi: All-Pakistan Women's Association, c. 1980), p. 83Google Scholar.

24 Perwari (Persatuan Wanita Republik Indonesia or Organisation of Indonesian Women, formed in 1945) was the largest non-political group of women in Indonesia that included many who belonged to precisely the same kind of elite political and bureaucratic families as those that produced their Pakistani counterparts. For reactions to the Sukarno marriage, see British Embassy, Djakarta, to Foreign Office, no. 135, 24 September 1954, FO 371/112142, UKNA. For a detailed study of female activism in Indonesia during this period, see Martyn, Elizabeth, The Women's Movement in Post-Colonial Indonesia: gender and nation in a new democracy (London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2005)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

25 Sultana, Abida, Memoirs of a Rebel Princess, with introduction by Siobhan Lambert-Hurley (Karachi: Oxford University Press, 2005), pp. 212218, 220Google Scholar.

26 Dawn, 21 April 1955, p. 4.

27 Pakistan Fortnightly Summary, pt II, 15–28 April 1955, DO 35/5285, UKNA. For instance, according to the Pakistan Standard of 14 April 1954, p. 1, ‘for the first time in the history of Pakistan, a woman will be appointed a member of the Central Government, it is reliably learnt . . . she will be a Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs or Education, it is further learnt’.

28 Abida Sultana, Memoirs, p. 220.

29 Dawn, 23 April 1955, p. 1.

30 Pakistan Fortnightly Summary, pt II, 27 May–9 June 1955, DO 35/5285, UKNA.

31 British officials referred at the time to her letter as a ‘stiff message’, see Pakistan Fortnightly Summary, pt II, 6–19 May 1955, DO 35/5285, UKNA.

32 Dawn, 14 May 1955, p. 4.

33 Dawn, 16 May 1955, p. 4.

34 Dawn, 20 May 1955, p. 5.

35 For instance, British officials commented in 1949 that ‘Begum Liaquat, an ex-Hindu, ex-Christian, is easy meat for their [her husband's opponents] . . . vilification. All those glamour photographs of her hob-nobbing in the West are filed ready for reissue with new and barbed comment’, see BIS Lahore to Director, BIS, Karachi, n.d., DO 142/366, UKNA.

36 Devji, Faisal Fatehali, ‘Gender and the Politics of Space: the movement for women's reform in Muslim India, 1857–1900’ in Hasan, Zoya (ed.), Forging Identities: gender, communities and the state (New Delhi: Kali for Women, 1994), pp. 2237Google Scholar.

37 Metcalf, Barbara Daly, Perfecting Women: Maulana Ashraf Ali Thanawi's Bihishti Zewar (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990), pp. 138Google Scholar; Minault, Gail, Secluded Scholars: women's education and Muslim social reform in colonial India (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1998)Google Scholar.

38 Minault, Gail, ‘Sayyid Mumtaz Ali and ‘Huquq-un-Niswan’: an advocate of women's rights in Islam in the late nineteenth century’ in Modern Asian Studies, Vol. 24, No.1 (1990), pp. 147172CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

39 Lambert-Hurley, Siobhan, ‘Fostering Sisterhood: Muslim women and the All-India Ladies Association’ in Journal of Women's History, Vol. 16, No. 2 (2004), pp. 4065CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

40 Minault, Secluded Scholars, pp. 289–290.

41 As the Khilafat agitation of the early 1920s had highlighted, Muslim women had proved that they could play an effective role in campaigns intended to put pressure on the British authorities in defence of community interests; as Minault has shown, between 1911 and 1924, an undoubted period of Muslim political self-assertion, Muslim women became more involved in political action, with the result that ‘purdah politics’ played a part in generating support for a self-conscious Muslim political constituency during the Khilafat movement, see Minault, Gail, The Khilafat Movement: religious symbolism and political mobilization in India (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982), pp. 150151Google Scholar.

42 Ahmad, Riswan, Sayings of the Quaid-i-Azam: Mohammed Ali Jinnah (Karachi: Quaid Foundation and Pakistan Movement Centre, 1993), p. 105Google Scholar, quoted in Ahmed, Akbar S., Jinnah, Pakistan and Islamic Identity: the search for Saladin (London: Routledge, 1997), p. 60Google Scholar.

43 Mumtaz, Khawar and Farida, Shaheed, Women of Pakistan: two steps forward, one step back? (Lahore: Vanguard Books, 1987), p. 41Google Scholar.

44 Willmer, David, ‘Women as Participants in the Pakistan Movement: modernization and the promise of a moral state’ in Modern Asian Studies, Vol. 30, No. 3 (July 1996), p. 573CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

45 Ibid., p. 574.

46 During an ‘Abducted Women's Week’ in February 1948, launched to promote greater public cooperation in the integration of these women into Pakistani society, Dawn reminded its readers of the precedent set back in the days of the Prophet Muhammad when men were encouraged to marry widows produced by war, and accordingly called on Pakistani men to cooperate with the Widow Remarriage Committee and take as their wives lone women who had been casualties of the violence in one way or another. It quoted one maulana and refugee ‘spokesman’ who announced ‘it is the obligation of the society, and if we fail to do our duty towards these unfortunate creatures, the consequences will be foul and cruel, giving rise to many “immoral and unislamic practices”. Our society at large stands to suffer’. See Dawn, 12 February 1948, p. 4.

47 Mumtaz and Shaheed, Women of Pakistan, p. 52.

48 ‘History's Greatest Catastrophe’. Information Department, Office of the High Commissioner for Pakistan, London, 5 September 1949, p. 7. DO 142/438, UKNA.

49 According to Jalal, APWA's creation, rather than simply emerging in an organic fashion to meet the challenges of the time, was connected to an incident in early 1949 when all the members of the ruling Muslim League had walked out of a Council meeting in protest at its refusal to considering the election of a female candidate to the office of Joint Secretary, see Jalal, ‘The Convenience of Subservience’, pp. 89–90. Begum Liaquat Ali Khan later on explained things slightly differently: in her words, ‘the challenge of a great initial crisis produced a great response [but] this would soon dissipate itself if it was not properly harnessed and organised’. For the text of her inaugural speech when APWA was set up, see Challenge and Change: speeches by Begum Ra'ana Liaquat Ali Khan, edited by F.D. Douglas (Karachi: All-Pakistan Women's Association, n.d.), pp. 1–4.

50 Begum H.I. Ahmed, Begum Ra'ana Liaquat Ali Khan, (Karachi, n.p., 1975), p. 34, quoted in Mumtaz and Shaheed, Women of Pakistan, p. 51.

51 After Liaquat's death it moved into what was then known as the Union Jack Club before obtaining land from the government (in 1957) where it built a headquarters building and to which it moved in 1964 (APWA's national headquarters remains on this site in Garden Road, Karachi).

52 See relevant chapters in Chipp, The Role of Women Elites, for detailed discussion of the organisational structures established and developed within APWA.

53 Dawn, 12 September 1951, pp. 6, 9.

54 The Pakistan Girl Guides association was formed within four months of partition. By 1952 it had a total membership of around 10,000. Its leaders consistently emphasised its role in character-building on behalf of the nation. The highest honour that it could bestow was the Jinnah Badge for living up to the ideals of Unity, Faith and Discipline, see Dawn, 2 February 1952, p. 4.

55 Fatima Jinnah was said by contemporaries to have cordially detested Begum Liaquat Ali Khan, see ‘Miss F. Jinnah’, in ‘Leading Personalities of Pakistan’, corrected up to 1 July 1951, p. 39, DO 35/3174, UKNA. There was certainly no love lost between the two women, who some viewed as vying for the position of Pakistan's first lady. When Eleanor Roosevelt visited Pakistan at the beginning of 1952, at the invitation of APWA, Fatima Jinnah was unable to greet her due to a ‘slight indisposition’. The Begum, of course, gave her a warm and very public welcome. See Dawn, 21 February 1952, p. 1.

56 Mumtaz and Shaheed, Women of Pakistan, pp. 53–54.

57 Dawn, 20 January 1948, p. 6.

58 Zaibunissa Hamidullah, by 1955, had become editor of the Mirror newspaper in Karachi, and was reported to have had the unique privilege of being the first woman to address Jam-i Azhar, Cairo, in its one thousand-year old history, see Pakistan Standard, 14 April 1955, p. 1.

59 Masudah Jawad, ‘Our Women Do Face It’, Dawn, 2 September 1951, p. 8.

60 Dawn, 18 September 1951, p. 5.

61 Ibid.

62 Dawn, 10 October 1951, p. 5.

63 Dawn, 22 October 1951, p. 5.

64 Dawn, 24 October 1951, p. 1.

65 The Constituent Assembly, though it functioned as a de facto national legislature had been indirectly elected by an electoral college comprising the provincial assemblies in 1946, see Jalal, Ayesha, The State of Martial Rule: the origins of Pakistan's political economy of defence (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), p. 62Google Scholar.

66 For their first-hand accounts of their political activities during this period see their autobiographies: Shahnawaz, Jahan Ara, Father and Daughter: a political autobiography (Karachi: Oxford University Press, 2002)Google Scholar, and Ikramullah, Shaista Suhrawardy, From Purdah to Parliament (Karachi: Oxford University Press, 1998)Google Scholar.

67 The West Punjab Muslim Personal Law (Shariat) Application Act, that included agricultural land, was passed in 1948 despite the opposition of more conservative landed interests in the West Punjab Provincial Assembly that caused several hundred urban women to demonstrate outside the assembly buildings in protest. The Act however contained loopholes that allowed families personal discretion when it came to how the law was applied in practice. See Agarwal, Bina, A Field of One's Own: gender and land rights in South Asia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), p. 231Google Scholar.

68 Dawn, 9 October 1951, p. 5.

69 Dawn, 8 February 1954, p. 4.

70 The meeting passed a resolution calling upon the government to set up special machinery at the centre as well as at provincial level to help women to secure justice according to the Muslim personal laws and the Shariat, see Dawn, 11 February 1954, p. 10.

71 Dawn, 28 February 1954, p. 5. The Aga Khan, while on a visit to Karachi the same month, added his weight to calls for women to play a more prominent role. In a speech read out by his wife to a reception held in his honour by APWA, he called on women to ensure religious freedom by participating in communal Friday prayers. Mosques in his view needed to open their doors to women. After all a country was like a human body—men and women represented its lungs and it needed both of them to function properly, see Dawn, 7 February 1954, p. 1.

72 Dawn, 18 Feb 1954, p. 7.

73 According to a contemporary British report, it seemed ‘unlikely that the matter would go much further at present, though letters in the Pakistan Times are urging that fair's fair and that polyandry might be amusing!’, see Pakistan Fortnightly Summary, pt. II, 24 November–8 December 1954, DO 35/5284, UKNA.

74 Dawn, 13 December 1954, p. 5.

75 Dawn, 18 December 1954, p. 5.

76 Dawn, 10 January 1955, p. 1; Dawn, 11 January 1955, p. 10.

77 Shaista Suhrawardy Ikramullah, ‘A Growing Social Evil’, Dawn, 16 January 1955, p. 7.

78 Dawn, 22 February 1955, p. 4.

79 Dawn, 8 March 1955, p. 5.

80 Dawn, 19 March 1955, p. 5.

81 Dawn, 23 March 1955, p. 6.

82 Pakistan Times, 6 December 1954, quoted in Abbot, ‘Pakistan's New Marriage Law’, p. 26.

83 Its dissolution on 24 October 1954 was closely bound up with fears among West Pakistani interest groups—politicians, bureaucrats and military alike—that, under Bogra's premiership, the constitutional formula that was taking shape was going too far in favour of East Pakistan. The proposed unification of West Pakistan into one unit, that was intended to create an artificial parity between it and the more populated eastern half of the country, had been rejected by the Muslim League's assembly party. There was, however, little chance of it being enacted under the existing political arrangements, hence the dissolving of the Constituent Assembly. See Jalal, The State of Martial Rule, pp. 185–193.

84 Dawn, 29 March 1955, p. 7.

85 Pakistan's second Constituent Assembly consisted of 80 members, all but 7 (whom the Governor-General would nominate to represent Karachi, Baluchistan, the princely states and the tribal areas) elected by an electoral college comprising the existing provincial assemblies. See Jalal, The State of Martial Rule, pp. 205–215.

86 Dawn, 26 June 1955, p. 10.

87 Dawn, 1 July 1955, p. 10.

88 Dawn, 3 July 1955, p. 9.

89 Dawn, 3 July 1955, p. 12; 4 July 1955, p. 4; 10 July 1955, p. 8.

90 Dawn, 8 July 1955, p. 7.

91 Dawn, 14 August 1955, p. 13.

92 Jalal, The State of Martial Rule, p. 212.

93 ‘The idea of merging West Pakistan's provinces and states was as old as the state itself. Initially articulated in 1948, it was justified on the grounds of administrative efficiency, greater economy and as a foil against provincialism’, ibid., p. 197.

94 Pakistan Times, 22 April 1956, p. 7.

95 Dawn, 25 October 1955, p. 4.

96 These included Begum Zeenat Fida Hasan (Rawalpindi), Begum GA Khan (Lyallpur), Begum Mumtaz Jamal (Peshawar) and Begum Zari Sarfraz (Mardan), see Pakistan Times, 14 January 1956, p. 1.

97 Pakistan Times, 1 January 1956, p. 7.

98 Pakistan Times, 13 January 1956, p. 7.

99 Pakistan Times, 29 January 1956, p. 7.

100 The organisations that attended this Lahore meeting included the following: Musllim League's Women's Committee, APWA, Lahore Ladies Club, YWCA, Pakistan Federation for Women's Rights, Anjuman Muhajir Khawateen, Binat-i Islam, All-Pakistan Christian League, Awami League Women's Committee, Business and Professional Women's Club, women members of the Lahore Corporation and six members of the West Pakistan Assembly, see Pakistan Times, 26 January 1956, p. 3.

101 Pakistan Times, 30 January 1956, p. 4.

102 Pakistan Times, 23 March 1956, p. 17.

103 Pakistan Times, 22 April 1956, p. 7.

104 Pakistan Times, 27 May 1956, p. 7. According to Federation office-holders, there were clear attempts made to wrest the initiative from the Federation at this time. In May 1956 Begum Shahnawaz and her daughter Begum Naseem Akbar Khan (wife of Major General Akbar Khan of Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case fame, and regarded as pro-communist in her political sympathies) were said to be trying to set up a ‘super women's organisation’, intended to encompass all existing women's organisations and engage energetically in public affairs. Federation president, Rabia Sultan Qari, however, rejected the idea on the grounds that her organisation was determined not just to stay unaffiliated with any political party, but also to remain unidentified with the so-called ‘Big Begums’ involved in this initiative. Once Begum Naseem Akbar Khan had announced her intention to join the Awami League, however, she was removed from the Federation's Board of Directors, and the ‘threat’ accordingly evaporated.

105 Pakistan Times, 22 April 1956, p. 7.

106 Pakistan Times, 25 June 1956, p. 4. Ironically, the Commission issued its recommendations within days of another leading Pakistani politician taking a second wife. In this case, it was Chaudhri Muhammad Zafrullah Khan, former Foreign Minister and (in 1956) Judge at the International Court of Justice in The Hague. What made this marriage especially galling to its critics was the fact that his new wife was reported to be young enough to be Zafrullah's grand-daughter, see Pakistan Times, 10 June 1956, p. 4.

107 As it turned out, the 10 reserved seats to which the Federation objected in 1956 remained a ‘privilege’ that existed only on paper in the immediate years that followed. With the advent of martial law in 1958, and the suspension of the Constitution, female suffrage on the basis of women's territorial constituencies was abolished. Then, under Ayub Khan's 1962 re-working of the constitution, three seats for women in each of the two wings of the country (East and West Pakistan) were introduced for a period of 10 years, though these, like the other 300 members of the National Assembly were to be chosen indirectly by an electoral college made up of his Basic Democrats. Yahya Khan's Legal Framework Order of 1970 maintained this principle of reserved seats, this time with seven for women of East Pakistan and six for those in West Pakistan, and the same pattern continued under Zulfikar Ali Bhutto when, in 1973, Pakistan's third official constitution included 10 reserved seats for women (later, in 1985, under Zia this total was raised to 20). The occupants of these reserved seats, however, like their predecessors, were not elected directly but were filled through a voting process conducted in the already-elected National Assembly. After the 1988 elections, the provision of the Constitution, that provided space for this affirmative action on the part of the state, lapsed. However, Musharaf revived reserved seats for women prior to the 2002 elections, raising the number to 20. By the time of the most recent (2008) elections, this total had been raised still further to 60. In the meantime, however, although many Pakistani women experienced difficulties in exercising their right to vote due to family and/or community pressures, the number of women standing for general seats steadily increased, with 64 candidates contesting the 2008 elections, of whom approximately 25 percent proved successful. See Dushka H. Saiyid, ‘Women in Politics—problems of participation: a case study of Pakistan’, available at (accessed 10 March 2008); and UN Report, Political and Legislative Participation of Women in Pakistan: issues and perspectives (Islamabad, 2005), available at (accessed 10 March 2008).

108 Newberg, Judging the State, pp. 19–20.

109 Carroll, Lucy, ‘The Pakistan Federal Shariat Court, Section 4 of the Muslim Family Law Ordinance, and the Orphaned Grandchild’ in Islamic Law and Society, Vol. 9, No. 1 (2002), pp. 7082CrossRefGoogle Scholar.