This is a case from 1999 which reached the UK’s highest court, then called the House of Lords. Two married Pakistani women were forced to leave their homes by their husbands after being falsely accused of adultery. The allegation carried serious risks: they would have no protection from the state, but instead faced prosecution and a potential sentence of flogging or being stoned to death. Both came to UK as refugees, on the grounds that they were members of a particular social group and had a well-founded fear of being persecuted as members of that group. The government wasn’t so sure: the status of women in Pakistan was low, and they accepted that the women were at risk of abuse and violence, but is ‘being a woman in such a country’ really a particular social group? The argument was that in order to be a group, there had to be an element of choice: a group is a group of individuals with some common interest and co-operation.
The House of Lords disagreed. The Refugee Convention on which the women based their claim was premised on all humans being able to enjoy fundamental rights and freedoms: even more to the point, its fundamental purpose was to counter discrimination. It was precisely this element of discrimination which made women in Pakistan into a particular social group for these purposes – they weren’t just at risk of persecution or violence, as sadly women are in many parts of the world: what was distinctive was that the state sanctioned and even connived at this. Discrimination against women was built into the system. No evidence was necessary for a woman to be held under a warrant before investigation, and in cases attracting the most serious penalties the evidence of women was itself inadmissible.
In fact, both women were granted leave to remain regardless of the outcome: but in establishing that women facing persecution made possible by the systematic discrimination of the state are entitled to refugee status, and that the Refugee Convention aims to counter such discrimination, their case had much wider consequences.