March issue 2009

By | News & Politics | Published 15 years ago

Are we still invisible, voiceless and powerless? It is indeed a sad reflection that 36 years on — since the adoption of the 1973 Constitution, with its several articles and clauses guaranteeing the protection and promotion of women’s equality and rights — we Pakistani women, comprising 48% of the population, still need to seriously ask and answer this question.

We could have gone further back in our history and started by quoting Quaid-e-Azam’s soul-stirring words of 1944, against the segregation and seclusion of women, and in favour of their emancipation. But that would have taken us into the era of the British Raj, when Muslim, Hindu and Sikh women were equally encouraged to participate in the rough and tumble of the independence movement, regardless of purdah, class, creed, ideology or lack of emancipation.

We can, however, benefit from recalling another set of relevant, although international, milestones in the Pakistani women’s rights story: the government’s endorsement of the Declaration of the First World Conference on Women (WCW), Mexico, 1975 and those of the following three WCWs, of which Beijing 1995 stands out for its ringing Declaration and Platform for Action. In addition, Pakistan acceded to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in 1996, during Benazir Bhutto’s second tenure, albeit, with a reservation and a general Declaration.

An outstanding feature of the Beijing moot was the unprecedented cooperation between the federal ministry of women’s development (under the unparalleled leadership of then secretary, Salma Waheed) and a wide range of civil society organisations and women’s rights activists, for the preparation of the Pakistan National Report for Beijing. After Waheed, there have been three shadow reports to the UN from women’s rights NGOs, disagreeing with the government’s official stance in its reports to the UN on the status and situation of Pakistani women, and at least three more such shadow reports are currently under preparation.

So what are these differences in perception or stance on women’s issues? After all, the government could validly argue that, inter alia, it set up an expert working group on women’s rights in 1976; created a women’s division in 1979, and upgraded it to a full-fledged ministry in 1989. It also instituted a commission on the status of women under Zari Sarfaraz Khan in 1983 that included a chapter on women’s development in the Planning Commission’s five-year plan document for the first time in 1983 for the sixth plan. The First Women Bank and women’s police stations were set up in 1989, as well as committees to review discriminatory laws against women in 1993; it endorsed the Declaration of the International Conference on Human Rights in 1993; created the Commission of Inquiry on Women in 1994 (the Nasir Aslam Zahid Commission); endorsed the Declaration and Programme of Action of the International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo (ICPD, 1994) and that of the Fourth WCW in Beijing (1995); formulated, with the support and participation of civil society, a national plan of action on the Beijing agenda (1995-1998); established the Permanent National Commission on the Status of Women (NCSW) in 2000; reserved 33% seats for women in the new local government structures in 2001, increased from 10% to 17% and restored the lapsed reserved seats for women in the national and provincial legislatures in 2002; approved a new National Policy for the Development and Empowerment of Women (NPDEW) in 2002; “permitted” the publication of an independent report on the Hudood Ordinances (NCSW, 2002); and legislated through parliament two laws: amendments to the criminal laws with reference to ‘honour’ killings (2004) and the Women’s Protection Act (2006).

All this is true. Also true, and a cause of grave concern and anger for civil society rights activists, is the fact that almost all the above-cited actions over the past three-and-a half decades continue to remain confined to theoretical and academic recommendations. Or they are simply empty structures, unimplemented legislation, unfunded and unstaffed programmes, and mere statements of intent. We continue to remind successive governments that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. In fact, looking at the plethora of unfulfilled promises, we are now even constrained to wonder at bona fide versus mala fide intent. Under international law, the government is legally bound to implement the provisions of the treaties and conventions to which the state is a party, for example CEDAW, CRC, and ILO’s C111, among others. The sustained ranking of Pakistan at or near the bottom of the UN’s Gender Development Index (GDI) and the Women’s Empowerment Measure (WEM), over a period of almost two decades, should be a cause for alarm among government decision and policy-makers.

Meanwhile, the senior bureaucracy considers a post at the Ministry of Women’s Development (MoWD) as either a “punishment” for being out of favour, or as a relaxing sojourn just prior to retirement. No federal minister for women’s development has been appointed since the February 2008 elections. The Commission on the Status of Women is still without the requisite autonomy, power, mandate, staff and funds. Also, it has had part-time chairpersons, or has remained without a chairperson and members for long stretches, including at present. It has now been 13 years since Pakistan’s accession to CEDAW, and the MoWD does not even have a plan of implementation as yet, while the mandatory progress reports to the UN have been inadequate, inaccurate, and inordinately delayed. The excellent recommendations of, inter alia, the National Report for Beijing (1995) and the Commission of Inquiry on Women (1997) continue to gather dust on the MoWD’s shelves. The NPDEW has become invisible.

Given the current global recession, there are increasing levels of poverty in Pakistan, with absolute poverty estimated to have increased from the Shaukat Aziz-fudged figure of 24% in 2006, to around 33% in 2008, and beyond. The difference is that the brunt falls on women, especially rural livestock and agricultural women workers, as well as urban and rural home-based industrial or contract women workers. The feminisation of poverty is blatantly visible in Pakistan, through the open flouting of the ILO Convention 111, the empirical basis of high levels of anaemia and malnutrition among women and girls, and the increasing women-headed households. A former minister for women’s development during the Musharraf era went on the record to say that women comprise 73% of those living in absolute poverty in Pakistan. Since then, neither the finance ministry nor the Planning Commission ever denied or contradicted her statement. It has to be accepted as fact.

While successive governments and the bureaucracy fiddle, women burn — quite literally. The government refuses to release national data on violence against women compiled in 2003, citing problems with the methodology employed by an international research institution. But a number of civil society organisations, activists and international donors believe that the real reason lies in the explosive nature of the research findings: that violence against women is in all strata and tiers of Pakistani society. This is borne out by the mass media reporting, and the many micro-level studies done over the past three decades, as also by the recent compilations on the theme by the highly-respected Pakistani NGO, Aurat Foundation, which has used secondary sources.

A number of bills against domestic and public forms of violence against women, drafted by eminent women’s rights lawyers, judges and NGOs sent to the MoWD and parliamentarians, some of which were even tabled in parliament as Private Bills, have yet to be enacted. Those enacted (for example, on ‘honour’ killings and zina) are woefully inadequate, vis-à-vis their respective statements of objects and reasons and their linkages to the Zia-era legislation (for instance qisas and diyat), raising serious questions as to the intent of Musharraf’s government.

Pakistan is in the highest global rankings of jirga- and panchayat-sanctioned ‘honour’ killings, gang rapes, giving away of women and little girls to rival tribes and clans in compensation for male feuds over murder, robbery, land, water, animals, crops and money. Here, we need to recall that jirgas (all-male councils of Muslim influential elders, feudal and tribal chieftains dispensing their tribal brand of misogynist justice) have been declared illegal by the Sindh High Court and also by the Supreme Court under the deposed chief justice, Iftikhar Chaudhry.
Lately, the barbaric act of burying eight women alive (the local police admits to investigating only two cases) in the Naseerabad-Jaffarabad area of Balochistan came to light in August 2008. This was followed by the more horrifying story from Hajna Shah, in Khairpur (Sindh), of the forced abortion of a young, married woman, Tasleem Solangi, who was subsequently thrown to ferocious hunting dogs and killed.

Some of the most infamous and notorious cases of violence, including stripping and parading women naked to avenge male feuds in Nawabpur, (near Multan) in 1984; the ‘honour’ killing of Samia Sarwar Mohmand by her notable Pakhtun family in the Lahore office of the highly-respected human-rights activist and UN secretary general’s special representative on human rights defenders, Hina Jillani, in her presence (1999); the Zainab Noor atrocity by her husband, himself a mosque imam; the panchayat-ordered gang rape of Mukhtaran Mai in Meerwala village, in Muzaffargarh (South Punjab), are indelibly etched in the national hall of shame, as well as in the nation’s collective consciousness and psyche.

In 1979, General Zia-ul-Haq promulgated the Hudood Ordinances — of which the infamous Zina Ordinance is the worst imaginable form of injustice against women — as the central plank of his “Islamisation” drama. The demands made by the Women’s Action Forum (WAF) and civil society, along with the NCSW’s 2003 Report to repeal the Hudood Ordinances, was totally ignored by General Pervez Musharraf, the “enlightened moderate,” and the PML-Q, while drafting the Women’s Protection Bill. This was in order to appease the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), a vociferous religio-political coalition in parliament. Hence, WAF is still fighting for the repeal of the Hudood Ordinances, Qanoon-e-Shahadat (Law of Evidence, 1984), Qisas and Diyat laws and the Shariat Act (1991), without which there can be no hope of gender justice and gender equality in Pakistan.

Any hopes for the return of a conducive environment for women’s empowerment through a progressive, moderate and forward-looking dispensation in Pakistan, following the victory of the PPP and the ANP in the February 2008 elections, have received a severe setback due to their policy of appeasement and concessions to the growing spectre of religious extremism and Talibanisation. This is most alarmingly visible in the recent enforcement of the Shariah law through the ANP’s promulgation of the Nizam-e-Adl regulation in Swat and the rest of the Malakand Division; as well as the ANP’s attempts at peace treaties with Maulvi Fazlullah, head of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Swat (TTS), and Maulvi Sufi Muhammad (head of the Tehrik-i-Nifaz-i-Shariat-i-Muhammadi (TNSM) in NWFP’s Provincially Administered Tribal Areas. The TTS has destroyed around 200 girls’ schools in Swat, has forcibly closed all girls’ educational institutions, and forced industries and schools to lay off women employees. It has also barred women from public spaces such as markets and tailors’ shops, and has enforced strict purdah of the Afghan Taliban variety.

This is in direct conflict with the secular and progressive ideology and manifesto of the ANP, upon which it was elected to form the provincial government. The MMA singularly failed in its repeated attempts to enforce Shariah through the Hasba and Shariah Bills in its five-year tenure (2002-07). Likewise, the PPP’s election manifesto as well as the Charter of Democracy it co-signed with the PML-N, is a far cry from the factual reality of its post-election continuation of the Musharraf-era military policy — the US government’s ‘war on terror’ in Afghanistan and in FATA. Additionally, its coalition partnership with the highly retrogressive religio-political party, the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI-F), and its tacit acceptance of the ANP’s appeasement of the Taliban in PATA, have had a negative impact on women.

Tahira Abdullah is a development worker and a rights activist.

The writer is a well known Human Right activist based in Islamabad.