March Issue 2012

By | People | Q & A | Published 12 years ago

Fouzia Saeed is a social activist and she is the chairperson of the National Implementation Watch Committee.

Q: Should laws precede social change or vice versa?

A: Both are necessary. Having a law makes it relatively easier to have accountability and, furthermore, laws have a deterrence value. Even though our law-enforcing agencies have played a negative role, in general, through delays and aggressive attitudes, many victims have found justice eventually. A law articulates the collective values of the society. It helps raise awareness about what constitutes a crime and not just inappropriate behaviour.

I would like to clarify that no law comes from a vacuum. It is the awareness of inappropriate behaviour and the desire to declare it a crime to the general public that brings about a law.

Pro-women legislation has come about with the support and pressure of women and many progressive men in society. Laws imposed by a dictator, without a public debate or without a legitimate parliament are, of course, an exception.

Q: The gap between the existing laws pertaining to women and their implementation has been widening. How do you propose to bridge the gap?

A: What we did with the anti-sexual harassment legislation offers a very good example. The whole implementation process was strategised and a high powered 20-member committee, with government officials, civil society and other stakeholders at the National Commision on the Status of Women (NCSW) were assigned the task of overseeing its implementation. I think it was a successful model. Besides, the Protection Against Harassment of Women at Workplace Act 2010 had an implementation mechanism built in, somewhat. Similarly the comprehensive bill on acid and burn crimes, which was prepared after wide consultation, also provides a procedure within the law to ensure its implementation. The Domestic Violence Bill that was passed by the Senate also suggests that a protection committee will be formed to look after the legal aspects of the issue and the NCSW will, from time to time, review its implementation. I think in future we need to provide some kind of implementation system within the legislation.

As far as the other laws are concerned, we cannot implement anything unless the police and the judiciary are with us and take the laws seriously. They need to have a system of apprising their own police staff and judges about the new legislation. It is sad that even senior judges are not aware of the new legislation. Out of all the other stakeholders, I think it is these two who are the most critical and need to informed.

Q: To whom would you credit the passage of so many pro-women laws in quick succession?

A: I think the laws on sexual harassment, where AASHA lobbied with parliament, were the door-opener. During that two-and-a-half years of engagement with the parliament, we, for the first time, established a credible relationship with all parties. Initially, there were vulgar remarks and stereotypical impressions about us ‘modern women’ creating a fuss about something. Upon engagement, minds and hearts turned and a strong bond of credibility was established. We approached all parliamentarians and convinced them. Consequently, the ownership for that legislation increased.

At the tail end of that process, when the religious senators attacked our bill on the floor, the other senators, took it up in a gallant manner, something the Senate had never witnessed before. When both those bills were passed, the media and society at large applauded it. Both the National Assembly and the Senate were proud of this legislation. I think that paved the ground for future teamwork between the parliamentarians and the citizens and opened the door for future legislation. Civil society also recognised that mere recommendations were not enough, one needed to swing into action in order to get bills passed.

The other major reason is that now we have many bright women parliamentarians and the Women’s Caucus is playing a very positive role in securing joint positions across party lines. Many of the women in the houses are there on an merit and not simply because they are relatives of some influential person. They work hard, lobby and move things. The speaker of the National Assembly, too, has been a good influence in making women parliamentarians work together.

Q: Now that there are so many gender-specific laws, can one expect any dramatic change in the situation of women?

A: They are not enough. We still need more legislation and the repeal of several discriminatory laws. In the first phase, after the passage of the recent laws, it would appear as if the problems are multiplying but actually more anti-women cases will come out in the open. For instance, the cases of sexual harassment that are coming out now are beyond people’s imagination, there is gross institutionalised sexual harassment. Women are finally beginning to speak up.

Q: Three factors behind the inefficacy of the laws are:

(i) the police, who are mostly reluctant to register FIRs.

(ii) the role played by the jirgas, who sanction retrogressive practices.

(iii) the men who line the pockets of the police and the jirgas to get a verdict in their favour. How do you intend to tackle these hurdles?

A: I want to add another category to this, and that is problematic legislation like qisas and diyat.

There should be one rule of law and all major crimes should be considered as being against the state and not against an individual. When criminals know that they can get away by making a deal or paying diyat or securing pardon from relatives, they abuse and pressure the victim to get pardon. Murder and rape are crimes which should not go unpunished, regardless of whether someone pardons you or not. So in other words we have a major flaw in our legal system.

As far jirgas are concerned, they need to be banned totally and strictly stopped from awarding any punishments in criminal cases. That will happen only if the government and the judiciary gets serious about the rule of law. Civil society has been objecting to jirgas for decades now.

The NCSW has just completed a study on the loopholes in the law enforcing systems, whereby hurdles are created in the way of women getting justice. Registration of FIRs, collection of evidence and conducting of medico-legal tests were among the major problems. In my opinion, the entire system is problematic not just for crimes against women but for other crimes as well. Simple attitudinal change is not good enough for law enforcing agencies. A total revamp is required. The practice of adding a name in an FIR simply because someone rich or influential wants to get even with his rival must end.

We need to demand an overhaul of the police system. Minor changes would not help. Citizens should build up pressure and the provincial and federal governments need to come up with a serious plan of action. Unless there is some accountability of the police force, which often tends to step out of line, the system cannot be improved.

We have been making efforts to raise awareness. Several good training courses have been held at the police academy, for which several senior police officials have lent their support. But our desire to have the police on our side still remains a distant dream.

Q: What is the way forward in terms of legislative changes and effective implementation of laws?

A: I think we need to be smart and respectful with all stakeholders. Bashing them and complaining doesn’t help. We need to know how laws are made and do our homework based on solid research and then make our plans to influence the system. Once we build credibility with others and they are assured that our intention is to bring about change and not to humiliate or create a fuss, my belief is that many will come on board with full ownership. Instead of holding press conferences and chanting slogans we need to come up with creative solutions and not just recommend them but convince relevant partners to help experiment with new ideas and not give up.

In general, I think we need to expand the women’s movement as well and evolve more dynamic and creative ideas. Small cliques of hard-core feminists tend to scare the younger women away. A more diverse movement, that is accepting of other women from diverse classes and backgrounds, would help us a lot. Besides I have always worked with men and women together. I think there is a lot more potential for change when we deal with women’s issues as community issues and get everyone on board to help us out. I believe many in Pakistan would join in a struggle if they know things would change for the better.

This interview was originally published in the March 2012 issue of Newsline under the headline.

Zubeida Mustafa is a senior journalist. She writes on a variety of subjects but her interest has mainly been in the social sector which she has covered extensively. She has investigated in-depth issues such as education, health care, women’s empowerment, children’s rights and the lives of ordinary people.