March Issue 2014

By | Society | Published 10 years ago

PAKISTAN is a dichotomous world. This is a country that has produced a woman prime minister — the first to be elected in a Muslim state. Its predominantly male parliament — the lower house — unanimously adopted a bill against domestic violence four years ago, but it failed to become law because the upper house refused to take it up. Its academia are now overflowing with female students — many of them in hijab. But this is also a country where women are murdered for marrying a man of their own choice, where little girls like Malala are shot in the head for going to school and where law makers defend their ‘right’ to bury women alive in the name of honour and refuse to condemn a colleague who has had his daughter killed for wanting a divorce.

What does one make of such a muddled society? Add to this the paradox of the impressive list of pro-women legislation adopted by its elected parliament. If the situation has to be summed up in a nutshell, one may say, “Something is rotten in the state of Pakistan — that is the status of women” (to paraphrase Marcellus in Shakespeare’s Hamlet). The fact is that a huge majority of women in this country eke out a miserable existence. The privileges enjoyed by a thin crust of female population at the top are denied to the vast majority.

Ours is a patriarchal society. Even women from the privileged elite class suffer injustices spawned by sexual discrimination. The hierarchy of gender power leading to the oppression of the weak also operates at that level.

The good news is that changes have still been wrought in the status of women thanks to vigorous and vocal activism by courageous women in different walks of life. The Women’s Action Forum, for example, provides a common platform for numerous NGOs that are working for the rights of women in Pakistan. Today, the battle is between the forces of extremism on one side and the progressive strands in the women’s movement on the other side that are resisting the onslaught of the extremists. Who emerges victorious will determine the state of women in this country in the years to come.

If one were to turn a blind eye to the deplorable vital statistics, the slew of pro-women laws adopted in recent years would convey a hunky-dory image of a country that really cares for its female population. In the last decade, laws of immense significance have been passed that on paper provide far-reaching legal protection to women in many fields of life, especially outside the home. In other words, they create more public space for Pakistani women by assuring them that their dignity and security are safeguarded by the state. This should encourage them to participate in public life and join the mainstream.

The first landmark law was adopted in 2004 that declared Karo Kari (which declares a man and a woman who are in love as deserving a death sentence) a crime that was punishable by the state. Until then, it was treated as a crime of passion that would enable the murderer to get away with a light punishment or be acquitted. Two years later came the Women’s Protection Act 2006, which changed many anti-women procedures adopted under the Hudood Ordinances of 1979. In 2010, a report of the National Commission on the Status of Women (NCSW) revealed that there was no woman in any prison in Pakistan who had been charged under the Hudood Ordinances. In 2009 the Protection against Harassment at the Workplace Act and an amendment to the criminal procedure code were adopted to make life easier for working women.

The Domestic Violence Bill was passed by the National Assembly in 2009 but could not make it to the statute book because it met with widespread resistance from conservative quarters, including the Islamic Ideology Council, and was not taken up by the Senate within the stipulated timeframe. In December 2013, Sindh became the first province in Pakistan, after the passage of the 18th Amendment, to adopt the Domestic Violence Bill and join the ranks of 90 other countries which have similar laws.

Three other very significant bills which became law in the following year were the Acid Crime Amendment Act 2011, the Women in Distress and Detention Act 2011 and the Prevention of Anti-Women Practices Act 2011, that were designed to bring relief to women who became victims of male violence such as in acid attacks and torture in police detention. The last mentioned law was directed against deplorable practices such as swara (whereby women were forced into marriage to settle civil disputes) and depriving women of their property rights by marrying them to the Quran. Those found guilty of these crimes could be imprisoned for seven years, or fined.

The NCSW Act 2012 was hyped up a lot but it was no more than a legal shield for the Commission that was set up in July 2000 after a highly publicised women’s conference that was convened in Islamabad. The NCSW had already been functioning and had done good work under the able leadership of several committed chairpersons. The law made one difference, though, it made the NCSW autonomous.

But the main question to be asked is, why these laws have not brought about substantial changes in the status of women. The problem lies in their implementation, says Anis Haroon, the previous chairperson of the NCSW. These laws exist only on paper. It is plain that governments in office can get away without implementing these laws because the women’s movement has not touched the masses at the grassroots. A majority of the women do not understand the importance of their rights and the need to empower themselves. In a patriarchal society, the concept of gender equality does not exist. The winds of change had begun to blow, but the onset of Islamisation and Talibanisation blocked all progress towards enlightenment. They are pushing women back into the dark ages.

This highlights the need for a dynamic and strong women’s movement. Unfortunately, the women’s movement has lost some of its vigour as new blood has not entered it in full force. Anis Haroon speaks of the distractions that have kept younger women out of the struggle for women’s rights.

There is also the failure of the movement to connect with women at the grassroots. Their relationship has been patterned on a fire-fighting model. When something goes seriously wrong, activists intervene and go out of their way to provide relief. It is on such occasions that the laws come in handy as they provide the legal basis for fighting the wronged woman’s case. Otherwise, the laws have not had much of an impact except for the Women’s Protection Act that has provided relief from the excesses of the Hudood Ordinances.

 This article was originally published in Newsline’s March 2014 issue.

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.