August Issue 2010

By | Arts & Culture | Books | Published 14 years ago

Late advocate Rashida Patel’s book Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment in Pakistan is both informative and prescriptive. For not only has she provided an in-depth analysis on a host of laws that affect women, but she has also made recommendations for reform.

Why does Patel matter? An eminent lawyer, she was familiar with the pertinent issues confronting women in Pakistan and, more importantly, understood how the law can be used to clamp down on violence and mitigate gender inequality. As an insider, Patel, who was an advocate of the Supreme Court and an active member of the legal fraternity, used her experiences to discuss violence against women, the menace of honour killing, nuptial concerns, divorce and reproductive rights as separate chapters in her book.

Patel identifies silence as one of the main reasons why women don’t get justice. She says, “The dependent and inferior legal, social and economic status of women in law and in practice is one major factor” for this. There are structural reasons as well. She points out that women often don’t get easy access to counseling or legal services. There is widely prevalent distrust of the police that discourages women from approaching them. But even when they do, the attitude of the police towards cases of violence against women is lukewarm or simply non-responsive. Patel puts the onus of addressing these issues on the state, along with non-governmental organisations.

She also discusses how the Zina Ordinance has contributed to the phenomenon of honour killing. She says it has created grounds for society to question the chastity of women. In fact, the Islamisation of the law and the misinterpretation of Islam are recurring themes in her book. Patel’s well-researched book includes quotes from the Quran to dispel the notion that women have been proclaimed inferior to men in Islam. For instance, she says that the Arabic word ‘qawwam’ means provider as opposed to master. Thus where men have been declared as strong by the Quran, they have also been given the role of providers.

Patel has included topics that are not widely discussed such as marriage of prostitutes. She says, “The well-known rules of Muslim jurisprudence are in favour of legitimising marriage rather than stigmatising individuals.”

She has also traced recent developments in the law. Several references to laws that have been changed recently and impact women’s lives have been discussed, including alterations to the Criminal Procedure Code 1898 and the Pakistan Penal Code 1860, such as the introduction of the death penalty for gang rape and the restoration of Huq Mehar.

Her analysis of women’s empowerment is not limited to the law but also includes legislators. She notes that “because women elected on reserved seats owe their position to the largesse of the party leadership, they have no option but to toe the party line and have little say on issues discussed in parliament. They are unable to unite across party lines in support of issues and laws that are specifically for the welfare and benefit of women unless those issues have prior sanction of their political masters.”

Anyone who is remotely concerned about the state of Pakistani women would be interested in this book. The first step to being able to secure one’s rights is knowing what they are, and the range of information Patel offers is outstanding.

In a country where women live in a constant state of fear, where news items about atrocities against them are progressively becoming more ubiquitous, where they have rights but are not aware of them and sometimes can’t secure them despite knowing about them, this book is an eye-opener and holds great value as a guiding force.