PAKISTAN: A nuclear state remains unable to protect the fate of women

In retaliation for the recently passed Women’s Protection Act by the Punjab provincial government, Pakistan’s Council of Islamic Ideology has made parallel suggestions for amending the Act, including allowing a husband to lightly beat his wife for defying him, banning co education after primary level, and banning women from receiving male visitors.

The Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) is a powerful constitutional body that advises the Pakistani legislature on whether laws are in line with Islamic teachings. The body consistently attempts to stop the development of women’s rights. After the Punjab assembly unanimously passed the Women’s Protection Act 2016, orthodox clerics denounced it as being in conflict with the Quran and the Constitution of Pakistan, and vowed to use all mediums to oppose it.

The Act criminalizes all forms of violence against women, provides them with special centers, and aims to remove the usual red tape hurdles that complicate a woman’s quest for justice. Under the law, a family court would fix hearing within seven days from receipt of the complaint. The defendant will have to show cause in court in the same week. All complaints would be decided within 90 days from the day of the receipt. The law provides that victims of domestic violence cannot be evicted from their homes without their consent. If they are evicted, the court can intervene.

The court can also order a GPS tracker to be installed to monitor movements of the defendant, provided that an act of grave violence has been committed or is deemed likely to be committed. It also redefines violence as any offence committed against a woman, including domestic, sexual, psychological, economic abuse and cyber crime.

On March 14, Maulan Fazlur Rehman, Chief of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam, after meeting with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif, said that the Prime Minister heard our reservations against the Protection of Women Against Violence Act 2016 and promised to amend the law so that it doesn’t contravene the teachings of the holy Quran, and also asked for suggestions to make the changes. In response, the CII came up with a proposal for change, the main features of which are:

• A light beating is acceptable should the need arise to punish a woman. The proposal bans forceful beating, saying only a small stick is necessary to instill fear.

• Beating is allowed if a woman does not wear a hijab, if she interacts with strangers, speaks too loudly, gives others cash without her husband’s permission, refuses intercourse with her husband without any religious reason or refuses to take a bath after intercourse or her menstruation.

• It also suggests a ban on various activities, including women fighting in wars. But it allows women to participate in politics and become judges, and proposes that the need for a guardian for women of age is not required.

• Women should not be permitted to receive male non-relatives or foreign officials, and they should not use birth control pills without asking their husbands.

• There should be a ban on co-education after primary education.

• Female nurses should not be allowed to take care of male patients.

• Women should be banned from working in advertisements.

• Women can enter into a Nikah, a marriage contract, without parental permission.

• Anyone who tries to force women into marriage or facilitates this should be sentenced to 10-year imprisonment.

• If any non-Muslim woman is forced to convert, then the oppressor will be awarded three-year imprisonment while the woman will not be murdered if she reverts to her previous faith.

The CII consists of 20 members, and during the deliberation on this proposal, three members, Justice (retired) Manzoor Hussain Gilani, Dr. Noor Ahmed Shahtaz and Muhammad Abdullah raised objections on many clauses of the proposed bill and urged the chairman to moderate the bill.

It comes as little surprise that the proposed changes were discussed by a panel of only men, as the sole female member, Dr. Sameeha Raheel Qazi, was not present. Since the creation of Pakistan in 1947, a woman’s status as a human being has still not been settled. This is despite the significant number of women leaders in the independence movement, as well as women leading the rights movement after the creation of Pakistan. Ms. Fatima Jinnah, sister of the founder of Pakistan, also had tremendous public support while she was contesting the presidential election against military dictator General Ayub Khan.

In fact, prior to the independence of Bangladesh from Pakistan, it would have been hard to find the kind of discrimination between men and women that exists today. During the so called Islamic era of General Zia ul Haq, women were given half the status of men in all walks of life. This continues today, with women having to prove that they were raped, and provide four eye witnesses to the rape.

Being an Islamic country as declared by the Constitution, and a nuclear state, Pakistan has still to decide whether women are human beings, or mere instruments in the hands of Muslim fundamentalists who will decide what they must or must not do. The state and the government are always trying to appease Muslim fundamentalists with regard to half of the country’s population. This must end, and women’s freedom and liberty must be given back to women themselves, rather than to the Mullahs (Muslim leaders).

The proposed changes to the Women’s Protection Act not only go against the fundamental rights available to women in the Constitution of Pakistan and several international laws and treaties Pakistan has signed and is bound by, but they also add no value to the rights of women. The proposal must be dismissed, and instead the government should work towards effectively implementing the Women’s Protection Act, which is a landmark legislation that can contribute greatly to improving women’s rights in the country. The government should also take steps to reform the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII), by having half of its members be women, and increasing the professional qualifications of members.