Published in The Express Tribune – cover art by Stephanie Peters
With the law about to pass, the M.P. from Dera Ismail Khan took to the stage – and what a voice he had. The bill, Maulana Fazl-ur-Rehman said, was meant to appease America. The bill, he said, didn’t address other issues in the country.
There’s usually a checklist to this sort of thing: pass a pro-women’s bill, and watch the religious right tick all the boxes.
Uncle Sam at it again – check. Rape can wait it out – check. Our culture implicitly involves thrashing ladies – check. Pretty mild business so far, but then josh-i-khitabat took hold.
‘This bill,’ said Maulana sahib, ‘will turn Pakistan into a free sex zone.’ Reference to Sodom and Gomorrah, lands of the crazed and depraved – check, check, check.
That’s another thing about the Human Rights Laws Spoiler Checklist: as these bills near passage, things escalate quickly. And that’s held true since 2006.
Because Maulana Fazl was speaking a decade ago: General Musharraf’s Women’s Protection Bill was on the cards at the time, and the religious right was punching the walls in.
Another M.M.A. lawmaker (how glorious it is to speak of the M.M.A. as purely in the past, like big hair or the floppy disc) also joined in. In words better suited to white evangelicals, she said ‘the bill would [promote] the sex workers’ industry.’
Tangerine turbans off and legal caps on now, the bill from ’06 actually focused on curbing the worst excesses of the Hudood laws, i.e. making it far easier to go to jail for adultery, but nigh impossible to prove rape.
And if the Hudood Ordinances could be boiled down to a single statistic, it would be the National Commission on the Status of Women estimating that 80% of all women were jailed because they had failed to prove rape (and were thus convicted for adultery).
The Women’s Protection Bill was meant to dab at this sick state of affairs. And as we turn, ten years later, to another protection bill in Punjab, let’s look in the rearview mirror again.
Despite the right’s fever dreams, Sodom and Gomorrah never quite came to pass. And how could it: as per the review of Max Blumenthal’s Republican Gomorrah, a portrait of another far-right movement oceans away, some demons point inward than out.
Many of the movement’s leading figures are united by more than political campaigns; they are bound together by a shared sensibility rooted in private trauma. Their lives have been stained by crisis and scandal […] for the most zealous foot soldiers of the right, the crusade to cleanse the land of sin was in fact a quest to purify their souls.
And to what end: despite our local crusaders, obsessed with family as they are, the country remains a terrible place for its women and children – with violence, rape and honour killing still prevalent.
Some of that was meant to change with the Punjab Protection of Women Against Violence Act, 2016 – it provides for a district protection committee, 24-hour Violence Against Women Centres, and widely defines violence against women: including sexual violence, stalking, and economic and psychological abuse. For a Punjab as unequal as ours, some say this is historic.
It probably isn’t. As scholar Abira Ashfaq put in another paper, the law isn’t cause for celebration: plenty gaps need plugging – from the shoddy state of our shelters to the dangers of signing off on yet more committees, many that never see the light of day.
Even taken by itself, the bill doesn’t exactly criminalise the offence of ‘domestic violence’ either, instead tucking various parts of it under the P.P.C., and prescribing punishment accordingly. This makes little sense: if punishment is already prescribed in other parts, there’s no need for the bill. And if there’s need for the bill, there’s need to create an offence of domestic violence to punish it better.
Because the whole reason we’re having this discussion is that the police turn away abused women, P.P.C. or no, because it’s a gharelu matter. But what we’re left with is a hotchpotch of laws. Among the many pluses of the Eighteenth Amendment, a sure failing was devolving human rights to the provinces: we now have three different acts – in order of comprehensiveness – in Sindh, Balochistan and Punjab.
And though the Sindh Assembly’s certainly led the way, it’s depressing to see how few cases have been brought under the new act. We end up circling round to the same thing: the major issue facing our justice system isn’t a lack of laws, it’s a lack of implementation.
But who to take us there: there’s the P.M.L.-N. wanting a soft image without making hard choices, the P.T.I. not making any choice at all, and the religious right screaming for our souls.
Even if this week gives us a little more to be hopeful for. Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy landed another Oscar for a burning social problem, and that’s no one’s idea of a small step. Shedding light on honour killing – a euphemism for our deepest shame – A Girl in the River may even spark fresh legislation. That’s filmmaking at its highest: not just bringing home the gold, but making a better place home.
As to the critics, whom see the country’s holy glory trampled, perhaps its best to tackle the problem than those talking about it. Justice Tassaduq Hussain Jillani cut to the root of the horror in Muhammad Siddique vs. The State (PLD 2002 Lahore 444). Upholding the conviction of a father that had brutally slain his own daughter, the judge wrote,
Murder in the name of honour is not merely the physical elimination of a man or a woman. It is, at a sociopolitical plane, a blow to the concept of a free, dynamic, and an egalitarian society. […] These crimes have a chain reaction. They feed and promote the very prejudices of which they are the outcome, both at the conscious and subconscious level to the detriment of our enlightened ideological moorings. But are these social aberrations immutable? Is it an inexorable element of fate that women should continue to be the victims of rage when it comes to the exercise of those fundamental rights which are recognized both in law and religion? NAY!
In a place as dangerous as this, one only hopes more people stand up: lawmakers and judges, artists and activists, with ‘nays’ as emphatic. Because ten years after talking of Gomorrah, Maulana Fazl returned to the mic, and the checklist was out again.
‘They are enforcing laws of western society in our society.’ Uncle Sam at it again – check.
‘We are not against women’s rights but this new law will lead to break ups of homes and make men feel insecure.’ Protecting the family equals an assault on the family – check.
‘After the passage of this bill I feel pity for the husbands.’ Body blow to manhood as we know it – check.
Maulana sahib is right to feel pity. As the Hon’ble M.P. from Dera Ismail Khan, he oversees a female literacy rate of 18 percent, with girls’ enrollment at 5.88 percent. The gentleman has also represented Bannu not too long ago, where female literacy is at 7 percent (according to Khwendo Kor in 2009), and girls’ enrolment 1.07 percent.
Indeed, sir, there are many things to pity husbands for. And a number like 1.07 percent sears the eyes.