Pakistan: Women friendly laws are a start to turn the tide

Asia Human Rights
March 4, 2016
Reproduced with Permission
Asian Human Rights Commission

Domestic violence is rampant throughout the world. In Pakistan, however, female victims of such violence are left without reprieve, as they have to suffer the dogma of being labelled loose women if they decide to stand up to their abusers, who are usually male family members. So Pakistani women have been staying in abusive relationships, because they are taught since childhood that staying in abusive relationships is what good women do.

This notion needs to change. And, fortunately, legislators are finally waking up to the fact that a house where a woman is unsafe is not a home.

On 24 Feb 2016, the Punjab Assembly passed the Punjab Protection of Women against Violence Act (PPWA). It is the first of its kind, a law that provides rehabilitation and justice for women that are victim to domestic abuse, emotional or psychological violence, verbal abuse, stalking and cybercrime. The law criminalizes all forms of violence against women, provides them with special centres, and aims to remove the usual red tape hurdles that complicate a woman's quest for justice.

The law has attracted the ire of the orthodox clerics who have termed the Act to be against the injunctions of Islam and have vowed to use all mediums to oppose the Act. The Chief of Jamia Binoria International, Mufti Muhammad Naeem, has stated that the Act is contrary to the teachings of the Holy Quran and Sunnah. He has termed the law a bid by the westernized NGOs and government to suppress men at the hands of women.

"Rulers under their mental slavery of the West are forgetting their social values also," remarked Mufti Naeem in the statement. He has even gone on to call the PPWVA "a tragedy."

Mufti Naeem criticized Nawaz Sharif for taking small issues seriously and called it as aping the West for these kinds of laws that are against "our culture and Islam". He argued that the rate of divorce is high in the West because women have all the power. The Maulana is distressed by the fact that women in the West can even call the police at 2 a.m. in the night with a complaint.

The government is also facing unfettered criticism from religious political parties who are terming the Act to be against the injunctions of Islam. Jamiat-i-Ulema-i-Islam (Fazl) Chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman also came-up with strong-worded criticism on this new law and demanded the Punjab Government revoke it - claiming it to be in conflict with Islam and something that would destroy the very fabric of Islamic society.

The Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) has termed Women Protection Bill passed by the Punjab Assembly to be against Islamic teachings and the Constitution. While addressing the media, the CII Chairperson Maulana Mohammad Khan Sherani said that Article 6 of the Constitution, which deals with treason, could be applied against the Punjab Assembly for approving a bill without the Council's consent. Interestingly, while the Council has obtained an English version of the Women Protection Bill, 2015, they are now seeking a translated copy of the Bill from the Punjab Assembly in order to review it thoroughly, since not all Council members are proficient in English.

This beats common sense and raises the question of how the Council unilaterally termed the Women Protection Bill as un-Islamic without having full cognizance of its provisions?

In another attempted blow to the Act, the Federal Shariat Court was moved to consider declaring the law - especially Section 7(d, e) of the Act - repugnant to Islam, the Holy Quran and Sunnah.

Section 7(d) and (e) of PPWVA deals with GPS ankle or wrist trackers that may be placed on men to monitor their movement round the clock.

The section states:

As per the petition filed in the Federal Shariat Court, "The section is based on the NGOs' slogan that the man is always guilty". The petition also stated that the law did not contain any mechanism for filing a complaint against a woman for causing mental and psychological trauma to her husband.

Religious clerics have been turning a blind eye to the rising incidents of rape and extra marital affair; so far not a single edict has been issued on the subject. The clergy fails to recognize women as equal individuals as provided in the Holy Quran. Women's issues are deemed unimportant and not worth the time of the clerics who go all out hailing a murderer like Mumtaz Qadri.

According to a Thomson Reuters Foundation poll, Pakistan is the third most dangerous country for women after Afghanistan and Congo. The poll report has cited cultural, tribal, and religious practices that are harmful to women in Pakistan, as well as acid attacks, child and forced marriage, and punishment or retribution by stoning or other physical abuse as reasons for the ranking. The report also states that 90% of women in Pakistan face domestic violence.

According to the statistics of violence against women contained in another report, this one submitted by the Ministry of Law, Justice and Human Rights to the Parliament, there were 860 "honour" killings (mostly women), 481 incidents of domestic violence, 90 cases of acid burning, 344 cases of rape/gang rape, and 268 incidents of sexual assault/harassment. And this is just the official toll. Less than half of the abuse is reported in Pakistan.

Women of Punjab bear the brunt of domestic violence, according to the data gathered by Aurat Foundation, an NGO working for women rights. As many as 7,010 cases of violence against women has been reported in Punjab.

Keeping in view the shocking statistics of incidence of violence against women in Punjab, which are the highest in the country, it has become all the more important to legislate effectively to curb the menace, enforce the law, and make efforts to sensitize society. More women today are economically independent and most know there are services out there that can come to their aid if partners become abusive, but only very few take the risk of speaking out, as such women face subsequent antagonism for washing dirty laundry in public and bringing shame to the family name.

Evidence shows that most men make excuses, citing temporary anger and terming verbal abuse as normal, while shrugging off the seriousness of financial control as punishment. Society also encourages violent behaviour as acceptable and a social norm.

While criminalizing domestic abuse is the first step, it is by no mean the end; society, particularly the men, will have to be sensitized on the issue.

The promulgation of the PPWVA is indeed commendable. However, it remains to be seen whether the State and Judiciary proactively implement the provision to protect the victims of domestic violence, ensuring protection of her interest, life, and dignity in the process.