Back in 1979, Zia-ul-Haq unleashed a series of harsh laws, discriminatory to women and minorities, as a part of his process of ‘Islamisation’. His reasons were simple: the people had to be controlled, and what better, easier way than by subjugating the already subservient?
Thirty years of consistent efforts towards amending those laws has been a near-impossible, uphill task. A refreshing change came with the Women’s Protection Act, 2006, which released thousands of women, falsely accused of zina (adultery), from crowded Pakistani prisons. It was followed by several favourable laws.
The key question remains: have the lives of ordinary women been touched with the passage of pro-women laws? To some level, yes, but much remains to be done.
In view of the high incidence of domestic violence in our society, it is essential to ensure the passage of Domestic Violence Bill, which is due to be presented in the provincial assembly, as required under the 18th Amendment. Despite the fact that violence against women (VAW) is ubiquitous, constant delays in introducing this Bill in the provincial assemblies have caused frustration as MPAs consider the text of the Bill offensive to the injunctions of Islam.
Even the Child Marriage Restraint Act, 1929, remains weakly implemented. Dr Tabinda Sarosh of Shirkat Gah says, “Nearly 30 per cent of all marriages in the country are child marriages, and little is being done to stop this trend.” These child marriages are responsible not only for destroyed childhoods, but also for high rates of childbirth and high incidence of reproductive health problems, she adds.
Even though women’s struggle remains subsumed in the overall tensions that fill this country, it is nevertheless essential to prioritise justice for women. Severe gender disparity has already led to Pakistan slipping five places down, to 134th position, in the UN categorisation of nations.
“The laws are there, but the mechanism to enforce them is deficient,” says Rabbiya Bajwa, women’s rights activist and lawyer, referring to the legislative changes as being cosmetic.
Mahnaz Rahman, of Aurat Foundation, considers current legislation progressive, but adds, “The parliament and provincial assemblies must play a stronger role; laws can only be successful if fully enforced by prosecutors, police, judges, health care and education experts.
“Raising awareness among the public is essential; even now men don’t take this issue seriously. Undoubtedly, legislation has been very important, but the male mindset needs to change. Pakistan’s obscurantist forces need to accept the reality of globalisation and today’s economy. Women are stepping out, and will continue to do so, in their millions. There is no question of stopping them. The repeal of discriminatory laws is essential.”
“One finds the well-educated, those with a supposedly liberal façade, to be the most difficult. On women’s issues they don’t act together at all, even though respect for women and related aspects are simple issues,” comments Fouzia Saeed of Alliance Against Sexual Harassment. She found considerable resistance from senior officials who would actually joke about the issues; it’s mostly said that it’s a woman’s fault if she gets harassed or raped, because of the clothes she wears. Traditional stereotypical myths abound; even when she gets beaten or raped, the fault is always her own.
Saeed cites the substantial amount of research, mobilisation, advocacy and awareness-raising that were required both with the public and political levels, for the Bill on Harassment at the Workplace. While mobilising the private sector, which included organisations like the Chambers of Commerce, and the civil society, the former have been far more forthcoming; her team found them much easier to work with than government officials.
The pro-women legislation can achieve meaningful change, with strong, firm implementation, wherein the law enforcers, the police and judiciary all believe in ensuring gender justice. Only then will the lives of ordinary women be touched by justice.