By Zubeida Mustafa
When it comes to laws governing women’s rights, it is easy to get caught up in a chicken first or egg first debate. Should laws precede social change or should it be the other way around? Can laws change ground realities? Or do changes in society force the pace of legislation?
These questions are nothing new in Pakistan’s context. This month the International Women’s Day will, once again, bring into focus this debate because the gap between the laws and their implementation has been widening. If one were to see the state of oppression of women in the country today – the incidence of violence against them is growing horrendously – it is quite difficult to believe that such pro-women laws are there on our statute books. But conversely, laws that promise justice and equality – even though they are merely symbolic – do serve as catalysts for change if there are activists around to take up the women’s cause.
In the last six years – that also includes the troubled closing period of General Musharraf’s regime – a number of laws have been enacted that focus on the rights of women. The question to be asked is, what has led to this new trend? If conventional wisdom were to be believed, this influx of pro-women laws should have come when the country had a woman prime minister.
The fact is that no female ruler can single-handedly change an entrenched system . It was only after Musharraf introduced changes in the composition of the law-making bodies to enhance the female presence in them that a new pro-women thrust was created. The women’s caucus brought women MNAs from all political parties under one umbrella. All this made it relatively easy to pass laws on women’s rights in quick succession. Another body which has also facilitated this process is the National Commission on the Status of Women (NCSW), also created by Musharraf. With committed feminists in the commission, a new centre of pressure in support of women’s rights was created. One can be certain that the general never anticipated the coming events when he took these measures as he was not exactly known for his political understanding of the measures he took.
Some of them, such as the Women’s Protection Act, 2006, came as a corrective measure to reverse the aberration introduced by an earlier military regime. Although the Hudood Ordinances, the bane of Pakistani women, were not abolished – though that had been demanded by liberal opinion in Pakistan – the Protection Act took away the teeth of Hudood by introducing amendments in the law that made it difficult to even initiate charges against a woman without a due process and substantive proof.
Others, such as the Protection against Sexual Harassment of Women at Work Place Act, 2010 constitute a radical step forward for women who leave the protection of their homes to take up jobs that can expose them to new risks that they never had to worry about before, namely sexual harassment from co-workers. This law provides for the processes for registering complaints of harassments, when none were available before, and thus obtain redress. At the time, Pakistan was said to be the only country in South Asia to have a law of this nature.
An attempt has also been made to reverse the anti-women retrogressive traditions that have made the lives of women so difficult in our society. This has been done by adopting the Prevention of Anti-Women Practices Act and the Acid Control and Acid Crime Prevention Act in 2011. The first of these bans, social evils such as the marriage of women to the Quran, giving them away as compensation to settle disputes, forced marriages, punishing women for marrying men of their own choice and denying them their inheritance. Severe penalties have been prescribed for these violations. The second makes acid attacks a crime. Most of these acts were already recognised as crimes under different laws but these enactments provide the much needed emphasis on checking the violations that take place in our society, the laws notwithstanding. The new laws are expected to act as deterrents.
Although, in normal circumstances, one would have felt more skeptical about the ability of these laws to bring about any change on the ground, there is hope today. Another law enacted recently – the National Commission on Women Act – increases the likelihood of the implementation of the other laws. Under the new law, the composition and mode of appointment of the NCSW has been changed making it more independent and powerful. Since the commission has been empowered to take up complaints of violations of women’s rights and even hold an enquiry into the matter if it is not being addressed by the relevant government body, it can become a pressure group on behalf of women.
One may well ask if a change can now be expected in the status of women in Pakistan. If one is expecting a dramatic change in the situation, I would advise caution. Societies don’t change that fast. The biggest challenge women face in Pakistan today is that of violence. According to Aurat Foundation, which compiles the data on violence against women every year, 8539 cases were recorded in the country in 2011. This registered a rise of 11% in four years since 2008. Yet the domestic violence legislation that was adopted by the National Assembly in 2009 failed to overcome the resistance it faced from obscurantist quarters. Efforts are again afoot to get provincial assemblies to pass this law, the legislative requirements having changed with the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment.
What we can celebrate is the beginning of the process of change. Laws, when in place, do not change the situation. But they do allow the reformer to address the issue with confidence and challenge the violators, which is not possible without a legal framework.
Pakistani women still have to go a long way. The hurdles they face have acquired a new character. As the Aurat Foundation report points out, some forms of violence have increased enormously, in spite of the media glare that violators find themselves in. It identifies specifically the increase in sexual assault cases (48.6%), acid throwing cases (37.5%), honour killings (26.5%) and domestic violence (25.5%). Worse is the trend of not registering FIRs and jirgas sanctioning the violence as punishment to a woman, while the men are acquitted on payment of hefty sums of money.
Obviously, apart from laws, we also need the political will to improve the status of women.