Commission Report too good to be real

By Zubeida Mustafa

The women of Pakistan have received the best gift they could have wished for on the golden jubilee of the country’s independence. A commission headed by the Supreme Court judge, Justice Nasir Aslam Zahid, has presented a report to the government on the status of women. If its recommendations are accepted and implemented it would be like a dream come true. But will that happen?

The status of women has for long been a controversial issue in Pakistan. Enlightened opinion has recognized the need for change in the gender equations in our society. Some policymakers who now show a greater awareness of the social bias against women, admit with regret that they had never been sensitized to the woman’s point of view when drawing up laws. “Our women deserve a medal for endurance,” one of them remarked.

On the other side of the fence have been the vested interests, mostly male, who have waged a fierce struggle to preserve the status quo. They have thrived on the subordination of women and have sought to sanctify the woman’s inferior role in the name of religion, without actually saying it in so many words.

They are the ones who find their privileged position threatened by the report of the commission. Hence the brickbats from those quarters. The religious parties have been its most virulent critics describing the recommendations as “anti- Islamic”, “unconstitutional”, and the work of secular-minded people working to promote the West’s agenda. Senator Aitzaz Ahsan (PPP) who praised the report has been dubbed anti-Islamic, hence not qualified to be a member of parliament since the constitution requires the candidate to be a good Muslim.

It would be a pity if the commission’s report on women meets the same fate as the recommendations of its three predecessors. The Zari Sarfaraz commission could not even make public its findings in 1985, when they were finalized, because General Zia’s regime found them too distasteful. It saw the light of day three years later when a democratic order had emerged.

In that respect the Nasir Aslam Zahid commission has had a good start. It was set up in 1994 following a Senate resolution. Soon thereafter, its membership was expanded to include six women members, one of them being Asma Jehangir the inveterate champion of women’s rights. Being headed by a judge who is known for his humane and liberal outlook, the commission adopted a progressive and, more importantly, a fearless approach to women’s issues. On the instance of the commission, the government agreed to release the report right away. It, however, remains to be seen when the Senate and the National Assembly will hold a full-fledged debate on it. The prime minister who has welcomed the report has not made any public commitments on it. If it is pushed into the background to be soon forgotten, it would be a tragic waste of the hard labour which has gone into the writing of this well- researched and profoundly investigated document. It would also be a big injustice to the women of Pakistan.

The report touches many a sensitive chord. Women activists are pleased because the commission has tackled openly issues which have been only talked about in closed forums in Pakistan before. For instance, there are the questions of family planning, abortion, the right of women to work outside their homes and the need to reform the family laws in order to ensure social justice for women. Even the need for the Shariat Court and the legality of Hudood Ordinances have been questioned and their repeal suggested. No one from the government side had dared to say such things before.

The fact is that many of these issues have been taken up by women activists in Pakistan from time to time. But operating from territory familiar to them, they confined their approach to  .  the secular human  rights context. They preferred to give a moral and ethical rather than a religious underpinning  to their struggle for  wornen’s emancipation.The key questions about women in the context of Islamic teachings were never posed. The women’s movement in Pakistan therefore failed to make an impact on the women’s situation. With religious beliefs and spiritual values so strongly embedded in the public consciousness, women activists were dismissed as maghribzada (Westernised) who are alienated from the indigenous cultural norms.

The Nasir Aslam report is different in one key respect. It says what the feminists have been saying for many years, but it seeks justification for its stand within the parameters of the teachings of Islam. All the controversial issues have been forcefully supported with references from the Holy Quran, the Hadith and the fatwas of ulema (extensive use is made of the Fatawa-i-Alamgiri which comprises the interpretations of 500 Muslim scholars). This it was obliged to do under the terms of its reference. These required the commission to suggest amendments in the existing laws for bringing them “in accordance with the injunctions of Islam as enshrined in the Holy Quran and Sunnah”.

The strength of the report lies in its synthetization of the religious views with a modernistic approach.

Right at the start the members define some of the realities which seemed to them indisputable. The three realities spelled out are: * Pakistan cannot divorce itself from international norms

* It will have to accept women’s rights as human rights

There is already a dynamic movement in the country on behalf of women’s rights and circumstances will only cause it to gain momentum.

The overall thrust of the report is progressive. The authors are, however, bound to tread on sensitive toes on account of their willingness to address directly and frontally the key issues that affect women directly and give them  an Islamic interpretation. It is this approach that is upsetting the traditional conservative religious schools  in the country. For once they cannot dismiss out of hand a major document as a product of secularists who, according to them, have no relevance to our society. For instance, the focus of the report, among other things, is on family planning, abortion, a woman’s right to work outside the home, and sexual harassment which have a direct bearing on poverty. The pressure for change in these areas has been growing but NGOs, women’s groups and the government  leadership have failed to mobilize the women at the grassroots level in a big way. They have also failed to counteract the re1igious parties who have no political clout but are quick to propagate the obscurantist interpretation of Islam to perpetuate a patriarchal system.

The commission supports extensively its interpretations on family laws, polygamy, family planning, abortion and so on with references from the Quran, hadith and works of religious scholars. Mr Khalid Ishaque’s research on these issues finds comprehensive mention and is included in the appendix.

Not surprisingly, women activists are happy. Anis Haroon, a founder member of WAF and a very committed spokesperson for women’s rights, welcomes the report as “very progressive.” She considers the consensus between government representatives and members of the women’s movement as a major “step forward”.

The criticism has, as could have been expected, come from the religious groups. Since the battle has shifted to their home grounds they feel extremely vulnerable. For the first time, their traditional positions have been exposed as being inconsistent with the principles laid down by the Quran and the Sunnah.

By obtaining the endorsement of Maulana Tuaseen Mohammad, a member of the Ideology Council, who also served as a member of the commission, the authors of the report have reinforced their stance. Of course the maulana has expressed his reservations about some issues and written a note of dissent as well. What is important is that he agrees with most of the recommendations of the commission — the only issues on which he is not in full agreement and has something more to say by way of elucidation are some provisions of the family laws, mainly, the woman’s automatic right to divorce in case her husband marries a second wife, and the inheritance rights of a deceased son’s family. On the issues of polygamy and the woman’s right to work, Maulana Tuaseen adds some conditions while the issue of family planning he calls as controversial requiring ijtihad. Significantly, he refrains from giving his own opinion one way or the other on family planning.

Anis Haroon feels that given their failure in politics and their inability to mobilize popular support in elections, the religious parties should be bypassed. Instead, women activists should lobby with the MNAs, MPAs, Senators and the political parties to generate pressure on the government to implement the report. Anis describes some provisions of the report as a major breakthrough. She specifically mentions the recommendations on marital rape being recognized as a crime, right to abortion, domestic violence being made punishable, restricted polygamy and repeal of the Hudood laws. She feels more concerned whether the recommendations will be implemented.

The significance of the report lies in that for the first time such sensitive issues have been taken up and analyzed in the context of Islam. If the progressive interpretation of women’s rights can be proved to be consistent with the teachings of Islam, it will win widespread- support at the grassroots level. What is disappointing is that critics have been very dogmatic in their response. They have pronounced the report un-Islamic without making an attempt to argue their own case. The need of the hour is an open debate on the issues the commission has touched. If the religious scholars do not agree with the commission’s viewpoint, as is plain they don’t, they should put forward their own case so that a healthy discussion can follow.

It is time the issue of. women’s rights was brought into the open and debated freely. Thus alone will the cobwebs which cloud people’s minds be cleared away and some progress made. If the commission’s report can initiate this process, it will have served its purpose.

Source: Dawn 28 Sept 1997