The bane of domestic violence

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

WHILE lawmakers in Pakistan are still grappling with the challenge of humanising — if not actually striking off from the statute book — the ghastly Hudood Ordinances, India’s parliamentarians have moved much faster to provide protection to their women.

A new law, described as “landmark” by observers, has been adopted by the Lok Sabha and has come into effect to protect women from domestic violence. It also bans harassment for dowry and empowers a magistrate to issue protection orders where he feels they are needed.

Domestic violence, defined as violence that takes place within the confines of the home and in private, has for long been a major problem that women have had to face in practically every society. It refers not only to the singular act of “wife-beating”, or worse still, of physical violence resulting in injury or threat of violence that has to be addressed. Even more devastating is the continuous pattern of behaviour that causes the man — or his family — to attempt to exercise control over a woman by resorting to physical, emotional, psychological and economic abuse.

Given the similar cultural background of South Asian societies in terms of the status of women, India has indeed taken a bold step by adopting this law. In Pakistan, where women face a similar problem the PPP-P had introduced the Prevention of Domestic Violence Bill, 2005, in the National Assembly early last year. This bill, which is underpinned by extensive research, is designed to rectify the lacunae in the law by recognising domestic violence as a crime. But as was not unusual for our parliament, the Speaker sent the bill summarily to “the relevant committee”, which is a euphemism for shelving something indefinitely.

Interestingly, the bill when it was brought before the House created an uproar when the parliamentary affairs minister, Mr Sher Afgan Niazi, opposed it on the grounds that “the Quran permits wives to be beaten” and, therefore, the bill on domestic violence is not Islamic. He was probably referring to the 54th ayat in Surah Nisa although this has been interpreted unanimously by enlightened scholars “as deprecating any sort of cruelty, even of the nagging kind”.

In most oriental societies where women are not highly educated and they internalise their subordinate status, they do not like to disclose the violence they have to suffer. A survey held in India reported that as many as 70 per cent of wives are beaten by their husbands, yet 56 per cent of Indian women believe that this behaviour is “justified in some circumstances” which vary from “going out without the husband’s permission to cooking a bad meal”.

The situation appears to be worse in Pakistan where domestic abuse is often denied by the victims themselves. The Pakistan Institute of Medical Sciences, Islamabad, states that “over 90 per cent of married women report being kicked, slapped, beaten or sexually abused when husbands were dissatisfied by their cooking or cleaning, or when the women had ‘failed’ to bear a child or had given birth to a girl”.

It is not just the fact that domestic violence is shrouded in silence and concealed in the privacy of the homes that makes it so worrisome. The laws in force are also insufficient to protect vulnerable women. Thus a woman who undergoes physical violence is not provided any legal redress until she is actually harmed physically, that is, suffers “grievous hurt”. This would mean that she should actually lose a limb or an eye/ear, suffer permanent disfigurement of the face, have a fracture or dislocation of a bone or a tooth.

Even when violence has taken place and the matter is reported to the police, the attitude of the law enforcing agencies is to hush up the case and advise the parties to resort to reconciliation. They treat it as a “domestic issue” in which they cannot intervene.

The draft bill provides a protective mechanism in the form of the protective officer who is notified by the government for each police station and should not be below the rank of inspector and should be a person of known integrity. He will determine the gravity of a case and immediately intervene in the matter and assist the victim to obtain medical assistance if needed and facilitate her shifting to a safe place of her choice. He will also help her obtain a protection order from the court. He will report the case to the family conciliation council which will be set up under the bill by the DCOs. The council’s function will be to attempt to resolve the intra-familial disputes amicably. This is important in view of our cultural milieu and socio-economic compulsions. The victim can obtain a protection order from a magistrate if she feels threatened.

This law, though sensible in its approach, may not see the light of day, given the mindset of a large number of our legislators. While the struggle goes on at the legislative level, it would pave the way for change if women’s rights activists launch a campaign to create awareness about domestic violence. There is need to educate men about the rights of a woman as a human being and do away with the prejudices and biases inculcated in them over the centuries.

But women also have to be told more about their own rights and the phenomenon of domestic violence . Since it has been shrouded in secrecy and the issue is not publicly discussed, it is not generally acknowledged and evokes mixed emotions. Victims are known to feel anger against their oppressor and also a sense of hurt apart from the physical pain that is inflicted on them. But paradoxically they also suffer from a feeling of guilt, as though they are responsible for the violence inflicted on them.

What is badly needed is marriage counselling facilities which hardly exist in this country. The solution of the problem does not lie in breaking up rickety marriages that abound in our society and thus disrupt the institution of the family. It would be more sensible to provide counselling to men and also women to teach them how to live together in peace and harmony and take care of their family. That is the only social support system our society has to offer and it should be developed into a healthy and thriving institution. Domestic violence always negates this aim.