MS A must be 40-something. Beaten, stripped and paraded naked, she was kidnapped from a village in Punjab’s Muzaffargarh district last weekend as punishment because her nephew married a woman of his choice from a politically influential clan.
She has come home but not before being publicly humiliated. The married couple now on the run fear for their lives. Legal protections deter the persecution of women but there is little awareness about reforms in the public domain where crimes against women are not perceived as such and where most women are punished for the actions of male relatives.
In Punjab, for instance, women are forcibly subjugated using gender violence. There are procedural problems in reporting and registering cases, and finding protection for victims. When the province operates as a sanctuary for extremism and perpetuates misogynist attitudes, gender crimes are not condemned on public platforms or by religious leaders and male politicians. Such actions indirectly sanction illegal jirgas handing out unlawful punishments especially with influential political patronage.
A Herald poll on gender equality this month alarmingly reveals that views shared by younger respondents are reflective of conservative mindsets: with the youth population increasing in the next 10 years, certain trends explaining violence against women may significantly shape society.
When Maulvi Ghulam Sarwar shot dead Punjab’s social welfare minister Zille Huma in 2007, he confessed it was an “act of jihad”. Former Senator Nilofar Bakhtiar concedes “the violators [of crimes against women] have the support of political strong men which is a reality we must accept. Zille Huma is just one example. In my political career, I have seen many cruel examples like these”.
Anti-women practices (honour killing, vani, swara, budla-i-sulh) are difficult to prosecute, when perpetrators are patronised by influential politicians, and the law is ineffectual. In the last six months of 2011, crimes targeting women rose in Punjab with 3,153 reported incidents, according to Aurat Foundation.
Some 860 women were kidnapped with Sargodha registering 90 cases. Nineteen women were subjected to violence on a daily basis. Eighteen-year-old Shazia ran away from her village in Bahawalpur with her three-year-old son. They live at Karachi’s Panah shelter home. Her husband forcibly sold her as a sex slave to local gangsters. When she pleaded with her brother for help, he threatened to kill Shazia if she didn’t obey her husband. Determined to get a divorce, she is training to become a beautician.
Maybe one day she will remarry, she concludes self-assured that life will improve.
Gender equality achievements through societal changes in practices and attitudes and monitoring for policy decisions are linked to concentrated activism. The year 2011 was a landmark year for pro-women legislation and, conversely, a year marked by lack of political intervention when it came to putting the laws into practice.
Last month, it was a déjà-vu of sorts when the Domestic Violence (Prevention and Protection) Bill was passed without opposition in the Senate. It has yet to go through the National Assembly for approval but for Ms Bakhtiar who moved the bill even this victory was hard-won. In 2002, a lapsed domestic violence bill tabled by PPP parliamentarian Yasmin Rehman was vehemently opposed by politico-religious parties: Maulana Sherani of the JUI-F explained domestic violence was a private matter and the state should not intervene.
The same Maulana Sherani opposed the sexual harassment bill walking out of the House when it was passed. Identifying the religious right as ‘misogynists’, Justice (retd) Shaiq Usmani explains this reaction to ‘revolutionary bills’ is because conservatives resist women’s empowerment.
Shaking up the political status quo is especially difficult when Pakistan’s political developments have not supported a sustained women’s rights movement. Anti-women statements and even death threats diffuse activism efforts for fear of rising intolerance.
It was different for women post-Partition when activism saw the rise of influential female activists but women’s issues dropped off the radar for years with martial law declared in 1958.
What was then ignited in the 1980s began as a protest movement born out of outrage at Zia’s regime and the disregard for women’s rights appears to have developed into something larger. Considering that Zia’s legacy saw the most significant rollback when it came to women in the legislative arena, it is reassuring that the demand for women’s rights continued despite the post-9/11 Talibanisation wave.
After the 1980s, the gender right struggle left the streets to lobby for legislative change and pro-women policies. If the 1990s witnessed failed democratic transition, it didn’t stop activists from openly contending with sensitive issues.
The year 1995 and the Pakistan report at the Beijing Conference on Women meant more voices creating linkages, drawing in social grass-roots movements. Those years focused on violence against women and later prioritised political representation.
Without women’s right agendas within political parties, it was realised their issues wouldn’t have national momentum. Cross-partying lobbying in later years supported the passage of pro-women legislation.
Attitudes towards women — what they wear, their rights, and access to public life — depend on socio-religious values. While political Islam finds its niche, conservatives often misuse women as scapegoats. Maybe we don’t see radical women getting together and raising their voices today because their movement is more about political ideology and critical reasoning, less about sloganeering.
Women are not just about women but about democracy, education, anti-militarisation and anti-nuclearisation. There are fewer voices censuring political Islam and more that understand the need to equate Islam with modernity and equal rights to create awareness in the hearts and minds of people. So it seems for now women driving change must look at the long road ahead past the badlands.
The writer is a senior assistant editor at the Herald.