Changing anti-woman laws

WOMEN are in the news again, thanks to the interest being taken in their rights and concerns by the Supreme Court and the new chairperson of the National Commission on the Status of Women. The Supreme Court, which had been looking into the vani cases relating to five girls in Mianwali, has directed the police chiefs of the four provinces to protect women against the unIslamic customs of vani and swara which require a woman to be handed over to a man as compensation in a settlement of a dispute. Dr Arifa Syeda, the chairperson of the NCSW, has demanded the repeal of the Hudood Ordinances that have inflicted injustice of the worst kind on women. She has taken up from where Justice Majida Rizvi of the Sindh High Court left off when she retired.

Seen against the backdrop of the low status of women in Pakistan, these moves are to be welcomed. They establish the growing empowerment of a section of women in Pakistan who are willing to take up the issue of women’s rights fearlessly. It is encouraging that their number is increasing. WAF has extended support to Dr Syeda’s demand while parliamentarians have also promised to support women’s rights by introducing bills such as the Repeal of Hudood Laws Bill, Equality of Opportunities for Women Bill and the Bill on Domestic Violence. If this trend continues, the movement for winning legal sanctions for women’s rights should gain momentum. Given the fact that it is not just the social attitudes and customs that are anti-woman in Pakistan — vani and swara are good examples — but laws like the Hudood Ordinances also work against women, the need is to change these laws. The task may sound relatively easy, but it is not. Vested interests have resisted changes in laws even if they are dated and actually anti-social. But given the awareness being shown by many parliamentarians, judges, legal aid bodies and NGOs working in the field of law and legislation, one can hope for many laws to be repealed or amended in due course. This is important if protection has to be provided to women who are courageous and willing to fight their cases. Mukhtaran Mai’s case clearly establishes how a legal underpinning is essential to help women resist injustice and win their rights.

It must be pointed out, however, that changes in laws are not enough by themselves. Many of the crimes committed against women are rooted in reprehensible customs and traditions that are discriminatory, sexist and patriarchal. How else does one explain the practice of honour killings, domestic violence and gender prejudices that create so much misery for women? Laws alone cannot change these effectively as numerous cases have shown. But education and a social campaign can. Unfortunately, the significance of this is not adequately recognized. For instance, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan in its report for 2005 recommends many changes in the laws but does not speak about educating people and changing their social attitudes. While there is need to sensitize judges, police and lawyers about women’s rights, it is equally important that the attitudes of society are also changed. Education can play an important role in this respect, but NGOs and other bodies should also work concertedly to persuade people to respect women and accord them greater importance. Women themselves must learn to value their self-esteem and outgrow the early conditioning they live with all their lives.

Madressah registration

THE drive to have madressahs registered seems to be succeeding. So far 9,271 of the 13,000 plus seminaries have got themselves registered. That means a good 4,000 or more still need to be registered. The registration process should have been completed by Dec 31, 2005, but objections from madressah associations disrupted the process twice. The main opposition came from the Ittehad-i-Tanzeemat-i-Madaris Deenya, which is a grouping of five madressah organizations. It demanded registration under the Societies’ Registration Act, and it had serious objections to disclosing the sources of funding. The government satisfied the group, paving the way for smooth registration. Now the federal government has asked the provinces to ensure that the entire process is completed by the end of March.

There is, however, another issue that is a source of tension between the government and the seminaries; it concerns foreign students. In the wake of the London bombings on July 7 last, it was revealed that one of the British-born suicide-bombers had visited a madressah in Pakistan. On July 29, the government ordered that all foreign students leave the country. Their number is estimated at 1,400, and most of them are on valid passports and visas. Traditionally, Pakistan has attracted students from Arab, Central Asian and South-East Asian countries for Islamic studies because it has some very prestigious madressahs. And let it be said that an overwhelming majority of foreign students are devoted to education and do not take part in political activity. However, the same cannot be said of many Central Asian and Afghan students who managed to slip into Pakistan, benefiting from the chaos in Afghanistan. Since they owe their lodging and boarding to their madressah chiefs, they obviously obey them and take part in activity that has nothing to do with religious studies. The unfortunate result is that even those who strictly concern themselves with education have fallen victim to the expulsion order. The best course would be to vet all students and decide on a case-by-case basis. Expelling genuine students will be an act of injustice to those who come here only to acquire Islamic education.

New missile crisis

NOW this is an altogether curious affair. The Afghan government is reported to have objected to Pakistan naming missiles after Afghan heroes — Ghauri, for instance. An Afghan minister has said Pakistan has been asked “not to use the name of the great elders of Afghanistan on weapons of mass destruction or other war equipment”; it was welcome to use the names for peaceful things’ like memorials, monuments, etc. Why did Ghauri and Abdali and other warriors come marauding south? our foreign office should’ve replied. If they had stayed in Afghanistan, we wouldn’t have treated them as our heroes and been content to look around for indigenous heroes. This would’ve been a difficult, agonizing search.

Scratch our heads as much as we can, and we can’t come up with a really local hero for a Pakistani weapon. Our political and military leaders have been thoroughly discredited by one another. We can’t possibly name missiles after our mystics, poets and writers, who would turn in their graves at being associated with anything war-like. We could have a Musharraf missile or a rocket called Qazi I or Fazl II (hoping it wouldn’t fizzle out) or a tank dubbed Bhutto. But critics might say they have all proved to be rather loose canons and are best left untouched. We came up with Ghauri because India named one of its missiles Prithvi. The solution to the new missile crisis is simple — stop building missiles and other deadly weapons. No missiles, no need for names. Thank God, no one in the subcontinent has yet thought of finding a name for a nuclear bomb. And, meanwhile, is it possible, despite the militarization of society, to stop putting up war-like monuments in public places?

Freedom no licence to malign

By Shameem Akhtar


DOES freedom of the press have no limits? The question was long answered by Justice Holmes when he ruled that liberty of speech does not mean that a person could cry fire in a packed theatre and create a pandemonium there.

This should serve as a litmus test for the permissible freedom of expression, the press not excluded. This is the universally acknowledged truth that the liberty of action of an individual ends where the nose of his fellow citizen begins.

It means that an individual enjoys the liberty of action, but this is not absolute. It is relative to similar liberty of his fellow citizens. Simplistically put, the rights of the individuals and groups have to be correlated in a harmonious whole in order to ensure peaceful coexistence. This is why the constitutions of civilized countries seek to balance the right to free speech against considerations of national security not rights and a susceptibilities of citizens.

In this context, the state can impose reasonable restrictions on individuals, groups and the media in the interest of the security of state. What are those reasonable restrictions is not to be determined by the executive.

In a democratic state, it is the jurisdiction of the judiciary. The Indian and Pakistani penal codes have set limits to the freedom of expression according to which libel, slander, incitement to violence and injuring the religious sensibilities of any group are offence under the law and as such punishable with various terms of imprisonment. These legal principles are embedded in the common law system, which is in vogue in the Anglo-Saxon communities spread across the world.

The Commonwealth countries have provisions in their penal codes that prescribe punishment for such an offence. In the pre-partition days, during the British colonial rule, there used to occur incidents of blasphemy such as the publication of a sacrilegious work by an Arya Samaj leader titled Rangeela Rasool which triggered countrywide agitation culminating in the assassination of the author by a Muslim zealot, Abdur Rasheed. Again, during the early ‘50s, the Hindi version of a daily, Amrita Bazar Patrika, published a caricature which inflamed the feelings of the Muslims of India. The publication was condemned by all sections of the Indian population and the newspaper editor and publisher had to apologize for the scurrilous writing.

No individual or group dared justify the publication on grounds of freedom of the press. They were all apologetic about it. In contrast with the above incidents, the reaction of the Danish government to the popular agitation against the sacrilegious cartoons was one of cynicism. More impertinent was the behaviour of the Danish prime minister who refused to meet the ambassadors of the Arab countries. The protesting diplomats were not agitators.

The initial haughty reaction of the Danish prime minister refusing to take action against the newspaper and to apologize for the offensive cartoons added insult to injury to one billion plus Muslims the world over, including the ethnic Muslim citizens of Denmark. As if this act of profanation was not enough, the governments of the European countries, most of them home to considerable Muslim immigrants expressed their inability to take action against the newspaper on the flimsy pretext of freedom of the press, meaning that the press had the right to defame, libel, blaspheme and incite people to violence.

This interpretation of freedom of the press stands in marked contrast with the curbs imposed on the civil liberties by the so-called anti-terrorist laws in the US and Europe that provide for arbitrary detention of suspects without trial, deportation of immigrants on suspicion, subjecting the Muslims to extreme physical and mental torture to ferret out information, abduction of suspects from far-off countries in collusion with compliant regimes in violation of the ex-tradition laws and human rights. The western press is forbidden to question these acts because that might be deemed abetment to acts of terrorism.

When the cartoons appeared in the Danish newspaper in September, the blasphemous act was ignored by the Muslim governments and the Muslim peoples as an aberration of a lone publication, but after a couple of months when about a dozen newspapers across the continent reproduced the cartoons it was not difficult to see that it was an orchestrated campaign against Islam calculated to provoke the Muslims into violence. Some hotheads walked into the trap, indulging in incendiarism, ransacking foreign diplomatic missions in Damascus and Beirut and sporadic violence elsewhere, thus alienating the world- wide support and sympathy for their cause.

The violent reaction in a few places gave a ready excuse to the western governments to equate the two wrongs — blasphemy and violence — making the former right and counselling peaceful dialogue between the aggrieved and the wrongdoer.

The crusading neocons, the neo-Jesuits and their allies, the Zionists, know full well the conditioned reflexes of the Muslims towards blasphemous attacks on their Holy Prophet, the recent example being the verdict of the Iranian clergy on Salman Rushdie, whose right to blaspheme the apostle of Islam through his book ‘the Satanic Verses’ was espoused by the US and Europe.

Another example is furnished by Tasleema Nasreen whose heresies were lauded by the West as freedom of expression. Both Salman and Taslima were given asylum by Europe and encouraged by the West to continue their activities regardless of the offence that their writings caused to the sentiments of the Muslims. What kind of freedom is this that engenders hate against an entire community? One may ask: Should an individual or a group be allowed to inflame the religious feelings of many?

That such blasphemous acts enjoy the blessings of the European Union is apparent from the fact that when Saudi businessmen declared boycott of the Danish products, the EU Trade Commissioner, Peter Mandelson, threatened the Saudi Kingdom to take the matter to the WTO. One wonders whether the WTO is the umbrella of the perpetrators of blasphemy, hate-mongering caricaturists and newspaper editors and their patrons in the governments.

Europe, which had been through religious wars during the Reformation and Counter-Reformation periods, might have renounced sectarian hatred and embraced religious tolerance at Westphalia in 1648, but it has yet to assimilate Islam in its body-politic as manifested in the ethnic cleansing of Bosnians, Kosovans, Albanians and Turkish Cypriots.

Now, it is the turn of Algerian immigrants in France, Turkish immigrants in Germany, South Asian immigrants in Norway, Denmark, Sweden and Britain. It was, perhaps, to provoke these elements into violence that the widely circulated newspapers published the caricatures so that the governments of these countries find an excuse to launch a drive against the Muslim settlers there.

On the other hand, the West has launched a drive to purge the hateful material from the syllabi of Pakistan without itself reining in its own media which spew anti- Islamic propaganda. While rebuking the publication of cartoons by European newspapers, the US official circles have accused the Muslim countries of inciting anti-semitic feelings and violent anti-West demonstrations. This is not true because the Arabs themselves belong to the semitic race and their opposition to Israeli occupation of Palestinian land is inspired by national self-determination, a sacred human right.

On the contrary, the anti-semitic feeling runs deep among the Nordic and Slavic races and intermittently erupted in the Czarist pogrom in Russia and Eastern Europe during the 1880s and in Germany and Central Europe in the 1930s. Added to it is the apartheid and racial discrimination that was transplanted in the overseas colonies of Britain in North America, South Africa, Southern Rhodesia and Namibia.

However, the Muslims should not think that they are any holier than others. For the sectarian killings in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan and infighting among rival denominations within the fold of Islam are no less abhorrent than racism. There is a great need for inter-sectarian harmony among Muslims and inter-faith conciliation on a global level. The demolishing of a mosque is as heinous a crime as the desecration of a temple or the burning of a church. The incident of blasphemy, far from hardening the religious divide, should serve as a catalyst for inter-faith conciliation.

Science and religion

IT is a relief to find acceptance for the view that science and religion need not be at war. So, following this week’s reports of the spread of creationism through Britain’s campuses — driven by both Islam and evangelical Christianity — we should take this opportunity to salute the Dalai Lama for his insistence that reason can trump faith. As a boy, the Dalai Lama gazed at the moon through his telescope.

He had been taught by his religion that the moon was a generator of light. He knew from science that it merely reflected the sun’s rays.

What he saw through his telescope — the play of light and shadow across the lunar surface — prompted him to place his trust in science.

He has since befriended and learned from scientists, and only last autumn told a meeting of US neuroscientists: “Both Buddhism and science prefer to account for the evolution and emergence of the cosmos in terms of the complex interrelations of the natural laws of cause and effect.”

—The Guardian, London



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