Mullahs and Khans at odds over women’s right to own land

By Mubarak Zeb Khan

With the general elections looming large, women's rights are again coming to the fore in the North West Frontier Province where the two powerful influences on the Pakhtun society - the Mullah and the Khan - seem to be at odds on the issue.

While both sides agree on keeping women segregated and confined to their houses, they differ on the long denied right of women to own land.

In its five-year rule in the NWFP, the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), the flag-bearer of Islamic order in the country, made an attempt to frame a law securing women their right to own land as granted by Islam. But the Maulanas did not seem to be too keen in their effort as they succumbed to the subtle pressures mounted by the Khans to scuttle the attempt.

The Khans used the Pakhtun institution of ‘Hujra’ to defeat the attempt by the ‘Mosque’ to empower Pakhtun women financially.

Economist Dr Saba Gul Khattak feels that in championing the women's cause the MMA legislators appeared to be more interested in gaining political mileage for themselves rather than gaining women their right to land.

It was alleged by opponents that the MMA raised the issue of land ownership because its members did not own much land and secondly a legislation securing women that right would hit the male chauvinist Khans in areas where the religious alliance had no presence.

Their other "Islamic moves" also appeared to be dictated by political interests rather than promoting Islamic values. Soon after coming into power in NWFP in 2002, the MMA banned female sports, music in public transport and male medics handling female patients.

These actions spawned an 'unofficial' campaign against billboards carrying images of women, cinema houses and the entertainment industry in general - particularly professionals like musicians and female dancers.

Such entertainers performed mostly at wedding ceremonies and the ferocious campaign drove hundreds of female dancers in Swat, the only place they were found in the whole province, to worse - prostitution.

That the MMA stood more for form than the spirit of Islam was exposed further when its members in the parliament opposed tooth and nail the Women Protection Bill. But it must be said that they were not alone in opposing the bill as some members of 'liberal' parties kept them company.

Male chauvinism however is not confined to NWFP. It is unfortunately a hallmark of our feudal and tribal society. What is more unfortunate is that this chauvinism is practised in the name of religion, tradition and honour code - like Pakhtunwali in NWFP. There the Khans did not oppose the MMA's attempt at giving women right to land openly and directly but by churning out the propaganda that the MMA wanted to Talibanise the Pakhtun society.

In a way the MMA itself provided a platform for misogynists by peddling legislations like Hasba Bill which, in effect, excluded women from the mainstream.

Dr Saba Gul Khattak wondered why the venerated Maulanas of MMA and others wanted to impose Sharia law sans the rights of women ordained by Allah in Sura Nisa? Feudals lording the Punjab did not allow even their British colonial protectors to grant land rights to Muslim women, she recalled.

After independence, she said the feudals changed their tack, arguing that land should not be subjected to Islamic law until Islam was implemented as a code of life as a whole.

It is not that Pakhtun woman had been denied her rights always and by all.

Centuries ago the great Pakhtun ruler Ahmad Shah Abdali and warrior scholar Khushal Khan Khattak gave their daughters their due share in land inheritance, according Salim Shah, a researcher in the Islamabad-based Sustainable Development Policy Institute.

Women's right to land is particularly an issue in Peshawar valley, Swat, Swabi besides some other districts.

In some districts even men are robbed of their inherited land by the area's big Khan. As in other parts of Pakistan, husbands and sons force their wives and mothers to surrender their land to them.

Many factors lie behind the practice, like the subordinate position of women in the male-dominated society and restrictions on their free movement. Women also fear being rejected by the family for insisting on their rights, particularly from their brothers, who are considered their protector and custodian of their honour.

Although the courts grant land rights to women when approached, it is observed that women seldom wish to register cases at police stations as it is considered as disgrace to the family. Cases taken to the courts mostly arise from family feuds, failed marriages and enmity.

Researcher Shah said the culture of male members illegally transferring land in their names existed in some districts.

Corrupt government officials, particularly ‘Patwaris’ play a big role in depriving women of their land. A small amount of money and influence is enough to convince them to transfer the land in the name of male members of a family.

As education and awareness rise among the Pakhtun women, they will hopefully build enough pressure, with the help of the civil society and other lobbies, to secure their God-given right to own land.

© DAWN Group of Newspapers, 2008


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