A WEEK after becoming law, the Women’s Protection Act is still roiling Pakistan’s political waters. It is unlikely that the holy fathers — to borrow Ayaz Amir’s unctuous phrase — will deprive our assemblies of their austere presence by resigning their seats. Now the matter has moved to a more secular forum as coalition partners MQM and PML-Q proceed to debate it to death.

This bitter controversy underlines yet again the problems most Muslims have about the position of women in their society. Why should the simple matter of placing the crime of rape in the category of criminal offences requiring internationally accepted laws of evidence cause such a furore?

For a quarter of a century, women have had to suffer from the absurd condition of providing four male witnesses of “impeccable character” to prove they had been raped. Failure to do so exposed them to jail sentences if found “guilty” of fornication. Apart from the agony and suffering this law, imposed by the military dictator Zia in 1979, caused thousands of women, it also encouraged rape as the rapists were hardly ever sentenced.

Supporters of the infamous Hudood Ordinance will be delighted to learn that they have like-minded counterparts in Niger. According to a recent news item in this newspaper, this West African country, with a 95 per cent Muslim majority, has already rejected the Maputo Protocol. Nevertheless, fundamentalists there are protesting against any attempt to implement this plan of action. Adopted by African leaders in Mozambique in 2003, this protocol addresses human rights abuses on the continent, and has a separate section on gender issues. A far-ranging set of proposals, it seeks to eliminate the worst kind of abuses against women. Approved by 13 of the signatories, it has met resistance in Muslim-majority countries, especially for its pro-women charter.

It would be fair to say that Ibrahim Oumarou, a Niger mullah, and one of the organisers of the protest, reflected the opinion of millions of Muslims when he said: “Ulema cannot accept a man saying that his wife and he are equal in the sharing of their heritage. It’s unimaginable.”

A year or so ago, I received an email from a woman in the US with a Muslim name. She wrote that she was 24, and asked why she should remain a Muslim, given the low status she saw in the scriptures accorded to her gender. Normally, I never enter into a discussion about somebody’s faith, or the lack of it. I just don’t think it’s any of my business.

But as she had asked me a specific question, I replied that for its time, the Holy Quran signified a huge step forward for women as it gave them rights no other religion or society had even conceived of at that point in history. She replied that this was all very well, but I was talking about a stage 1,400 years ago, and the world had moved on since then. Women in non-Muslim societies now enjoyed far more rights than their Muslim sisters, so why should she follow a faith that made her inferior to men?

I had no easy answer, and our correspondence ended on this note. The truth is that for many Muslim women today, several Islamic provisions regarding the laws of evidence and inheritance do appear to disadvantage them. And as they give men authority over women, the former are naturally reluctant to contemplate a change in this set-up. Indeed, the entire social order is tilted in favour of men, and when one community or sex wishes to redress the power balance, an intense struggle takes place. This happened in the West over the last century, as women fought for, and won, equal rights. But although western women are equal under the law, pockets of discrimination and gender bias remain.

We need to remember that Muslim societies were not the only ones to treat women unjustly. Across the world, these attitudes have held women back for millennia. But as mankind moved from hunting-gathering to farming to industry, physical strength gave way to education and intelligence in determining an individual’s place in society. Especially in the last 50 years or so, it became clear that to unleash a society’s potential, half the population could not be locked up at home. A major reason why Muslim countries continue to lag behind the rest of the world is because their women are not being allowed to make a full contribution to progress.

Many archaic attitudes towards women are in fact based on tradition, not religion. Thus, the practice of wearing a veil varies from one Muslim country to another. Female circumcision or clitoral mutilation has no sanction in Islam. In fact, it is a pre-Islamic tribal practice confined to parts of Africa. It was carried out to ensure that women derived no pleasure from sex, and would, therefore, be more likely to remain chaste. And yet, traditionalist African Muslims insist on inflicting this barbaric operation on young girls on religious grounds.

This confusion between social practices and religious edicts has harmed women greatly. In order to retain their control over women, Muslim clerics have consistently favoured the most harsh and retrogressive interpretation of the scriptures. And since this suits most Muslim men, they do not join their women in their struggle to bring these laws into conformity with the requirements of natural justice. Those women daring to question the status quo are branded “westernised” and “secular”, as though these labels lessens the force of their argument. And all the while, men continue maintaining with a straight face that somehow, these repressive laws and practices protect women.

Foreign pressure to bring about change is countered by the assertion that these anti-women laws and practices are sanctioned by religion. In fact, few of them are. And in any case, Islam allows for “ijtihad”, or consensus to change earlier rulings. While the Taliban were probably the harshest in suppressing women, Saudi Arabia does not lag far behind. A couple of years ago, several Saudi school girls were burned to death when their hostel caught fire at night, and they were not allowed to escape by the morality police as they were not properly dressed. Women are not permitted to drive or work alongside men.

Quite apart from the larger question of justice, the plain fact is that if the Muslim world wishes to catch up with a world that is leaving it far behind, it will have to emancipate our women.

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