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Who’s afraid of CII?

April 07, 2014

LATELY, more and more voices are being raised for the abolition of the Council of Islamic Ideology. The strongest demand has come from the Sindh Assembly which, through a unanimous resolution passed on March 31, asked the federal government to get rid of this body citing recent anti-women views expressed by it. Earlier several civil society organisations and women’s rights groups had made similar demands.

The CII has lately hogged the headlines with a flurry of opinions and recommendations that, if considered, would roll back whatever some positive legislation, enacted over several decades, has managed to achieve for women’s rights.

Its first salvo was against DNA testing in cases of rape. DNA tests, in most countries that prefer to live by the rules of law and justice, are considered the most conclusive evidence not only in instances of rape but in other crimes as well. As long as DNA test reports are not accepted as primary evidence in rape cases by Pakistan’s judicial system, the conviction rate for rape will remain negligible and survivors will continue to be denied justice.

Recently, two successive sets of opinion expressed by the CII raised alarm bells. The first pertained to polygamy. In its infinite wisdom, the CII declared that, contrary to the provisions of the Family Laws Ordinance, the permission of the first wife is not required for a man to contract a second marriage.

It should be noted that the Family Laws Ordinance, promulgated in 1961, has been under attack from the religious right since the time it was proposed; the formation of CII strengthened the opposition. The last effort made by the CII to nullify or water down its provisions was during the government of Gen Pervez Musharraf.

More recently, the CII trained its guns on children, decreeing that the Child Marriage Restraint Act of 1929 was contrary to the Sharia which recognised adulthood as reaching puberty, regardless of age. It opined that parents and guardians had the right to marry off their children whenever they attained puberty. While this deplorable practice is still prevalent, at least there is legal protection for minors which the CII is keen to snatch away.

Moreover, Pakistan is committed under international conventions that it has signed, such as Convention on the Rights of the Child and Convention for the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women, to bring national laws in conformity with accepted international standards.

So who is afraid of the CII?

Successive governments, it seems. It would not be fair to blame the PML-N alone. The current Council of Islamic Ideology was formed by the former PPP government and its chairmanship given to Maulana Sherani of the JUI-F in exchange for support in parliament.

However, fear of extremist ideology, when it surfaces under the tag of ‘Islam’ is so pervasive that some PML-N leaders quickly echoed the CII’s recent views on child marriage, rather than support the amendments to the Child Marriage Restraint Act proposed by their own party MNA Marvi Memon. She was simply proposing raising the minimum age of marriage to 18, harsher punishment for those violating the law and making clear the jurisdiction of the courts in such matters.

Questions have been frequently raised on the need for the CII when the Constitution of Pakistan itself has many Islamic provisions, and the overwhelming Muslim majority in parliament makes the passage of any law contrary to Islam impossible. Moreover, parliaments in Pakistan have been traditionally conservative, choosing to err on the side of caution when it comes to matters related to Islam. In 1974, a relatively more liberal parliament declared Ahmedis to be non-Muslims and, even today, members shy away from any discussion on reforms in blasphemy laws.

Although it enjoys constitutional status, the CII’s role is advisory only. Set up under the Constitution of 1962 as the Advisory Council of Islamic Ideology, its entity was retained in the Constitution of 1973, though the word ‘advisory’ was dropped. It was possibly most active, much to the detriment of citizens’ rights, during the military regime of Gen Ziaul Haq.

During this period, laws passed on its recommendations include the Hudood Ordinances, 1979, encompassing the Zina ordinance, the Ehteram-i-Ramzan Ordinance 1984 and the Qanoon-i-Shahadat Ordinance 1984. The Federal Shariat Court was also established on the CII’s advice. The spate of legislation ostensibly based on Sharia, witnessed during the Zia regime, is a clear indication that any government, should it choose to entrench itself in the name of Islam, will find a willing ally in the CII.

Any ambitious ruler can easily manipulate this religious body to recommend regressive legislation that will create dictatorship in the name of Islam. And that is a danger to watch out for.

The writer is a freelance contributor.