How this Women's Day is different for Pakistan

Published March 8, 2016
Women who I have witnessed hiding their histories of abuse suddenly told me they wanted to put it on record. — AFP/File
Women who I have witnessed hiding their histories of abuse suddenly told me they wanted to put it on record. — AFP/File

The first week of March, 2016 was a big one for Pakistan.

We lost a big cricket match and won a small one; Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy won her second Oscar for ‘A Girl in the River: the Price of Forgiveness’ to mixed reactions in Pakistan and we passed a bill that has been kicked around in both public and political circles for the past six years.

The most surprising context in these cases is that the government in place is the Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz.

Let’s face it, historically speaking, there are a few who associate radical counter narratives — whether accidental or contrived — with the ‘Noonies’.

Also read: Don't celebrate the Punjab women's violence bill just yet

Every year International Women’s Day is celebrated with pledges for parity regarding women’s rights. The occasion allows for thematic op-eds and columns (like this one) advocating that we all need to ‘do more’ for women.

In Pakistan, there is the annual backlash reiterating ‘western agendas’ and ‘what about men’ questions. This year is different, or better put, this year has the potential to be different.

The adoption of the Punjab Protection of Women against Violence Act (PPWVA) 2016 has already altered the discussion on women’s rights and will continue to do so in the weeks to come.

To clarify, I do not say this because the Act itself is revolutionary or because our generally paternalistic state has somehow seen the light on women’s concerns but rather because, for the first time in a long time, women seem to believe that the state is on their side.

This is the birth of a tenuous, tremulous trust between women and the powers that control them. It remains to be seen whether it is warranted.

They will no longer hide their abuse

My own cynicism on the Act took a bit of a beating a few days ago when I received a phone call from a group of friends. I had worked with these five women when I was a full-time journalist; two have experienced acid attacks and are disfigured. The other three were raped by members of their family.

Every one of these women left their home and is now struggling to make a living in Lahore.

I have been trying to assist them with this exercise in whatever capacity I can. They sporadically call me and tell me how their kids are doing; we occasionally go shopping together or watch a movie. It’s always Bollywood, they opt for anything with Hrithik Roshan; I’m told it’s his eyes. None of them talks of their respective pasts.

Examine: Pakistani women in the cross hairs

On Tuesday evening, they called me and asked whether they should report their cases to the authorities. I was stunned; I asked them what made them think they should.

Two of them mentioned that ‘now the law was on their side’, they asked me if it was ‘true’ that their family members could be punished under the law.

Women who I have witnessed hiding their histories of abuse suddenly told me they wanted to put it on record and this is the trust I am referring to. It has never existed before and for good reason. I am not sure if it ought to exist now. Nevertheless, in these cases, it does and that needs to be acknowledged.

Putting a face to crime

None of us can testify yet if this law will work or if the authorities will do their part in prosecuting abuse but one end of this equation is emerging. It has been a little over a week since the passage of the bill and two cases have been registered under it — one old and one new.

On February 29, Bassara Bibi filed a case against her husband over abuse under the Women’s Protection Act. However, in the past few days there have also been several reported honour crimes across the country, so one must manage expectations.

Many have credited Chinoy’s documentary and its Oscar nod for directly pushing the bill through. The documentary was screened for the prime minister and other political leaders and this move personalised the issue; the rest can be relegated to good story telling and the power of film.

Also read: We need to change the conversation about Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy. Here's how.

There is a case to be made for making statistics personal and for ‘putting a face’ to crime. Chinoy’s documentary featured one woman’s story that struck an emotional chord that 7,010 reported cases by Aurat Foundation in 2014 did not manage to do.

And yet, telling women’s stories is inherently problematic in a social rubric where women face the brunt of the blame for the violence they themselves experience.

Here, the state will have to be responsible in how it frames the narrative surrounding this Act.

What does our culture stand for?

The religious right has already begun chiming in with the usual suspects — ‘Western propaganda’, ‘against Pakistani culture’; Maulana Fazlur Rehman has expressed his concerns that the law will promote divorce and it is already being challenged in the Federal Shariat Court (FSC).

Such voices immediately ground us in the binaries we face when we speak about women in Pakistan.

Explore: 9 things Pakistani women don't need to be afraid of anymore

Just because the state is finally supporting women’s rights does not mean it is standing against men…unless those men are violent.

To imply that punishing violence against women is an exclusively ‘Western’ notion is tantamount to condoning it and calling it a part of our ‘culture’.

One constantly hears the phrase ‘there is no ‘honour’ in honour killings’ in which case punishing perpetrators of honour crimes should be promoted. It is about time we stop parroting one narrative on policy and another in practice.

When it comes to practical implementations of this legislation and room for abuse, there are gaps. Our procedural bodies and our law enforcement will require sensitivity training on these issues.

We need to work towards creating female-spaces where crimes such as rape, acid attacks and domestic violence can be reported to female police officials, and where women can perform the medical procedures.

Examine: Clicking on rape

Such measures may help address the major concerns most women have of reporting violence in the first place i.e. fear of police treatment, intrusive questioning and family pressures to silence the issue.

As for the punishment end, what should serve as punishment? These questions still need to be deliberated and the passage of the bill into law by no means caps that process.

Why not pull for a system where men convicted of abusing women or honour crimes are imprisoned and their labour and wages are used to fund girls' schooling, female-entrepreneurship programmes or women’s shelters?

It is about time we recognise that what is considered ‘criminal’ under the law and what is considered criminal in practice is not always the same. Pakistan has many laws that we do not implement and thereby, while they may be framed as ‘criminal’ under the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC) they are not regarded as such.

Crime is categorised in social consciousness by its counterpart ‘punishment’. ‘Honour killings’ are a crime against humanity but we will not believe this until people who commit that violence or kill in that context are punished for it.

We can and should argue about how, when and in what context we will implement this law but not about the need for it.

This Women’s Day affords us all with an opportunity; for once there is sufficient momentum surrounding women’s concerns in and outside Pakistan.

People are listening to us and this makes it especially important that we are mindful about what we say.

We need to speak for inclusivity, and for justice, and we need to do so in a language that brings people to these causes rather than drives them away.

It is about time that people who value ‘our Pakistani culture’ begin to protect what this culture stands for – it either promotes violence or it does not. If it does not, then the state standing up for the integrity, agency and security of half of its citizens simply cannot be bad thing.



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