Pakistan ranks as the third most dangerous country for women to live in.
Every day in Punjab, at least six women are murdered or face a murder attempt; at least eight women are raped, another 11 assaulted, and 32 abducted for various reasons, according to a report published by the Law and order wing of the Special Monitoring Unit (SMU).
To sum up the report's findings, at least 60 women are subjected to violence every day in Punjab alone.
The figure does not account for the multitude of cases that go unreported, or are covered up by the woman’s family due to social stigma. Aurat Foundation estimates that 8,500 women face violation in the country every year— the majority of these cases are of domestic violence, which takes place inside the home.
But despite the alarmingly high incidents of violence against women, religious and political parties and members of the law fraternity are vehemently rejecting the recently passed Punjab Protection of Women against Violence Act 2016, and are terming it “contrary to Islamic teachings.”
The passionate resistance to this historic piece of legislation is emblematic of a mindset that suppresses women. But where does this power-trip come from?
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Insecurity #1: 'Strong women weaken society'
“The clauses in this bill will eventually lead to the break-up of society,” claims Maulana Sherani of the Council for Islamic Ideology (CII). Sherani wants the bill’s lawmakers to be tried under Article 6 of the Constitution, which deals with “high treason.”
Liaqat Baloch, the general secretary of Jamat e Islami, elaborates upon these reservations. “The bill states that women can force their husbands out of the house on the basis of an argument or dispute,” Baloch points out, “This will lead to the weakening of relationships.”
Baloch, like others, is concerned that the family system “will not survive”, as “men will face humiliation.”
Jamiat Ulema Islam (JUI-F) Chief, Maulana Fazlur Rehman believes that the law will hamper a family’s privacy.
“Family matters will no longer remain private,” he complains. According to Rehman, Islam dictates that matters between a husband and wife should remain in the house, and not be made public. Ridiculing the bill, Rehman has gone as far as to call for a law to “protect the rights of husbands” in the country.
Why should women suffer?
But member of Parliament and PML-N member Uzma Bukhari feels differently. “In our society, a woman is tortured and then asked to leave the house,” she says. “Why should the woman leave?”
Lawmakers at the Punjab Assembly say that incidents of domestic violence are much higher than reported— the number, they claim, is at least three or four times higher than what we know. They feel the Act is a positive step forward, as men who torture, rape and assault women will now have a legal deterrence to deal with.
The biggest problem, Bukhari believes, is that the Act is being misinterpreted. “The bill states that if a man tortures a woman he will have a choice to either leave the house or to stay,” she explains. “He won’t be able to force his wife out.”
Bukhari feels that being head of the house should not mean that men can get away with torturing their wives.
“If a man tortures his wife, you can’t put him in jail,” says Farah Ijaz Baig, vice chairperson of the Punjab Bar Council. “The wife will face problems for the rest of her life because her husband will never forget and forgive his wife for getting him arrested.”
Baig is worried that the clause which allows women to take their husbands to court will end up producing more violence. Baig feels it is men’s instinct to retaliate—they might be afraid temporarily, but they will not forget; once the legal proceedings are done with, it is likely that he will want to seek revenge from his wife.
Insecurity #2: 'Why should a man wear a bracelet?'
Another prominent clause in the bill which has received widespread criticism is the use of an electronic monitoring device. But many disapprove.
“Making a man wear a bracelet or a 'qara' is the same as humiliating him,” says Liaquat Baloch.
“A man can’t leave the house wearing a bracelet,” senior lawyer Aftab Ahmed Bajwa agrees. “Is he an animal that you’re making him wear a patha [leash]?”
Women lawmakers of the Punjab Assembly clarify that the tracking devices will only be used for men who are found involved in heinous crimes and in perpetrating violence against women.
The clause states that if the Court finds a person guilty of committing violence against the aggrieved, the Court can issue a order that requires the perpetrator to "wear ankle or wrist bracelet GPS tracker for any act of grave violence or likely grave violence which may endanger the life, dignity or reputation of the aggrieved person."
Punjab Minister for Population and Welfare, Zakia Shahnawaz rubbishes the claims of men facing humiliation by wearing an electronic monitoring device.
“What do men wear when they rape or murder a woman?” she asks, clarifying that men will be required to wear GPS tracking devices only in cases where they can potentially harm a woman.
The devices will allow authorities to keep track of his whereabouts, and will help prevent him from going near the woman. “Men are not being asked to wear devices over small disputes," Zakia clarifies.
No previous laws protecting women
“We already have family laws in place,” insists Bajwa. He cites the example of the Women Protection Act 2006, and the mediation committees which have been set up in accordance with the local government act. “This bill is overdoing it. It wasn’t needed.”
Bajwa feels that lawmakers could simply have made amendments to previous bills instead of introducing a new one.
However, not all agree with Bajwa. Special Monitoring Unit’s senior member Salman Sufi is one of the people who has been asked to draft much-needed reforms in Punjab, even if they are considered unconventional.
“There was no law dealing with this kind of protection in Pubjab,” Sufi says. “The current criminal procedure does not provide protection to women.”
Sufi explains that provinces cannot alter the Code of Criminal Procedure (CRPC), which is a federal law. Instead, new recommendations like the 2016 Act provide civil remedies such as protection orders, residence orders and monitory orders.
Furthermore, since the Act specifically deals with the protection of women, he feels it will help make police forces more receptive to specific problems and laws that deal with violence against women.
Farah Ijaz Baig, vice chairperson of the Punjab Bar Council, puts Bajwa’s argument in perspective. “We might pass new bills every day, but our problem is that don’t implement those new laws,” she explains. “The law isn’t weak, its implementation is.”
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Addressing loopholes, increasing agency
Lawmakers in the Punjab Assembly feel that the new Act fills in loopholes left ignored by previous laws.
“When a woman went to a police station after being tortured by her husband, the police would ask her to go back to her house and settle the issue on her own since it was a personal matter,” says Sadia Sohail Rana of Pakistan Tehrik e Insaf, who is a member of the Punjab Assembly.
In rape cases, Rana says women face severe humiliation at police stations, where officials put forth all sorts of "bizarre questions".
Rape cases also require a medical examination to be done within 72 hours— but since this procedure is neither followed nor addressed by enforcement agencies, the lack of physical evidence often makes a survivor’s case weak.
“Accused parties have long used delaying tactics so that the medical examination is delayed," Rana explains, "Which makes it easier for them to be released.”
Human rights activist, I A Rehman, also feels positive about the Act, which he says introduces new dimensions in the problem of violence against women. “In the past, a case was only registered when a woman was physically tortured,” he explains. “Now, even mental torture is considered a punishable crime.”
Rehman feels that if men have reservations against the bill, they simply have to change their behaviour and stop torturing women; family norms do not have to be affected.
“Our society has a habit of not accepting the rights of women,” Rehman points out. “Therefore anything that protects woman and allows them to challenge the atrocities of men is considered unacceptable.”
How the bill works
Minister for women development Punjab, Hameeda Waheeduddin explains that the most important aspect under the new bill is the implementation of the rescue and protection system. “Everything will be under one roof,” Waheeduddin explains.
As an initial step, the Punjab government is establishing Violence Against Women Centers (VAWC) across the province. These will be one-stop operations where women will be taken through the process of filing a First Investigation Report (FIR), provided medical help and if required, shelter.
A toll-free number has also been set up where women can call seeking help, or can get information via the phone if they are unable to come to the Center. Women can also request rescue teams if needed, especially if there are barriers imposed upon their communication with the VAWC.
Under the new bill, protection and mediation will be the job of government-recognised committees, where the issue between two parties will be solved in the presence of local community leaders, police officials, doctors, psychologists and even family members.
“We will also ensure that the law is not misused,” says Salman Sufi. For one, there are severe repercussions for those who abuse the law, and accuse someone on false charges. Women can face up to 12 to 18 months in prison, in addition to a fine of Rs100,000 to Rs200,000 if they are found to have misreported a case.