Different path

June 17, 2016

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The writer is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives and an associate professor of economics at Lums, Lahore.
The writer is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives and an associate professor of economics at Lums, Lahore.

A FEMALE member of parliament was called names during a parliamentary session and though many condemned the action, there have been far too many who have found the issue not to be worthy of censure. There has been no action against the minister by the political party he belongs to.

A senator threatened a female guest on a talk show, verbally abused her, allegedly tried to physically harm her and, days later, we are still debating if any action can and should be taken against him. The guest has lodged a complaint against the senator with the police. There has been a campaign against her on social media and she has even had threatening phone calls made to her. There has been no action from the senator’s political party.

Practically every other day, we have been hearing of women who have been injured, mutilated, maimed, burnt or killed by relatives because they married of their own choice, did not listen to relatives, were suspected of doing something that their families did not permit, or were just not compliant enough. Most recently, a mother has been accused of burning alive her daughter, who had married someone of her choice.

It is not just individuals who have been involved in such crimes against women, even members of the Council of Islamic Ideology think it is okay for men to beat their wives as long as the beating is ‘light’. When people have asked them to explain what this means, we have been told to wait for the proposed draft bill.


Our elders did want a homeland for Muslims. But was it this sort of society and state that we wanted?


There has been a spate of attacks against members of the transgender community. The most recent incident involved Alisha who was shot several times but then her treatment at a hospital was delayed because she was a transgender. She died two days after she was shot.

Attacks against Christians and members of other religious groups are also quite common. Even children and the elderly are not spared. Gokal Das of Ghotki, Sindh, who is 80 years plus, was badly beaten by a policeman recently for selling edibles before iftar time.

Ahmedis have been fair game, for abuse, torture and even murder, for a long time in Pakistan. It is not just that the state of Pakistan has declared them non-Muslims. People of this community also continue to face institutionalised and state-level discrimination, and there is almost an incessant barrage of verbal and written hatred spewed against them by certain mainstream sections of our society. No wonder, like other minorities, many have chosen to leave the country and settle elsewhere.

As Faiz asked, is this the ‘dawn’ we set out looking for? Our elders did want a homeland for Muslims. But was it this sort of society and state that we wanted?

We seem to be facing a significant existential issue that is creating a deep confusion at a very basic level for us. The confusion often manifests itself as an actual contradiction in our thinking and actions.

Should the ‘state’ of a country have an official religion even if the majority of people living in the country are from one faith? The problem is that if the answer is ‘yes’, the confusion we are seeing is bound to come through. If the state has a religion, all answers about rights, obligations and responsibilities, will have to come through the lens of the faith in question. We will have only rights that the official religion gives us, or, in real terms, whatever the dominant interpretation of religion that exists gives us.

But religions, almost never, have only one interpretation at a time. They always have internal contestations. There are always many sects, sub-sects, and interpretations. And some of these interpretations differ from each other in substantial ways. If the state has an official religion, it will have to choose an interpretation of that religion as well: it will have to favour one sect, one reading of the religion over others. How is this contestation to be structured?

More importantly, what happens to those who do not agree with the dominant interpretation(s)? Will they have rights to exist in such a society or will they have to either live as second- class citizens or leave the country? What happens to those who are not members of the chosen religion at all? We have Christians and Hindus living in Pakistan. We have some — though few would dare admit that — who are atheists. Do we give them any rights? And will these rights be interpreted through the lens of one religion?

Whether those who made Pakistan wanted to go down this path or not, this is the path we have followed. And the space, for contestation, has inevitably become narrower over time. When it was possible for minorities to hold high office in Pakistan in the early years, now it is a rarity. Where women had more space in the 1960s, now the space has shrunk a great deal. And social attitudes and laws have followed each other to reinforce the narrowing of space over time. No need to talk of all the inter-sect and intra-sect killings.

But there was another path. We could have gone down the route of making the Constitution and the basic laws of the country secular and extended or assigned rights, obligations and responsibilities of the state and individuals on that basis. And then, space, personal and some common, could have been provided to various religious communities to live by the codes they wanted to live by. It is not that there would have been no issues on this path. But these might have been more amenable to better solutions given the primacy of rights. Is this path still open to us? Is this the only way we can move forward? And, given the climate in the country, can that be a path we can even try to walk on?

The writer is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives and an associate professor of economics at Lums, Lahore.

Published in Dawn, June 17th, 2016