VIOLENCE against women in Pakistan is both a crime and a socially accepted norm. While we have laws that protect women from violence, the state has absolved itself of the responsibility to enforce these laws. This means that women have an inherently paradoxical relationship with the state: with one hand the state gives women rights in the form of constitutional guarantees, international treaty commitments and some progressive legislation; with the other it takes away these rights by refusing to implement these laws or take measures to create the conditions under which these rights can be realised.
The guarantee of formal equality and the obstinate refusal to grant substantive equality mirrors the behaviour of an abusive spouse who somehow convinces you that you need him even as he abuses you. When he suspects that you are about to leave him, he promises to change — and may even behave well for a few days, before going back to his old ways. Similarly, in response to daily reports of brutality against women and abysmal gender equality indicators, our state authorities will take certain measures periodically. There is widespread rhetoric about the integral role of women in the development of a nation; laws seeking to protect women are enacted; entire departments within the government are set up exclusively devoted to the development of women. When it comes to effectively protecting women against violence rooted in patriarchy, however, these same state authorities become either apathetic or complicit.
This is not to say that formal equality is insignificant. It is crucial in a context where social and cultural norms relegate women to subservient roles and render them highly vulnerable. It is valuable particularly in view of the fact that there was a time in Pakistan’s history when discrimination against women was official state policy. During Gen Ziaul Haq’s era, the state pursued an active agenda to preserve the subservient status of women. This period saw the enforcement of discriminatory policies and the imprisonment of women under Hudood laws.
Zia’s overt discrimination against women depended on conflating the suppression of women with tenets of Islam, and the portrayal of demands of gender equality as anti-religious. This insidious discourse continues to impede the movement for gender equality long after Zia is gone, and even after some of the pernicious laws passed under his time have been substantially chipped away. The association of equal citizenship of women with an ‘anti-Islam’ agenda continues to haunt the women’s movement. The fact that today the slogan ‘mera jism, meri marzi’ is deemed an insult to the religious and cultural values of the country is, in part, a result of Zia’s legacy.
The execution of these laws and policies belies the complete lack of interest of the state.
Thanks in large part to the women’s movement galvanised during Zia’s era, as well as a powerful global movement for women’s rights, subsequent governments have not pursued an overtly misogynistic state policy. Instead, the last few decades have seen a slew of policies and programmes aimed to prevent violence against women.
In 1995, Pakistan became a party to the Beijing Platform for Action, thereby committing to a range of policy measures to end all forms of discrimination against women. Some years later, the National Commission on the Status of Women was set up to monitor the state’s response to the progress of women. To respond to violence against women, the government proposed the establishment of women police stations. A number of initiatives to provide shelter and safe accommodation for women were rolled out — crisis centres, safe houses and working women hostels. Recent years have also seen the enactment of progressive laws to protect and punish violence against women, including laws prohibiting domestic violence and sexual harassment in the workplace.
The execution of these laws and policies, however, belies the complete lack of interest of the state to respond to violence against women. Neither budget nor personnel are allocated to enforce laws intended to protect women. There is impunity for law-enforcement authorities refusing to prevent and punish crimes against women. Institutions designed to address gender inequality, such as women development departments and women police stations, remain woefully de-prioritised.
The persistent gap between laws on paper and their practical implementation can be attributed to dysfunctional government. It should also be attributed to the resistance of the state to pose any real challenge to patriarchy. Violence against women is one of the most powerful tools of patriarchy and therefore effectively curbing violence will mean a big blow to one of the most important power structures of our society.
This begs the question: do policies and programmes exist to allow the state to portray an image of being ‘woman friendly’ while avoiding responsibility for taking truly effective measures? Are these measures really just smoke and mirrors, intended to deflect attention away from the unwillingness of the state to challenge patriarchy by taking effective measures to end violence against women?
Those struggling for the rights of women, however, are put in a difficult position as they cannot risk rejecting the superficial measures taken by the state or pretending that they do not exist. Even knowing that the state has no intention to implement laws and policies aimed to protect women, we must hold it to its promises no matter how insincere they may be. Effectively, the burden is again on women to motivate the state to enforce its laws, allocate funds toward protection mechanisms for women and ensure accountability for law enforcement and judicial officers who are derelict in their duties towards preventing and punishing violence against women.
Without a doubt, this is truly exhausting. Aurat March is an extremely powerful expression of the outrage at the apathy of the government towards pervasive discrimination. It is just as true now as it ever was that the state will not give women anything without a fight.
The writer is a lawyer.
Published in Dawn, March 8th, 2020