THE timing of two encouraging developments in the fight against domestic violence in Pakistan could not have been more appropriate, for they come during the 16-day UN initiative, UNITE to End Violence against Women. On Tuesday, the Federal Shariat Court ruled that the Punjab Protection of Women Against Violence Act, 2016, is not in violation of Islamic injunctions. The verdict is doubly significant because of all the legislation passed on the issue in the country, this is the strongest. It clearly stems from a desire to do more than pay lip service to our international commitments: it stipulates practical, technology-based safeguards — including ankle and wrist monitors on abusers — to keep women safe. In a patriarchal culture where men are seen as having an inherent right to ‘control’ women — by force if necessary — there was considerable resistance to the law, including from PML-N’s own legislators. Legal challenges against it were filed within days of its enactment, with petitioners asking the court to strike it down on religious grounds. That the FSC has ruled otherwise and ordered it be implemented properly and rolled out across Punjab could set a precedent for other provinces. As an effective counterweight to specious arguments about ‘cultural values’, the verdict can provide the impetus that women’s rights campaigners need to push for more effective legislation.
The Sindh High Court on Wednesday, while upholding the life term handed down by a trial court to a man for murdering his wife, also demonstrated a keen understanding of the problems that bedevil the prosecution of domestic violence cases. The judge observed that these cases should be assessed through a different lens but that the police lack the mindset, training and investigative skills to do so. Notwithstanding the absence of witnesses, the circumstances of a case — such as in the matter before him on appeal — can provide compelling evidence. The court has made a salient observation: the police often overlook, or treat casually, evidence that is material to such crimes against women, including a toxic home environment that can lead to murder. This lackadaisical approach is also often cited in the investigation of honour killings which then makes it easier for the perpetrators to walk free. Parliament, judiciary and media all have a role to play in changing mindsets, and the verdicts mentioned above illustrate that a shift in approach is indeed possible — if one assigns due importance to women’s safety in the home.
Published in Dawn, December 2nd, 2022