BHUTTO, a documentary about Benazir Bhutto's life, recently opened in the US to gushing reviews. The film sidesteps allegations of corruption, and instead revives the feminist mythology of the former prime minister's first term. Interviewees describe her as the first female head of a Muslim state, the woman who succeeded despite the fact that her parents mourned her gender at her birth. The urge to celebrate Benazir's successes as a woman is common, and seems to be catching. Desperate to bookend critiques of Pakistan with positivity, westerners and local analysts alike point to the country's women as a source of hope. They emphasise that female students are the top scorers in university exams; that feisty, female anchors keep Pakistanis informed through nightly newscasts; that rural women sustain families with microfinance loans; and that the Supreme Court Bar Association is headed by a phenomenal female lawyer.
Paeans to Pakistani women also highlight how they accomplish against all odds. It is the Mukhtaran Mai model of feminism: after being gang-raped and dragged naked through the streets, she started her own school. And Benazir sought revenge by championing democracy. This recurring theme pits Pakistani women as capable of saving themselves, each other, and the country as a whole.
Too bad reality does not concur with these lofty narratives. The Federal Shariat Court's declaration about the unconstitutional nature of some clauses of the Protection of Women Act (2006) is the latest blow to the struggling cause of women's rights in Pakistan.
Through this judgment, the FSC is advocating for the Hudood Ordinance to be reinstated in its most brutal and unjust form: it has ruled on provisions that require female rape victims to produce four witnesses to support their claims, and entitle police to arrest women who report rape on charges of adultery. In other words, it appears the court would like to sanction the false convictions and wrongful imprisonment of victimised women.
Unfortunately, this is not the only setback to women's rights in 2010. The year began with the death by the alleged torture of Shazia Masih, a young maid in the employ of a prominent lawyer. The case inspired urgent calls for the government to reintroduce the Domestic Violence (Prevention and Protection) Bill, which lapsed last year after the Senate failed to pass it. Months have gone by, and Pakistani women still await the bill's second coming.
Tens of thousands of girls continued to be deprived of an education as the Taliban blew up dozens more schools, while the government showed little interest in rebuilding and securing the facilities. Atrocities such as honour killingsthrived under the guise of tradition, while mounting cases of rape, domestic violence and harassment remained beyond the purview of the law. All this, despite the fact that this summer's flooding exposed the pitiable state of Pakistani women to the world. As the Indus breached its banks, we saw waves of malnourished, illiterate, poverty-stricken women, without so much as a national identity card to call their own.
Given the ongoing plight of Pakistani women, it is strange to think that just last year the nation's attitude towards extremists was changed by televised images of a young woman from Swat being flogged. Overnight, people rallied to defend women against such brutalities. But back then, too, it would have been fallacious to think that security policy could be dictated by a genuine interest in safeguarding women's rights. The fact is, women's rights in Pakistan are a political tool that is wielded by various factions to manipulate an emotive public and further agendas that rarely have anything to do with women.
The Asian Human Rights Commission has already warned that religious parties will exploit the FSC ruling for political gain — expect a pro-Hudood campaign in the same vein as the ongoing pro-blasphemy law movement. Coinciding with the religious right's machinations to wrest power from the ruling coalition, the judgment offers the perfect impetus to launch an anti-women platform, hog news headlines, and rouse conservative sentiment to drive future electoral gains.
Of course, all blame for the political manipulation of women's issues does not lie with the right alone — the left is equally guilty. Consider the PPP, which uses the Benazir symbol to legitimise a corrupt and crumbling government. This is the same government that allowed Senator Israrullah Zehri to become a federal minister after he defended the alleged burying alive of five women in Balochistan as 'tribal tradition.' It is also the same government that imposed the Sharia law in agreement with the Tehrik-i-Nifaz-i-Shariat-i-Mohammadi in Swat last year, despite knowing the implications for women's rights.
While warning against the 'Talibanisation' of Karachi, the MQM too raised the cry of women's rights. But as ethnic strife in the city has intensified, many have dismissed that as an attempt to stem demographic change along ethnic — and thus electoral — lines. Where were these political parties when the domestic violence bill lapsed? And what will they do now that the FSC has issued its ruling about the women's protection act?
Nothing illustrates the fact women's rights are a political ploy, rather than a genuine movement, more than Sharmila Farooqui's recent response, as reported, to the alleged gang-rape of a young woman in Karachi. Rather than defend the victim's privacy and legal right to prosecute, Farooqui revealed her identity to the media and expressed scepticism about her claims. One cannot say that a woman of Farooqui's generation has been brainwashed by a patriarchal mindset; one can only assume, then, that she believed it was politically expedient to downplay allegations of rape, rather than use the opportunity to decry the injustices of the Hudood Ordinance.
In this environment, Pakistani women should not be fooled into thinking that their rights are secure or expanding. Isolated incidents such as Asma Jehangir's SCBA victory are no indication of how far we've come. In truth, Pakistani women's status is devolving, and that too in the name of a vibrant democracy. Rather than celebrate the exceptions, the international community should pressurise the government to prioritise women's empowerment. The first step towards curing a problem is admitting that you have one.
The writer is the Pakistan Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Centre in Washington, DC.