IT is encouraging that the Anti-Women Practices (Criminal Law Amendment) Bill was finally passed by the National Assembly on Tuesday. Twice last month, the bill was stalled over what many observers saw as trivial objections. The social practices that the bill criminalises include that of women's 'marriage' to the Quran. This method of keeping inheritance limited to male family members is also quite common amongst the country's feudal elites, some of whom are parliamentarians. The legislators' failure to take the bill seriously had exposed them to criticism on the grounds of class self-interest cutting across political divides. Now, though, once approved by the Senate, the progressive five-clause bill ought to prove important in Pakistan's struggle to protect women's rights. Defining a 'marriage' to the Quran as an “oath by a woman on the holy Quran to remain unmarried for the rest of her life or not to claim her share of inheritance”, the bill spells out hefty punishment for depriving women of their inheritance through this or other deceitful means, and for giving women in forced marriages to settle civil disputes or criminal liabilities — another detestable practice that has for decades tarnished Pakistan's human rights record.
The role that targeted legislation can play in discouraging archaic and regressive practices must also be highlighted. Using women as currency for settling disputes, forcing them into marriages against their will, giving jirgas the power to settle their futures or taking punitive action if they marry against their family's or clan's wishes are acts of coercion. However, these are defended by many as being part of tradition and seen as legitimate since they have been practised for centuries. Apart from raising awareness, the only tool the government has in its arsenal against such a mediaeval mindset is to develop legislation that specifically criminalises certain sorts of behaviour.
This government's record in this regard has been fairly reasonable, with the formulation of crucial pieces of legislation such as the Protection against Harassment of Women at the Work Place Act 2010. However, other, long overdue laws remain to be achieved. Notable here is the Domestic Violence (Prevention and Protection) Bill which was passed unanimously by parliament in August 2009 but that lapsed after the Senate failed to approve it. Resultantly, those subjected to a pervasive yet invisible form of violence are not protected by the law. While this bill must be revisited, the Senate must also ensure the prompt passage of the Anti-Women Practices (Criminal Law Amendment) Bill. Now that the first tier of parliamentary approval has been achieved, it must be given the attention it merits.