PAKISTAN’S women will have a great deal to celebrate if parliament can adopt the three bills concerning them that are on its agenda.
A bill to turn the National Commission on the Status of Women into an autonomous body for the empowerment of women and elimination of all forms of discrimination against them has recently been introduced in the National Assembly.
The need for a permanent commission with sufficient authority to assail the various forms of injustice being done to women is evident and the proposed measure should not attract controversy. There may be some difference of opinion among the political parties on the degree of freedom Pakistani women should enjoy but there can be no disagreement on women’s rights being respected as human rights. One should like to hope that this bill of fundamental importance to the movement for women’s emancipation and empowerment will be vigorously pushed through both Houses of parliament and enacted at an early date, with the maximum possible unanimity.
A bill to effectively deal with incidents of burning women with acid or otherwise is before the Senate. Nobody can say that the burning of women to death or disfiguring their faces is not a heinous crime. Besides, the measure has already been discussed threadbare by the legislators. One step more and it should become law.
The third bill that aims at the eradication of some of the most evil practices against women was recently unanimously passed by the National Assembly and rightly hailed by all supporters of women’s causes. The measure provides for stiff punishment for young girls’ so-called marriage to the Holy Book, or forcibly offering them in marriage to settle a civil dispute or a criminal liability, or depriving women of their inheritance through deceitful means.
The provision relating to the last mentioned crime is particularly significant. While all provisions of the bill address some of the worst forms of excesses against women, this one has a direct bearing on their right to economic independence, without which they cannot acquire their due status as equal and productive members of society. The importance of the move can be judged from the history of resistance to any attempt to secure women’s right to inheritance, especially to landed property.
When the first Sharia Bill was introduced in the Central Legislative Assembly of India in the 1930s, Muslim landlords in the House had only one concern — that their practice of preferring rivaj (custom) to the Sharia should not be interfered with.
(And Mohammad Ali Jinnah agreed to push the bill only because it promised some relief to Muslim women.)
The West Punjab bill of 1948, that upheld women’s right to inherit land, led to a revolt by the feudals in the Muslim League party and a split was averted with great difficulty. Some time ago, the Law and Justice Commission expressed its concern at the denial of women’s right to inheritance although it was respected by Islam and the law both. In the case of the present bill, too, the feudal lobby lowered itself further in public esteem by blocking its adoption through sheer cussedness.
The myths created by landlords to deny women’s right to inherit land by refusing to give them in marriage, or marrying adult women to children, so as to retain land under family ownership, have been exposed many times over. Nobody believes the tales about women giving up their claim to inheritance out of love for their brothers, who in many cases are only looking for excuses to kill their female siblings for ‘honour’. The plea that women are given dowry in lieu of their share in inheritance is absurd because no landlord deducts from his son’s inheritance the heavy expenses incurred on his wedding extravaganzas.
Quite a few well-meaning people have declined to share human rights activists’ joy at the adoption of the bill on anti-women social practices in view of the poor record of implementation of laws, especially those that promise relief to the female population. They have a point but that does not justify giving up all progressive legislation.
Laws are useful milestones on the route to social progress. Besides, everybody knows that laws alone cannot bring about social change even if they are duly implemented by a strong government. Wherever governments are found wanting in will or means of enforcing the laws, the greater becomes the responsibility of civil society to carry the reform agenda forward.
The fight against feudal biases against women is going to be long and bitter. While every effort should be made to prevent the state from abdicating its duties, the major burden of change will have to be borne by society, not only women but also, and more essentially, men.
A welcome feature of the latter two of the three bills is the fact that they were introduced by women parliamentarians in their private capacity and their progress has been made possible by the government’s support for them. Some credit to the beleaguered government! This vindicates the decision to increase women’s seats in parliament as women belonging to different political parties have been able to forge unity on critical issues and they have also shown a highly laudable capacity to initiate sound legislative proposals.
Further, the case for allowing private members’ business more time and greater respect has been strengthened. Efforts to reduce government’s interference in private members’ bills will now be in order. Is it too much to expect that these three bills and the ill-starred bill on prevention of domestic violence will be adopted within the current parliamentary year?
Tailpiece: A leading historian of the country has been afflicted with a serious aliment but he is too proud to seek official help.
However, nothing should prevent his friends and the remnants of lovers of history to make an appeal to the head of state. A small gesture of respect for history should not be impossible for him. This is something above party politics.