As the curtain falls on the year 2011, one wonders what promise 2012 holds in store for the women of Pakistan. The fact is that most of the tangible progress that has come in empowering women has been in the shape of laws that have been adopted. The induction of a large number of female legislators in the Assemblies and the presence of an active National Commission on the Status of Women have helped them coordinate their efforts to bring about change. But in a country where governance structures are weak and the implementation of laws is weaker still, legislation may not be enough to transform the situation on the ground.
Beginning with the Women’s Protection Act 2006 the country has seen a series of laws focusing on women entering the statute book. Although many dismissed the 2006 law as a compromise because the Hudood Ordinances were not scrapped, it cannot be denied that the Act eased somewhat the agonies inflicted on women by the infamous enactment of the Zia era. In 2010 the Protection against Harassment of Women at the Work Place Act provided for processes to enable women to lodge complaints and seek redress if they were harassed. Now in 2011 the National Assembly and the Senate have passed two more bills to protect women. They are the Prevention of Anti-Women Practices Bill and the Acid Control and Acid Crime Prevention Bill. These will ban social evils such as the marriage of women to the Quran, giving them away as compensation to settle disputes, forced marriages, punishing women for marrying men of their own choice, denying them their inheritance and subjecting them to acid attacks. Heavy penalties have been prescribed to deter violators.
Yet another bill, titled National Commission for Women Act, is expected to be adopted by the National Assembly later in the current Assembly session to be sent to the Senate next month. This will empower the commission to conduct any investigation in a case involving a woman. It will also be an independent body with its own funds. Here it is necessary to recall the fate of the Domestic Violence Bill that was adopted unanimously by the National Assembly in 2009. Having become the subject of vicious criticism by many misogynist religious leaders, especially in the Council for Islamic Ideology, it failed to get through the Senate and therefore lapsed. Hence it is creditable that barely a year later, our law makers have shed their rigidity and have adopted two pro-women bills. A new bill to be termed Offences against Domestic Violence (Criminal Law Amendment Act, 2011) is to be placed before Parliament. Other bills that are in the works relate to Christian and Hindu marriages and divorce.
It is heartening that women’s rights are receiving some attention from the law makers. A lot of credit for this goes to the National Commission on the Status of Women and its chairperson, Anis Haroon, who brought her experience and dynamism of her feminist background to infuse new energy into the NCSW. But as they say the proof of the pudding is in the eating, we have to wait and see how effective all these laws will prove to be in putting an end to anti-women practices.
After all, in the past a number of cases were brought before the Supreme Court which ruled in favour of the female parties. But this hardly made a ripple in the primitive behaviour and mindset of many men. Those judgments notwithstanding, young girls continue to be given away as compensation for crimes committed by men of their family. There are instances of women being married to the Quran to keep property within the family. Karo kari is still committed when a woman makes her own choice in marriage which is not approved by the family elders. The passage of bills will not change all this overnight.
Change is a slow process. That does not mean that laws are redundant. They are definitely important because they provide the legal framework which is essential to protect the change process. When committed activists are trying to eliminate social evils, laws have to be in place to strengthen their hands.
It is equally important that the way is paved for the universal acceptance of these laws by creating public awareness about them and the importance of change. Unfortunately this has so far not been done. Women do not enjoy the esteem that is their due. More importantly they are not even empowered which means they can do little without the help of their men. Without any change in the social and familial milieu, 2012 will be no different from what 2011 was. In fact worse is still to come if the tide of obscurantism and extremism continues to sweep the country.
A lot depends on the women themselves. If women’s rights activists and the champions of human rights concentrate on bringing about a social transformation — that would require changing the mindsets of people vis-à-vis women — the bills that have been passed will become effective. Rather than advocacy at the policy making level alone, it is important that a campaign be also undertaken at the grassroots.
What would help is an interactive exchange of views with men and women to mobilise them for “feminism”. There is also the need to address the media — textbooks and the numerous TV channels, especially the religion ones — that are the biggest purveyors of anti-women prejudice. Since the women’s movement has already made a beginning and has made inroads in some areas, it is important that we ensure that what has been gained is not lost.