ALL those working for women’s rights are receiving accolades for their continued run of success in the area of legislation. They deserve more of this because they have played a key role in getting the lawmakers round to their point of view.
The passage of the National Commission on the Status of Women Bill is a most promising development. As an autonomous body with considerably enlarged authority, the commission, which has already done substantial work, will have possibilities of addressing women’s concerns on a regular basis.
Much of this will obviously depend on the government’s ability to find the right set of people to run the commission and to give them the financial and administrative backing their pioneering efforts will need in good measure.
Women activists’ success in pushing the relevant bill through both houses of parliament within a short period is all the more significant in view of the slow progress of the proposal for the establishment of a national human rights commission.
Two bills aimed at creating such a body were moved in the National Assembly in 2008. The private member’s bill fell by the wayside when the government pressed its privilege to initiate legislation. After several attempts to edit and improve it the bill was finally adopted by the National Assembly. But it got stuck in the Senate and its fate is once again unclear.
As against this the pro-women measures have had much smoother sailing except for the resistance a section in government had put up against the introduction of the bill on sexual harassment and the miscarriage that hit the bill on domestic violence.
Thus, in about two years six pro-women laws have been added to the statute book. The ground was broken by two enactments on sexual harassment; one of them amended the Penal Code to provide for an improved definition of sexual harassment and enhanced punishment, and the other introduced the new concept of creating a legal bar to harassment at the workplace through a voluntarily enforced code.
A law to ease the plight of women in distress due to their conflict with the law followed. Then came a law to enhance the punishment in cases of burning with acid and another one of far-reaching import aimed at protecting women against pernicious customs, such as denial of the right to inherit property and the so-called marriage to the Holy Book.
While the government deserves to be commended for supporting efforts to reform the law code, women parliamentarians and activists deserve much greater credit for the series of new laws. As has been noted earlier, women belonging to different political parties are quite capable of forging unity on issues of serious concern to them.
The main reason is that oppression of women in our society is so blatant and widespread and it has gone on for so long that a woman in a position of influence can keep quiet only by denying her womanhood. Besides, the women’s movement in Pakistan, which began with protest against the most atrocious excesses, now appears to have developed into a cultural force that is not only aimed at securing women their rights but also at rewriting the code of inter-gender social behaviour.
The debates in parliament on the above-mentioned laws threw considerable light on the male-dominated society’s responses to this cultural force. In the beginning the government appeared to be weighed down by the establishment’s traditional timidity while addressing issues of sexual harassment and was afraid of a conservative backlash.
It was women activists, supported by a few courageous women in the ruling coalition, that relieved the government of its self-inflicted misery and helped it gain the confidence required to move forward. It was thus able to overcome a desperate feudal challenge to the move against evil customs.
By the time the national commission bill came before the Senate the opposition to woman-friendly legislation had wilted to a large extent and senators competed with one another in recording their solidarity with women.
During debates on this bill, the lines in the incipient cultural division in society also became a little clearer. The women’s cause won strong support from the less-populous federating units, offering the biggest unit of them all reason to ponder the consequences of its becoming a stronger bastion of reaction, intolerance and obscurantism.
The fact that opposition to the national commission bill was largely limited to a single religio-political party needs to be taken note of. Why should a religious party oppose a commission which will only help women get justice as guaranteed by the constitution and is unlikely to favour them in violation of the law and norms of civilised behaviour? The reason is obvious — the orthodox clerics are still incapable of seeing the havoc their hostility to women’s rights has been causing.
A significant manifestation of the Pakistani women’s assault on the country’s stagnant cultural mores is the publication of Dr Fouzia Saeed’s Working with Sharks, an account of the sexual harassment case 11 intrepid women fought against their mighty UN employers. The autobiographical notes in it may at first sight appear irrelevant to the main story but they reveal the travail of victims of harassment who suffer again and again when their efforts at securing redress are stubbornly obstructed.
The main cause of aggrieved women’s ordeal was the cultural premises of their bosses — desi and foreign both. The Pakistani boss treated women working under him as sex objects who could be exploited under one pretext or another and the foreign bosses believed such exploitation was a normal part of Pakistan’s culture. The case thus became a struggle to assert women’s rights not only against a formidable authority but also against an unjust worldview.
To be fair to the UN system, the complainants might not have won if they had not been provided a counsel to advise them. That speaks of the merit of carefully devised systems that individual offenders cannot spoil.
One might not have referred to this book had it not appeared to be an allegory on the travails of democracy in Pakistan. Democracy, like state, parliament, nation and public opinion, in our national languages is assigned the feminine gender and has, accordingly, been continually harassed by the sharks around it.
The indigenous sharks of various shades believe they have a divine licence to abuse the people’s democratic rights and the foreign sharks think the Pakistanis deserve no better façade than what the primitives can sustain.
Many wise heads are trying to figure out how lawmakers or judges or praetorian guards can make a gift of democracy to the people of Pakistan.
These are not the right addresses of change-makers. Pakistan will not be able to turn the corner unless men and women of ideas, in the academia, in the world of letters and arts and rights-inspired activists, generate a cultural movement that can tear off the crust of a decadent tradition and authoritarian tendencies under which the Pakistani mind has been condemned to stupefaction. There is something to be learnt from the women’s new culture of activism.