Women as chattel

Published October 10, 2012

LAST year, a bill was passed that outlaws, among other practices that exploit women, offering the latter in marriage to settle disputes. But the emergence of a new wani case in Balochistan proves that in Pakistan putting down laws on paper is only the starting point of a long, hard struggle for women’s rights. Such a struggle will have to involve making the judicial system accessible to citizens across the country if entrenched customs of tribal justice are to be rooted out. As long as the official justice system remains slow, inconvenient and expensive, and as long as it is not woven into the fabric of Pakistani society, turning to councils of tribal elders will remain a tempting solution even if its results are inhumane and discriminatory by modern standards. The second piece of the problem is that mindsets remain regressive and misogynistic at the very top. The claim that a sitting member of the Balochistan Assembly may have been part of the jirga that allegedly advised that 13 girls of one tribe be offered to another tribe as compensation for a murder brings to mind another shocking instance of wrongly exercised influence, when in 2008 a senator from the province defended the alleged burying alive of five women for reasons of ‘honour’. As long as those in positions of power within their tribes and constituencies continue to hold views like these, changing conditions for women will remain almost impossible.

If there is anything positive about the news, it is that a story such as this one may have gone unnoticed just a few years ago. And many stories still do. But there is some hope that the media attention the incident has received and the suo moto notice taken by the Supreme Court — if it leads to some accounta-bility — could work as deterrents in the future, especially in preventing influential people in the public eye from supporting actions against women. Until the slow, hard work of providing modern justice and holding those in power to account is done, making a noise about such instances is the only real weapon there is.

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