Mukhtar Mai, Fakhra Younis, Samia Sarwar… women victimised. The first a gang-rape survivor who saw her alleged rapists go free following a nearly decade-long court battle, the second an acid attack victim who committed suicide after 12 desolate years, and the third a young woman killed for ‘honour’ when she sought to leave an abusive marriage. They belonged to diverse socio-economic backgrounds, but in the final reckoning, living in a patriarchal society like Pakistan proves the ultimate equaliser for women across the spectrum.
In 2011, according to Aurat Foundation, over 8,500 women in the country were subjected to violence including acid attack, rape and honour killing. A woman in a hidebound, repressive society is expected to suffer in silence, not ‘dishonour’ her family by seeking redress in any public forum. That is assuming she even survives the violence visited upon her.
But there are changes afoot. Over the last seven years, more pro-women legislation has been passed by the Pakistani parliament than at any other period in this country’s existence. Some of these laws are amendments to the Pakistan Penal Code, while others are new pieces of legislation. They deal with a variety of gender-based violence, including honour killing, rape, sexual harassment, handing over of women in compensation (badal-i-sulh/wani/swara), acid attack, forced marriage and marriage to the Quran.
The spate of legislation, particularly in 2010 and 2011, was no fluke. Legislation in general is tedious business. The final draft of a bill — itself often the product of much hard work — requires dealing with an ossified bureaucracy and several reviews by committees and relevant ministries before the cabinet’s approval is sought, and then it is presented to the legislators for voting.
A simple majority is required for approval, after which the bill becomes law.
For the first time, beginning with the legislation on sexual harassment, women’s rights activists were closely involved with the drafting of the bills and behind-the-scenes lobbying with legislators. “We were very lucky because two of the parties in power, PPP and ANP, have a secular tradition,” says Aqsa Khan, executive director of the Women’s Organisation for Rights and Development. “Plus, several legislators have been women’s rights activists themselves. Some, such as Raza Rabbani and Afrasiab Khattak, have a human rights background. We explained the law to them and lobbied them to take the message to other legislators.”
There were many obstacles along the way. Some legislators at first simply did not understand the issues at hand (‘What is sexual harassment?’). Many of them were disinclined to read the drafts and activists had to write summaries for them listing the salient points.
Far more difficult to navigate were the regressive attitudes of several parliamentarians, who perceived the drive for pro-women legislation as a campaign for more ‘freedom’ which is always viewed in a negative light. The tendency to see religion as having inbuilt protections for a woman provided she remains in purdah and/or within the presumed ‘limits’ prescribed by religion, was a major stumbling block. “When a woman walks out of the house all dressed up, she is like a loaded gun,” said one legislator reportedly.
As expected, the proposed bill against domestic violence aroused the most ire, provoking allegations that its proponents were pushing a western agenda that would violate the sanctity of the home, lead to divorce and destroy families.
One legislator, a well-known figure from a religious party, thundered, “So we aren’t even supposed to have the right to give our wives two slaps?” Some legislators wanted to include a provision to punish a woman who could not prove her charge of domestic violence, but the women’s rights activists prevailed in their stand that it would be tantamount to intimidating the complainant.
The domestic violence bill has yet to be passed. Following the 18th amendment, this legislation would need to be taken up by the provincial assemblies. (Islamabad Capital Territory has, however, passed it.)
Despite the lack of success so far in that campaign, the passage of substantial pro-women legislation is testament to the tenacity of its proponents, both in civil society and parliament. “For the first time women were able to create political clout in the National Assembly,” says Anis Haroon, erstwhile chairperson of the National Commission on the Status of Women (NCSW).
“Members of the women’s caucus worked together across party lines and on convincing their male party members. For example, PML-N legislators were initially very evasive, but their female colleagues persuaded them to come around.” In the end, say activists, so much momentum was built up that the reluctant male legislators knew that if they voted against the bills, it would make them, and their parties, look bad.
Much work remains to be done, not the least on domestic violence. Many of the laws passed do not go far enough — for example, those on honour killing and acid attacks. But a solid foundation has been laid. To quote Maliha Hussain, an activist who worked extensively on the sexual harassment bill, “It is vital to have legislation because that is where it all begins. The law can be used as a tool to change mindsets”.