Religion vs. politics

Published September 1, 2009

When Shehnaz talks about the house that she built with her earnings, you can see her pride. She spent Rs 500,000 on just the construction. Sunlight streamed into every room. It was not in a dark alley, but right on the corner of a street. The women she waxed helped her put the money together to make her home. Shehnaz and her three children were happiest when living there. That is, until her husband sold the house.

Where did the money go? Shehnaz was never told but she has a sense. Her husband likes to gamble. When he gambles, he likes to drink. And when he loses, he gets drunk. When he loses and gets drunk, he beats her.

According to a February 2009 report from the Aurat Foundation, a non-governmental organisation, 7,733 cases of violence against women were cited in the print media in 2008. (That’s right – those little Page 3 items add up.) Of these, 472 were cases of honour killings, the vast majority of which were carried out by spouses or family members. Pakistan’s Additional Police Surgeon, Dr Zulfiqar Siyal, has announced that 100 women are raped every 24 hours on average in the city of Karachi alone. I’m not sure if these rapes include those committed within a marriage.

The good news – and it’s about the only good news that came last month – was that parliament is doing something about it. Last month, the National Assembly passed the Domestic Violence (Prevention and Protection) Bill. It now needs to be cleared by the Senate and the president to become law. When it does, not only will it be unprecedented here, but it will also put Pakistan in a short list of countries that addresses domestic violence in legal terms.

In this context, it is worth considering the Council of Islamic Ideology’s (CII) reaction to the bill. The CII, in its own description, is a constitutional body that advises the legislature whether or not a certain law is repugnant to Islam, namely to the Quran and Sunnah. ‘The bill in its current form will fan unending family feuds and push up divorce rates,’ the Council warned last week.

The bill may have its issues, which human rights groups intend to take up with parliamentarians before it becomes law. I don’t want to talk about that. What interests me is if we should be concerned about how the bill might affect divorce rates? Is it safe to assume then that the Council thinks women are better off being beaten as long as they stay quiet and don’t agitate for divorce? Forgive me for being a tad melodramatic, but would the gentlemen and the two ladies on the Council advise their daughters to do that – hush up and take the beating? You know – maybe they would.

Author and activist, Dr Fouzia Saeed, thought the problem was not religious; it was political. ‘There have been some new appointments in the Council that have offset the balance. There need to be more progressive thinkers along with the conservatives.’ Of the 12 members, only two are women, and, as Dr Saeed puts it, even they are hardliners.

On the logic of the Council that more women speaking out equals a higher divorce rate, Dr Saeed was firm. ‘It is domestic violence itself that leads to divorce. The reporting of domestic violence will check abuse and ultimately, lower divorce rates.’ This logic makes sense. As long as Shehnaz’s husband knows he can get away with it, he’ll beat her; the day he finds himself answerable, he’ll stop.

On another note, the bill will certainly do a lot for the PPP government in upholding the party’s reputation of progressive policies, especially those directed at women. Already, the first one to have spoken out against the Council of Islamic Ideology is former information minister Sherry Rehman.

Ms Rehman was right on the mark when she stated that domestic violence is a reality for a majority of women in Pakistan and legislation to protect them is the responsibility of parliament. On this point, I’m in agreement with blogger Jehan Ara, who writes: ‘Good for Sherry! I’m sure other women and men in the National Assembly who see the idiocy of this kind of thinking will speak up.’

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Naveen Naqvi is a senior anchor at DawnNews and presents the morning news programme, Breakfast at Dawn, on weekday mornings at 8:05 a.m . She is currently working on a novel and tweets at twitter.com/naveenaqvi.

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

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