Hats off to the women who lobbied for the two bills on sexual harassment, and managed last week to move them a step further towards becoming the law. At long last the ruling coalition partners mustered enough courage to take a stand on women's rights in this matter.
At one stage the Protection against Harassment of Women at the Workplace Bill and the Criminal Law Amendment Bill had appeared to be in the doldrums, given the resistance from the religious parties. Another bill, the Domestic Violence Bill, which was passed by the National Assembly, lapsed when it was not adopted by the Senate within the stipulated 90 days.
All three bills are designed to protect women inside and outside the home. It is a mystery why some should object so strongly to legislation of this nature that seeks to discourage perverse behaviour towards women. The fact is that in our society women's issues continue to be used as pawns by politicians in their power games.
This is obvious if one looks at the context in which the relevant bills have been adopted. Our society has never been known for being women-friendly. True, women from the privileged classes have to a great extent managed to win several of those rights that are taken for granted by civilised societies, but life has not been easy for the vast majority. Even though the women's movement has helped create awareness of women's rights and has facilitated behavioural changes in large measure, the recent rise of the Taliban caused a severe setback to the process of female empowerment.
Not only have the misogynist elements actually adopted anti-women measures in areas under their control — the Taliban banned education for girls and blew up their schools while forbidding women to work outside their homes — they have also created an atmosphere that is not conducive to women's emancipation. This trend has encouraged many in decision-making positions, those who disguise their aversion to women behind a faÃ§ade of modernism, to resist measures perceived as being too pro-women.
They argue that the women's issue is not big enough to risk upsetting the political applecart by inviting the wrath of the Islamic parties. They also contend that pro-women bills will provoke a backlash because our society is steeped in religiosity. Such a reaction, according to them, should be avoided. This approach betrays expediency of the worst kind.
Take the case of these bills. The strength of the coalition partners in the parliament is enough for them to adopt any law they agree on. Their declared position on women is progressive and one presumes that a consensus exists on the issue. Yet they dillydallied when moving a law pertaining to women. Why? A cleric, a member of the Islamic Ideology Council and also the Senate, declared that a law banning violence against women would push up the divorce rates. That was enough to give the government cold feet and it stepped back allowing the Domestic Violence Bill to lapse.
When the twin bills on harassment were taken up, they once again had to face a hostile environment. The fact is that neither bill negates any principle of Islam. Some of the objections raised were frivolous — thus one gentleman said they could apply only to women who dressed according to the Islamic code. Can we get any two clerics to agree on the specifics of this code?
Cowed by its detractors, the government proceeded in December with only the Criminal Law Amendment Bill that was passed by the National Assembly. But the substantive bill on harassment at the workplace was not even introduced, though its draft had been finalised.
It appears that the ruling party finally decided to flex its muscles and call the bluff of the champions of Islam. It is no coincidence that this shift in mood came at a time when President Zardari had decided to confront its rivals in a no-holds-barred action. Hence the Amendment Bill that had been cleared by the Assembly in December was passed by the Senate with a few clerics staging a walkout.
The harassment bill also had smooth sailing through the Assembly. Hopefully it will be taken up without delay by the upper house as well. If this mood persists, the Domestic Violence Bill could also be re-enacted in the lower house before being sent to the Senate.
In the wider picture, these bills, when they become law, may appear to be the harbingers of major change. But their significance is at the moment symbolic and only in the legal context. In practical terms, they will spell greater protection for women in their workplace only when the prescribed mechanism is made available to them to complain of sexual harassment and obtain redress if needed.
More importantly, these bills explicitly recognise the right of a woman to go out of her home to earn a living, to acquire an education, to obtain healthcare and to involve herself in the day-to-day business of caring for her family and herself. The statement of objectives of the bill passed in the National Assembly last week states, “This bill builds on the principles of equal opportunity for women and their right to earn a livelihood without fear of discrimination.”
For the first time the longstanding barrier of chadar and chardiwari imposed on the mobility of women is being challenged explicitly. But action is needed on the ground to make change possible. There is light at the end of the tunnel, for when the legal framework is in place and women stop fearing harassment and loss of dignity they will learn to fend for themselves.
These bills will improve the general environment for women and should create the momentum for the Domestic Violence Bill to be re-enacted in the Assembly and passed by the Senate without delay. There are too many women who fall victim to violence in their homes and it is time they were provided protection.