March 20, 2016
As Pakistan’s various religious organisations and parties make increasingly strident calls for Punjab’s Women Protection Bill to be repealed or amended, with the chairman of the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) going so far as to claim that the entire Punjab Assembly should be charged for treason for passing it in the first place, it is important to point out that there is more at stake here than a single law. For all its shortcomings, as well as the obvious and unfortunate impediments to its effective implementation and use, the Women Protection Bill represents an important, if incremental, step forward for the cause of female empowerment in Pakistan, and has tremendous value as a symbolic statement signaling a progressive move away from the status quo. To compromise on this, by backtracking or accommodating the demands being made by the religious Right, would be the most spineless of capitulations, essentially ceding yet more space to fanatics and hardliners who have failed to ever win any electoral power, but who continue to exert a dangerous influence on the public discourse in Pakistan.
The problems and contradictions of the stance being taken by the CII, Maulana Fazl-ur-Rahman and their allies are self-evident. They decry the Women Protection Bill for representing an assault on a ‘private’ family life sanctified by Islam while simultaneously using every opportunity at their disposal to regulate the family lives of all of Pakistan’s citizens with a regular and unending stream of pronouncements on everything from who can or cannot be married to the ‘rules’ governing intimate relations between husbands and wives. They claim to stand against torture, but are unwilling to specify exactly how its perpetrators can be dealt with if its victims, such as women trapped in abusive relationships, cannot even be given the right to speak out against their tormentors. They demand that women be covered up and restricted to their homes to protect them from men allegedly unable to master their baser impulses but, with the same breath, believe that those same, imperfect, uncontrollable men should have the unrestrained right to ‘discipline’ their wives, sisters, daughters, and mothers through any means necessary. They say that the Women Protection Bill will bring an end to ‘traditional’ family life and increase the divorce rate, but fail to actually explain why this would be a bad thing in a context where physically and psychologically violent relationships do nothing but breed broken homes, battered wives, and damaged children.
It is time to put an end to the farce of religious parties claiming they believe in the provision of rights to women. They do not, and this is something that is easily borne out by their record in this regard. Shielding behind their own narrow and parochial interpretation of Islam, they shamelessly legitimise the worst excesses of patriarchy in Pakistan. At a time when the religious parties are eager and willing to defend child marriage, marital rape, wife beating, and continued restrictions on the right to divorce, pretending that they are somehow concerned with the welfare of women is laughable. Amidst the references to fire and brimstone, and the promise of violent agitation directed against the government, it is worth asking how many times the JI and JUI-F, and other religious parties, have taken out processions condemning honour killing, or the dismal state of female literacy in Pakistan, or the country’s unbelievably high rate of maternal mortality. These are never issues that are part of the agenda of the religious parties because these are not issues that they are concerned about. When it comes to women, all the religious parties really want it is to perpetuate a system of patriarchal control; for them, restricting women to the four walls of their homes represents the sum total of their views on female emancipation.
Ultimately, the threats and rhetoric being deployed by the religious parties are simply about power; masculine power, for sure, but also the perpetuation and protection of their own power to dictate terms to the rest of the country. For the past seventy years, a misguided national narrative centered on the primacy of religion in the public sphere, and coupled with grievous strategic errors regarding the creation and use of Islamic militants as military proxies, has generated a situation in which religious organisation exercise a disproportionate amount of influence in Pakistan. While many will point to their failure at the ballot box as evidence of their limited appeal, all that really shows is the inability of the mainstream religious parties to master Pakistan’s patronage politics, as well as the utter disdain with which the militant, sectarian fringe views democratic politics. The fact that hundreds of thousands of people showed up to the funeral of the murderer Mumtaz Qadri, and that millions more across the country undoubtedly supported his actions, demonstrates how it would be unwise to underestimate the support enjoyed by the religious Right.
However, this is also precisely why it is important to resist demands to alter or abolish the Women Protection Bill, and to proceed with the vigorous implementation of the law. Powerful though the religious parties may be, decades of sectarian bloodshed and terrorist atrocities, as well as rising intolerance and bigotry more generally, necessitate a questioning and a re-evaluation of the ideological direction that state has historically taken in Pakistan. Over the past few years, both the military establishment and the civilian political elite have claimed that they are serious about fighting the scourge of religious extremism in this country; if that is true, managing to enact the Women Protection Bill in the face of utterly unreasonable, if fierce, religious opposition is vital. This is not about making Pakistan a more ‘secular’ or ‘liberal’ country. It is about providing rights and security to half the population, and standing up against the forces of millenarian obscurantism that, if left unchecked, will drag Pakistan further down into the abyss.
The writer is an assistant professor of political science at LUMS