The South Asia Channel

Progress or pretend?

When it comes to women’s rights, Pakistan has been in the news for all the wrong reasons. The list of wrongs perpetrated against women, which includes honor killings, domestic violence, sexual assault and acid attacks, is disturbingly lengthy. What is unfortunate is that the current state owes as much to the lawmaking agencies of the ...

Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images
Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images

When it comes to women’s rights, Pakistan has been in the news for all the wrong reasons. The list of wrongs perpetrated against women, which includes honor killings, domestic violence, sexual assault and acid attacks, is disturbingly lengthy. What is unfortunate is that the current state owes as much to the lawmaking agencies of the country who have been unable to enforce justice for women as those who perpetrate the actual violence.

But tangible progress is underway. The Prevention of Anti-Women Practices Act 2011, a twice-snubbed landmark bill demanding greater social protection for women, passed this November by the Pakistan National Assembly, is a major move in the right direction. Framed and amended by Dr. Donya Aziz, the bill was unanimously passed by the lower house, which is headed by speaker Dr. Fehmida Mirza — the first female parliamentary speaker in the Muslim world. The bill is currently awaiting approval by the Senate, but civil society, women’s rights activists and NGOs are optimistic that this bill will become law.

Outside of Pakistan, the bill is being hailed as a show of collective resolve by Pakistani political parties to counter societal taboos against women, dealing with issues such as forced marriages, physical violence against women, or depriving women of their inheritance. The bill deems all of the above as crimes that can lead to three to ten years’ imprisonment or a fine of up to up to RS1 million (approximately $11,400). The bill also criminalizes the practice of ‘Haq Bakhshish‘ — forcing women into giving up their right to marriage by marrying them to the Quran. While not a mainstream custom and mostly practiced in the rural areas of the country to prevent the loss of property if a woman marries someone who is not a relative, Haq Bakhshish has been an eyesore for women’s rights and human rights activists in Pakistan for decades.

But things aren’t all that straightforward. While supporters of women’s rights in Pakistan revel in the recent development, 2011 also saw a notable setback for their cause. The Criminal Procedure Code Amendment Bill, passed earlier in the year and signed by President Asif Ali Zardari before becoming the Criminal Procedure Code Amendment Act 2011, reversed the right of women to bail. That right was granted under the Women’s Protection Act 2006 and signed into law by then-President Pervez Musharraf. But come 2011 and bail can only be granted by the court, putting women again at the mercy of the criminal justice system.  

Under the Women Protection Act 2006, bail became the right of a woman accused of any crime except involvement in terrorism, financial corruption and murder or a crime punishable with death, or a minimum of ten years imprisonment. More simply, they were given the right to bail without going to the courts. Mostly meant to decrease the number of women in jail, especially those accused of zina, or adultery, the WPA 2006 made it harder for the police to hold women in custody. However, with President Zardari’s recent amendments, that right has been taken away.

Women’s rights activists are raking President Zardari’s government over the coals at the hushed, sudden, revision. According to Farzana Bari, a civil rights activist in Pakistan, women may be detained on minor offences and even as a result of family disputes, and women will need to go through court hearings before being able to be bailed out of prison, thanks to the amendment. Speaking to a local English newspaper, Bari called the move a "dangerous reversal, as more than 80 percent of the gains achieved through the Women Protection Act 2006 have been lost."

The WPA 2006 was an attempt by the then-government to amend the heavily-criticized Hudood Ordinance laws in Pakistan enacted by military dictator Zia ul-Haq in 1979, which governed the punishment for rape and adultery in the country for decades.

Take "adultery" and non-marital consensual sex as a case in point — both criminalized by the Hudood Ordinances. For many years in Pakistan, the laws made female rape victims liable to prosecution for adultery if they could not produce four male witnesses to the assault; however, the WPA 2006 brought rape under the Pakistan Penal Code, which is based on civil law and not Sharia (Islamic law). What that did was take away the right of law-enforcement agencies to detain people suspected of having non-marital consensual sex. Instead they were to require a ‘formal accusation’ in court. Even though the amendments still treated adultery and sex outside of marriage as an offence, the judges could now deal with rape cases in criminal rather than Islamic courts. That did away with the practically impossible ‘four witnesses’ requirement and allowed convictions to be made on the basis of proper circumstantial and forensic evidence.

Unfortunately, however, the Criminal Procedure Code Amendment Act 2011 is a giant step back, almost to the Hudood Ordinances themselves. President Zardari’s government believes getting custody of the accused is critical to investigations, especially in the scenario where it becomes easier for criminals to engage women in offences, as the WPA 2006 made it easier for female criminals and their co-conspirators or those who trapped them to get out of jail quickly.  However, the civil rights activists in the country remain perplexed as to why bail laws had to be reversed almost completely, especially when amendments could have been introduced to check potential misuse without ‘robbing’ women of their previously hard-earned concessions.

Thus, for every step forward with women’s rights in Pakistan, we take a giant step back. On the one hand, bills are signed to protect women in Pakistan from early marriages and physical abuse, while on the other, juvenile convicts detained for committing zina are exempted from being granted special remission, a standard practice around the Eid al-Fitr holiday where the President of Pakistan lessens the sentences of juvenile prisoners and others. Exempting those convicted of zina from these remittances puts them on the same level as terrorists, in the eyes of Pakistani law.

While Pakistanis both in Pakistan and in the United States appreciate the role of the Pakistan National Assembly in making this landmark legislation see the light of day, they are also skeptical over the future status of the bill and its implementation by local law enforcement agencies. Pakistani civil society groups have vowed to stage a sit-in demonstration outside the Parliament if the bill is blocked by the Senate. And while activists remain optimistic about this legislation, the fact remains that the gap between the theory of law in Pakistan and its practice has always been enormous. For now, one can only hope that the Prevention of Anti-Women Practices Act lives up to its name.

Rabail Baig is a Pakistani journalist based in Boston.

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