The South Asia Channel

A Landmark Women’s Rights Bill Could Decide Pakistan’s Future

In Punjab, the debate over a law protecting women from violence has become a test of the government's resolve against Islamism.

Activists of The Pakistan People's Party (PPP) hold placards as they march during a rally to mark International Women's Day in Karachi on March 8, 2016. 
Women in conservative Pakistan have fought for their rights for decades, in a country where so-called honour killings and acid attacks remain commonplace. / AFP / ASIF HASSAN        (Photo credit should read ASIF HASSAN/AFP/Getty Images)
Activists of The Pakistan People's Party (PPP) hold placards as they march during a rally to mark International Women's Day in Karachi on March 8, 2016. Women in conservative Pakistan have fought for their rights for decades, in a country where so-called honour killings and acid attacks remain commonplace. / AFP / ASIF HASSAN (Photo credit should read ASIF HASSAN/AFP/Getty Images)

The legislative assembly of Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous province, on Feb. 24 passed violence against women legislation that included unprecedented protections for women and penalties for perpetrators. Similar legislation to the Protection of Women Against Violence Act 2016, or Women’s Protection Act (WPA), was adopted by the Sindh and Balochistan provincial assemblies in 2013 and 2014 respectively.

Considering that similar legislation has been derailed under Islamist pressure in the past, the new law is the ultimate test for a government that has been making visible progress towards a pluralist, tolerant Pakistan. And if the Punjab government’s recent policymaking is anything to go by, it might be able to overcome the final hurdle towards veritable empowerment for women.

Islamist groups immediately rejected the WPA, with the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII), a constitutional body that advises the legislature on bills’ compatibility with Islam, deeming it “un-Islamic.” In January, lawmakers withdrew a bill designed to curb child marriages following CII’s vociferous condemnation.

The Islamist parties opposed to the violence against women law have not been specific about how, precisely, the WPA contradicts the teachings of Islam. Insiders privy to the ongoing negotiations with the government, however, say the criminalization of husbands beating their wives is the primary point of contention.

According to the 2012-13 Pakistan Demographic and Health Survey, almost 40 percent of married women aged 15 to 49 have been physically or emotionally abused by their husbands, with 10 percent having been victims of violence during pregnancy. In the year 2014 alone, 232 women were burned or targeted by acid, 859 committed suicide — many of them victims of domestic abuse — and 461 were killed by their husbands. In the same year, 898 women were victims of honor killings, a practice where a person is killed by a family member due to the belief that the victim has dishonored the family.

Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F), an Islamist party and part of the coalition led by the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), has spearheaded the efforts against the WPA. JUI-F chief Fazlur Rehman has held meetings with both Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his brother Shehbaz Sharif, the chief minister of Punjab, over Islamist concerns regarding the WPA.

On March 15, representatives of 35 Islamist parties united at the Jamaat-e-Islami’s (JI) headquarters, in Punjab’s capital of Lahore, to oppose the WPA unanimously, giving the government a deadline of March 27 to retract the act or face countrywide protests. Riots erupted in Islamabad on March 27, with a Taliban faction orchestrating a bombing in Lahore, which killed over 70 people on the same day. Samiul Haq, known as the Father of the Taliban, and Hafiz Saeed, considered to be the founder of terror group Lashkar-e-Taiba and accused by India of planning the 2008 Mumbai attacks, attended the JI-led conference.

The protests against the bill came just weeks after the execution of Mumtaz Qadri, a police commando who killed former Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer for defending a Christian woman accused of blasphemy in 2011. Qadri’s supporters rioted and clashed with the police in the capital on Sunday, amidst palpable tension between the PML-N and Islamist parties over a series of government actions described by the Islamists as antagonistic to Islam.

The PML-N’s apparent shift away from its identity as a conservative party, toward secular liberalism, has united the Islamist parties, which have been at odds historically. They are now banking on the widespread apprehension toward the Women’s Protection Act to reportedly recreate the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), an Islamist coalition that took 58 National Assembly seats and 11 percent of the popular vote in the 2002 general elections, through a manifesto dominated by political Islam and anti-Americanism.

The MMA, like its constituent Islamist parties, upholds Islamic sharia law and asks for its unadulterated implementation in Pakistan, which would include stoning female adulterers and require four witnesses to prosecute rape cases. The coalition notoriously threatened to resign from the national and provincial assemblies in protest to the Pakistani parliament’s decision to transfer rape cases from the sharia courts to civil courts.

PML-N’s tussle with the Islamist parties over women’s rights legislation has overlapped with the National Accountability Bureau’s (NAB) crackdown against senior party leaders — including the Sharif family — over corruption charges. The PML-N leadership believes the NAB is overreaching and is mulling an amendment to the accountability law to curtail the bureau’s powers. The JUI-F is among the parties that the government needs on board for the amendment.

Fully aware of this, JUI chief Fazlur Rehman is playing politics with women’s rights by using legislative support against NAB as a bargaining chip to amend, or annul, the WPA. This puts the PML-N in a precarious situation, where it must compromise on its vision of a progressive Pakistan, or risk losing a coalition partner in the face of legislative challenges.

With the government regularly reiterating its goal of curbing ideological extremism, the next few days are going to be the ultimate test of its resolve. If it can overcome the Islamist challenge and stand firm in its support of women’s rights, the law could herald a defining change for Pakistan, as the country gradually unshackles itself from its violent past. Any compromise on protecting women from violence, or religious equality, will throw Pakistan right back into the quagmire.

Photo credit: ASIF HASSAN/AFP/Getty Images

Kunwar Shahid is an editor at The Nation. Twitter: @khuldune

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