By Aysha Khan
Even though Pakistan has finally taken a positive step forward to foster gender equality, some men still believe the mistreatment of women is their God-given right.
The backlash began when the Pakistani government introduced the Protection of Women Against Violence Bill, which effectively criminalizes violence against women in Punjab, the country’s most populous region. Before the law was officially enacted on March 1, diehard extremists attempted to block the legislation, saying it would “destroy the family system in Pakistan” and “add to the miseries of women.” In denouncing the law, some right-wing Islamist leaders say it contradicts the Quran and will increase divorce rates.
“This law is in conflict with the Holy Quran, the life of (Muhammad), constitution of Pakistan and values of our country,” Maulana Fazlur Rehman, chief of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl party, said in March. “We are with all those who want to end violence against women, but by this law the country is going from one extreme position to another.”
The Protection of Women Against Violence Bill passed unanimously Feb. 24 in Pakistan’s largest province after about nine months of opposition. It criminalizes any form of abuse by men against women: domestic, emotional, psychological or done through stalking or cybercrime.
Activists hailed the law, which establishes a toll-free help line, residential shelters, counseling, financial and medical relief, penal-ties for offenders, and a system for registering complaints, as a historic step. It also conceives a universal, toll-free 24/7 telephone number women can call in order to report abuse.
“The bill is aimed at upholding the principles of kindness, justice and equality enunciated by Islam,” said Fauzia Viqar, chairwoman of the Punjab Commission on the Status of Women.
Rehman, an influential cleric who has previously made state-ments in support of the Pakistani Taliban, said the women’s rights protection bill was a secular move in direct conflict with Shariah, going as far as to call it a Western conspiracy. “The bill (demon-strates) the blind following of American and European cultures,” he said. “It goes against Shariah and the norms of our society. … Today we are again being made a colony of the Americans and the British.”
Rehman added that the legislation would break up homes, cripple men’s position at home and ultimately invoke God’s wrath on the country.
Mufti Muhammad Naeem, chancellor of the Jamia Binoria Inter-national madrassa in Sindh, called the bill a liberal “tragedy” that would suppress men’s rights.
“Rulers under their mental slavery of the West are forgetting their social values also,” Naeem, a prominent cleric, said, pointing to Western women’s ability to call the police with complaints of abuse at any time. Leaders of the Jamaat-e-Islami party, a hardline conservative group promoting political Islam, have made remarks along the same lines.
“The bill is tantamount to undermining our family system and would affect the relationship of respect between mothers, sisters and husbands,” party leader Sirajul Haq said.
He went as far as to say it would break up homes, destroy the position of men in the home and invoke God’s wrath on the country.
A contributor for The New York Times, Mohammed Hanif, summarized opponents, twisted logic, saying: “If you beat up a person on the street, it’s a criminal assault. If you bash someone in your bedroom, you’re protected by the sanctity of your home. If you kill a stranger, it’s murder. If you shoot your own sister, you’re defending your honor.
“I’m sure the nice folks campaigning against the Bill don’t want to beat up their wives or murder their sisters, but they are fighting for their fellow men’s right to do just that.”
A study by the Islamabad-based women’s rights group Aurat (Women’s) Foundation found that about 5,500 crimes against women occurred in Punjab province in 2010, accounting for around 65 percent of the country’s documented crimes against women. Experts say that violence against women, particularly in developing countries, is underreported. Honor killings, acid attacks, bride burnings, child marriages, and sexual and domestic abuse are commonplace, yet these crimes are grossly under-reported.
The United Nations Gender Inequality Index puts Pakistan 147th in a list of 188 countries. A 2014 report by the Aurat Foundation noted that six women were murdered daily, six were kidnapped, four were raped and three committed suicide. They also reported as many as 7,010 cases of violence against women in the province of Punjab. These figures do not include dowry-related violence and acid attacks, crimes which are also serious and frequent.
Aysha Khan is a digital journalist based in greater Baltimore, Md. Her essays and articles have been published by the Washington Post, Religion News Service, The Riveter, Muftah, and American Journalism Review, among others. A version of this story appeared in http://www.religionnews.com/2016/03/01/in-pakistan-religious-right-criticizes-womens-protection-bill. Additional reporting came from News.com Australia, http://www.news.com.au/lifestyle/real-life/news-life/extremist-groups-in-pakistan-are-protesting-new-laws-that-protect-women-from-violence/news-story/618b35a94ba4a67ff00edc1c6f871377.
The Price of Forgiveness
According to Pakistan’s independent Human Rights Commission, nearly 1,100 women were killed in Pakistan last year by relatives who claimed they had “dishonored” their families. In most of these cases, the victim is usually murdered by a close male family member.
Until the bill was enforced, women in the country were victims of a weak criminal justice system and an overall lack of social support, giving rise to utterly horrific stories of honor killings, acid attacks and ongoing abuse.
The issues recently came to light in the Academy Award–winning documentary A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness. It follows the horrific story of Saba Qaiser, a 19-year-old Pakistani girl who was beaten, shot in the head by her father and thrown into a river for marrying the man of her choice.
Miraculously, she survived, and her story ended up receiving attention both in Pakistan and globally, soon prompting the country’s prime minister to promise a crackdown on honor killings.
In an interview with The Guardian, the filmmaker, Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, said the main problem with “honor” killings is that it’s considered to be a private matter—rather than a public legal issue. “People hush it up: a father kills a daughter, and nobody ever responds, nobody ever files a case. The victim remains nameless and faceless, and we never hear about them,” she said.
Obaid-Chinoy won her first Oscar in 2012 for Saving Face, a documentary about acid attacks on women in Pakistan.