Pakistan: Women's struggle - one step forward, one step back

South Asia Citizen's Wire
Women across the country commemorate February 12 as Pakistan Women's Day, in remembrance of the state's brutality against women who in 1983, protested against the Law of Evidence, which reduces the status of a woman witness to half that of a male witness.
The police attacked peaceful demonstrators who wanted to present a memorandum to the Chief Justice of Pakistan at the High Court building. The state's patriarchal and anti-women character was exposed in the way the police beat and dragged woman protestors before arresting them.
This day has become a symbol of the women's resistance movement. However, more than two decades later, discriminatory laws like the Hudood Ordinance, the Laws of Evidence, and Qisas and Diyat promulgated by Zia-ul-Haq as part of his political project of 'Islamisation' continue to shape the lives of Pakistani women. The discriminatory nature of these laws as well as their legal anomalies are well documented, but no government, civil or military, has had the courage to repeal them, due to the threat of a backlash from the religious lobby.

Two self-proclaimed liberal regimes, Benazir Bhutto's and Pervez Musharraf's, set up commissions to review these laws; both the Inquiry Commission (1997) and the National Commission on the Status of Women (2003) strongly recommended that these laws be repealed due to the anomalies they contain and because rather than providing justice, they have contributed to actually promoting injustice. But neither Ms Bhutto nor Gen. Musharraf did anything to implement the recommendations of their own commissions, that are gathering dust in government offices.

Women's rights and human rights organizations have consistently highlighted the negative social and legal impact of these laws, especially on women. Enlightened Muslim scholars such as Javeed Ghamdi, Dr. Farooq Ahmed and Dr. Riffat Hassan agree that there is nothing Islamic about these laws.

The women's rights movement's consistent demand for the repeal of these laws has pushed the issue to the forefront, but it has not become the focus of the present government's agenda of "enlightened moderation". It is interesting to analyse how the military governments of Gen. Zia and Gen. Musharraf used women to achieve political legitimacy for their own military takeovers. The former introduced discriminatory laws against women for his political agenda of "Islamisation" while the latter reserved 33 percent seats for women in the local government and 17 percent in the national and provincial assemblies and the Senate to prove his government's liberal face.

Pakistan ranks overall 120th (but 64th in gender- empowerment measures) out of 177 countries in the UNDP gender-related development index (GDI). The pace of development of social indicators, particularly for women, is among the slowest in South Asia. The never-ending play between women and the patriarchal establishment means that women take one step back whenever they take a step forward, thus going round in circles, instead of moving forward.

For example, the success of women's groups in drawing public attention to the increasing violence against women, especially "honour killing," was a major step forward. They had been pointing out the misuse of the Qisas and Diyat law that allows compensation, forgiveness and out-of-court settlements, enabling the victims' families to 'forgive' murderers, who in cases of 'honour killings' are often the victim's relatives. This led to recognition of the need to introduce a law on 'honour killing'. However, when this bill was passed it retained the objectionable provision. Sadly, the Musharraf government decided to moderate its enlightened moderation and passed a toothless bill, which will fail to protect women. Yet the government makes political gains by claiming that it has introduced a bill against 'honour killings'. This is a step back for the women's movement.

Similarly, the reservation of women's seats in the local governments and parliament was another step forward. Their presence and visibility had an enormous impact and was truly the beginning of a silent revolution. However, the proposed amendments in the local government ordinance that include reducing the number of seats from 21 to 13 at the union council level will reverse the change and negatively impact the process of democratisation. It will also affect the marginalised sections of society, such as peasants and workers.

The government is trying to create a smokescreen by claiming that this amendment does not affect women as the women's 33 percent representation will be maintained in the local governments. However, this amendment means that the six women's seats at union councils will be reduced to three. The overall impact in terms of numbers will be huge, from 40,000 to 20,000 women councillors in the local governments. This will be further reduced if the government decides to enlarge some of the constituencies as part of the amendment package.

Furthermore, the rape of a lady doctor in Sui, and government response exposes the structural and cultural misogyny of our society and state institutions. The state's criminal silence is compounded by its not arresting the alleged rapists who are apparently highly influential. The last straw was the verdict of the 'jirga' that declared the rape victim as a 'kari'.

All this shows that the women's struggle in Pakistan may have come a long way, but it still has miles to go.

by Dr. Farzana Bari
Originally published in The News International on February 12, 2005

The writer is acting director, Centre for Women's Studies, Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.