Review of Shirkat Gah publication Shaping Women's Lives: Laws, Practices & Strategies in Pakistan

Association for Middle East Women's Studies Review
The volume is at once a collection of research-based articles and an activist manual, presenting experiences of organizational and educational efforts, and pointing to steps and strategies for change.
Review by Mary Hegland.
This is a wonderful book. Some of Pakistan's most outstanding lawyers, researchers, and activists have brought together in-depth information about the legal, social, cultural, and religious conditions facing Pakistani women. The volume is at once a collection of research-based articles and an activist manual, presenting experiences of organizational and educational efforts, and pointing to steps and strategies for change. Through painstaking effort the author-activists have gathered great amounts of data about political and legal history, local culture and practices, Islamic law and ideology, and personal cases, so that their publication can serve as a useful reference volume. In addition, they have applied their astute feminist and sociological analytical skills to these data, to uncover the social forces and dynamics making it so difficult for Pakistani women to pursue equitable treatment and opportunity.

The international network, Women Living Under Muslim Laws (WLUML), formed the "international action-research programme" on Women and Law (W & L) in the Muslim World responsible for this book. Fueled by the belief that women in the Muslim world often lack knowledge about laws and the bases for norms and customary practices influencing their lives, making it difficult for them to be challenged and to bring about change, researcher-activists in the Women and Law Programme planned research and policy projects in some two dozen countries. Realizing that it is not only law per se which places parameters around women's lives, they pay close attention to custom and culture: "The W & L was designed to elucidate how customs, law and culture intertwine to define women's lives and how the dynamics of religion and politics intersect with this" (xiii). Women in Muslim societies often see no alternative to inculcated gender concepts, planners realized: "Underlying the W & L is an understanding that women internalize the imposed definition of womanhood and furthermore, presuming this to have religious sanction, believe it to be the final and only possible definition of being a woman" (xiii). Religious sanctions and community and family pressure make it very difficult for women to question gender constructions, W & L members believe. They believe that patriarchal society and political figures have used Islam and women's imposed responsibility to personify Muslim character and identity to control and exploit women. They are apprehensive about how rising fundamentalists trample on women's rights in the pursuit of political power. They see the myth of one homogenous Islamic world as preventing women from seeing alternative realities. Thus, they aim to show the diversity of "Islamic" beliefs and practices in various Muslim countries. They see as an important demystification tool the demonstration that so-called Muslim practices can actually vary widely. In fact, some practices seen as Muslim in one country can be seen as antithetical to Islam in another society. Because of the lack of knowledge available to women and the isolation in which women struggle for better lives, another main aim of W & L is outreach and education. If women learn about the options of women in other parts of the world, they will realize that the gender beliefs and practices in their own area are actually not "natural," inevitable, divinely established, and unchangeable. Examples of strategies used in one setting to improve women's rights may be encouraging and also applicable elsewhere (xiii, xiv).

Three main areas of concern guide W & L's work. Researchers emphasize women in the family. It is in the family, they believe, that imposed gender definitions most immediately confront women. "(T)he converging influences of customs, culture and law most vividly come together (xiv)" in the family. Furthermore, it is in personal status law, dealing with the family that religious justification is most often brought to bear. Thus, it is in the family "that the culturally specific articulation of patriarchy is most visible in the Muslim world" (xiv). Secondly, the research has focused on "women as citizens" through an examination of their place in the constitution, work, education, and economic activities. A third area of concern deals with the bodily integrity of women, including sexuality, and the reactions of family, state, and society to women's transgressions or assumed transgressions.

In Pakistan, Shirkat Gah - Women's Resource Centre conducted the W & L project, beginning in 1992. In this amazingly far-reaching and comprehensive effort, lawyers conducted archival legal research on case law covering about 50 years. Political research focused on legislative activity concerning women's participation and debates on women's issues. Field research focused on local customary practices in different areas. Participant observation reports documented the women's movement's organizational and outreach strategies. This work has resulted in a number of publications and outreach activities. The volume under review covers three areas: The Political and Legal Context; Implementation; Laws and Practices; and Women's Activism.

Through the first section on contextual constraints, the authors acknowledge the fact that laws, customs and political developments drastically influence possibilities for activism. Political conditions in Pakistan have discouraged political and social movements. Military law, dismissal of legislatures, and three different constitutions have not created opportunities for citizens' political participation. Nausheen Ahmad studies the superior judiciary in Pakistan. Through analyzing some of the causes concerning women's rights, she concludes that the judiciary has played a paternalist role regarding women. Rather than working to give women their rights under the Constitution or as conceptualized internationally, the judiciary has limited itself to rights given to women in religion.

Pakistan is a religious state, Ahmad points out. The Supreme Court has confirmed the Islamic ideology on which Pakistan is based and therefore the lack of separation of state and religion. Clearly then, any judicial discussion of women' rights must be within Islamic ideology. Other problems include frequent executive control of the judiciary, a parallel Shariat court system, and Islamization of the court system. The religious courts, Ahmad submits, were established as part of the process of Islamization and have negatively impacted women. Under the Zina (adultery) Ordinance of the Hudood Ordinances of 1979, many women have encountered the court system and have been imprisoned. Under this ordinance, if a female accuses a man of rape and fails to provide adequate evidence, she has in effect admitted to adultery, which can be punishable by stoning to death. According to Asia Watch, the Pakistani courts discriminate against women as victims and as defendants. The courts give their testimony less weight. Women, therefore, are generally not able to prove rape to the satisfaction of the courts, and even when they do, male rapists receive reduced sentences. Many women are wrongfully charged under this ordinance, and the courts do not adequately protect women from such charges. As a result, women prisoners went from a total of seventy in the entire country to 6,000 in prison because of the Zina Ordinance alone by 1989. In Ahmad's estimation, genuine equality cannot be achieved if the courts continue to stay within religious parameters to decide questions having to do with women's rights.

In their chapter on parallel judicial systems, Shaheen Sardar Ali and Kamran Arif find the various additional court systems to be detrimental to women's rights. Appointed by the President, the ulema sitting on the Federal Shariat Court and the Shariat Appellate Bench generally hold misogynist views, Ali and Arif charge. The all-male jirga system in the Northwest Frontier Provinces (NWFP) and Baluchistan bring their own gender prejudices to cases and, as local elite, uphold the status quo and local customary practices detrimental to women.

In "Engagements of Culture, Customs and Law," Farida Shaheed points out that we realize the connection between culture and custom, but we tend to see law as independent of culture, as something apart from culture and daily life. Not so, she argues. Law also is connected with culture, and women's lives are bound by the interaction of culture, custom and law. Culture influences the formation of law, interpretation of law, and implementation of law. People are in charge of implementing law, and people are influenced by cultural attitudes and social values. As an example, she presents honor killings and cases wherein murder has been excused by the court system, in spite of law and evidence, when the defense claimed suspicion of a wife's adultery. Shaheed advises demystification of law and a flexible shifting back and forth between law and customs to fight for women's rights, as either may be more restrictive and influencing at a certain moment.

Kamran Arif traces "The Evolution of Muslim Personal Law in Pakistan," pointing out that a number of laws enacted by the British favored the implementation of customary law. The British largely left personal status laws, such as marriage, divorce, guardianship, and inheritance, untouched, seeing them as sensitive issues. Interference might provoke resistance against the colonial power. By the politically motivated tolerance of customary law concerning women's issues, Arif charges, the British colonialists struck a severe blow against women's rights.

Asma Jahangir discusses the origins of the Muslim Family Laws Ordinance of 1961. From the beginning, Jahangir argues, Pakistani laws were based on religious beliefs. The Shariat or Muslim law was applied to such areas as marriage and its dissolution, maintenance, and guardianship, but not to inheritance of agricultural property. The Muslim Family Laws Ordinance of 1961, by requiring the application of Shariat law rather than the more restrictive customary law, actually brought some legal improvements for women. Women therefore welcomed it, and not until later did they realize to what extent this religiously-based law discriminated against women.

In the second section, titled Implementation; Laws and Practices, the authors focus mainly on personal status law as, of course, this area deals with issues affecting women, such as marriage, divorce, dower, custody, and inheritance. These articles were based on research led by Shaheen Sardar Ali, using almost fifty years of superior court case law, that involved following trends and investigating the problems women faced in gaining access to the legal system, and the outcomes of court cases. Shaheen Sardar Ali and Rukhshanda Naz studied cases relating to marriage, divorce and dower, the most commonly litigated areas in family law. In this article, they examine the intersections among law, practice, custom, and religion. They document how religious forces have affected the formation of law. For example, when many Muslim women were converting to Christianity in order to have the legal option to divorce, not allowed them as Muslims, the ulama urged passage of the Dissolution of Muslim Marriages Act in 1939, allowing Muslim women to seek divorce under certain circumstances. Pakistan inherited this law upon its creation in 1947.

Often, the authors found, judges did not apply even those laws helpful to women in deciding cases. Judges seem to try to avoid controversy and displeasing husbands in cases of divorce. Even when women presented evidence of cruelty and failure to provide maintenance, acceptable grounds for a woman to divorce, most often judgments granted khula, a divorce in which the wife foregoes her dower or mahr. In more than 80% of the cases, women filed for divorce under legally acceptable grounds, but accepted khula, thus losing the marriage settlements agreed upon in their marriage contracts. In other words, women bought their freedom by forfeiting their financial rights. The authors faulted judges for generally dissolving marriages through the khula class of divorce, even when women had legally appropriate grounds for divorce, suggesting that the judges' attitudes encouraged men's callous behavior regarding responsibility to spouses. When Islamically ordained practices run contrary to the interests of those in power, the authors argue, they are ignored. Often the court system disregarded law. Judges frequently decided provisions of the law were un-Islamic and thus did not apply them in judgments. Religious injunctions were applied selectively. Also telling, the authors found, were those areas in which women did not seek judicial intervention. Although the Marriage and Family Law Ordinance of 1961 allows women whose husbands have taken a second wife to file for divorce, very few in this situation did. Religious or secular law, the authors conclude, have limited efficacy in social engineering because only those legal provisions supporting the status quo are applied.

Shaheen Sardar Ali and Mohammad Nadeem Azam followed case law on custody and guardianship between 1947 and 1997, likewise finding that cultural norms, political pressures, and religious rules informed court attitudes as much or more than statutory laws. Based on their assumptions that minors' interests will best be served when living with the mother, courts tended to ignore Islamic law and award mothers custody.

Although Pakistan has developed legislation to support women's rights of inheritance, prompted by Muslim identity concerns and women's protest demonstrations, analysis of cases shows women seldom enjoy the benefit of these laws. Very few cases involving women's claims to inheritance are brought before judges, according to Kamran Arif and Shaheen Sardar Ali. And although judges show sympathy for women and generally did not accept the tactics used by male heirs to deprive women of their share, they also behave in a condescending manner towards women. Judges seemed to favor the women, not because they should be treated as equal citizens under the law, but because they form the weaker section of society and need protection. In addition, the very small number of inheritance cases that women have brought to the courts demonstrates the barriers women face in seeking legal redress, and the difficulties which demanding even that smaller proportion of inheritance allowed females brings to women.

The activist-researchers who worked on this Pakistani Women and Law project have been deeply concerned about the effect of the Hudood Ordinances of 1979, passed by General Zia-ul-Haq's regime, and more general in the Islamization of laws concerning women's rights. In their chapter on Divorce Law and Legal Practice in Pakistan, Sohail Akbar Warraich and Cassandra Balchin analyze the discrimination against women in the legal system and the lack of uniformity in applying law to cases through case law regarding women's rights in marriage dissolution. Women face more obstacles in using the court than men, who, for example, can divorce without court intervention. Women, instead, must use the court system to seek divorce, which requires monetary output. Women rarely initiate divorce, and financial considerations must increase their reluctance to do so. Since women generally must give up their marriage settlement and any maintenance to obtain a divorce, they are generally left with no means of support.

The 1979 Hudood Ordinance and the 1980 institution of a parallel Shariat court system have brought additional problems for women in the court system. Ulema sitting on the Federal Shariat court may have no legal background and often fail to apply protective measures of the Marriage and Family Law Ordinance, declaring them repugnant to Islam. The Zina Ordinance, part of the 1979 Hudood Ordinances, has been very detrimental to women. Under this ordinance, women who have remarried following unregistered divorce by husbands are susceptible to charges of adultery and thus the death penalty. Custom prevents women from gaining access to law which benefits them, and also prevents women from enjoying the protection of stipulations written into their marriage contracts. More generally, custom, tradition, and social pressure prevent women from seeking legal assistance, and also affect legal decisions when they do manage to approach the court. Political considerations discourage change. "The reality is that Pakistani women are oppressed (221)." Because their access to court assistance is obstructed by customary practices as well as law and legal practice, the authors conclude that women's strategizing to survive under the existing framework takes place outside of the formal judicial system.

In her chapter on the informal settlement system, the faislo, which exists in Sindh, a region in the interior of Pakistan, Nafisa Shah analyzes how women are used in settlements and how the concept of honor, as embodied in women, relates to tribal crime and compensation for crime. Through her field research and interviews with tribal leaders and affected women, Shah found that the faislo system, similar to the jirga, is still the main institution for resolving conflict in rural, tribal Sindh. Supposedly this informal, traditional system should bring an end to conflict, not through judging guilt or innocence, but through bringing parties to an agreement about how to restore damaged honor and property. The system has expanded and evolved and now includes negotiation to agree on a contract for compensation. According to Shah, "In the patriarchal tribal and feudal societies, the commodification of women and children is a norm" (228). Therefore women and even unborn girls are given as blood money to compensate for damages. Such commodification of women, Shah found in her study, actually complicates tribal relationships and may lead to feuds, which are then often waged on women's bodies (228). Women may also play a part in settling differences through being sent to beg for forgiveness and settlement from the opposing group. Heavy fines are often a part of settlements and result in increasing tendency towards marriage or remarriage of women to settle debts or make money. In spite of some changes in the faislo system, Shah found, the commodification of women has not changed. Thus women cannot hope to have improved access to justice through this system, which is being applied in more types of disputes.

The law concerning qisas or retribution and diyat or blood money, as outlined in the Qur'an, also discriminates, inherently and in application, against women, Hassam Qadir Shah points out. Women are given less consideration both as victims of violent crime and as potential recipients of blood money in the case of violence against husband or relatives. Because the Qisas and Diyat Act of 1997 disallows death as a punishment in cases where a potential heir of the victim is also the offender's direct descendant, murder of wives is treated quite differently from murder of other people. Because it was considered incompatible with Islamic injunctions, the Qisas and Diyat Act did exclude the formerly acceptable defense of pleading "grave and sudden provocation" in emotionally charged murder cases where husbands killed their wives for supposedly committing adultery. However, in spite of this, the court system has, in effect, allowed this plea as a mitigating circumstance.

Section three on. Women's Activism deals with women's reactions to the political environment, legal system, and their own situations. Farid Shaheed and Sohail Akbar Warraich provide an overview of the historical, political, and social context within which women's struggles have occurred, and focus on some of the main issues women must confront as politicians, voters, and interest group members.

During the independence and the Pakistan movements, women mobilized other women into political activity and even lobbied for women's education and rights. During the civil disobedience movement of January 1947, even Pukhtun women, from what is considered to be the most conservative region of South Asia, marched unveiled on the streets for the first time (273). After partition, the establishment distinguished between non-threatening, nation-building women's groups, and those considered too radical, and prohibited the latter.

These authors also point out that different regimes, and different regions within Pakistan, have had quite different attitudes towards women's rights and political organizing. During the 1977-1988 period of General Zia-ul-Haq's rule, his Islamization campaign repressed women's participation in public life and cut back on their rights. In some areas of the Northwest Frontier Province and the Federally Administrated Tribal Areas, jirgas denounce the female franchise, and women cannot vote. This problem also exists in some areas of Sindh and Punjab.

Women's entrance into Parliament has often been controlled by males. In general, politicians and parties have courted women's support and used women to mobilize votes during election periods, but women have not entered into policy-making roles. Few women have become nationally successful politicians.

In this chapter, the authors also trace the histories and activities of the well-known Women's Action Forum (WAF). Because of political parties' neglect of women's issues and inability to find ways of bringing women into the political arena in a meaningful way, the authors feel that gender change and improvements in women's situations will more likely be brought about by interest groups, rather than by female politicians. Women have been excluded from the tribal, feudal, industrial, and business power systems producing political personnel, and thus they face great disadvantages in entering political participation. The long periods of marshal law have been detrimental to the development of women's political participation. Concepts of honor and the institution of purdah, religiously and culturally justified, also severely limit women's entrance into meaningful political participation: "On the whole, women are obliged to operate within fairly rigid structures of patriarchal control in which self-serving notions of male honor and female shame are used to systematically keep women out of all public spaces…(306)"

Khawar Mumtaz studied the roles of those few women who have become members of parliament. Women coming in on reserved seats owed their presence to the votes of male parliamentarians rather than to a constituency. As legislatures have commonly served the purpose of legitimizing executive initiatives, rather than developing legislation or guiding policy makers, members of parliament have had relatively little actual impact. Some women elected to parliament have spoken out for women's rights and debated women's issues. Khawar Mumtaz argues, however, that women's pressures on the executive branch from outside of the assemblies have had more impact than activities of assembly members.

Shahla Zia presents some strategies for the future, based on an analysis of the experiences of the women's movement in several struggles. The tightening of restrictions on women during General Zia-ul-Haq's rule prompted an outspoken woman's movement. Due to his Islamization policy and alliance with reactionary forces, which resulted in the targeting of women, existing women's rights and opportunities, even voting, driving, and working, were questioned. People felt enabled to intervene when they believed women were violating Islamic morality codes. When women began to realize the detrimental effects of the 1979 Hudood Ordinances and the chaddar and chardiuari (veil and four walls) policy, they mobilized. The WAF provided a platform for people to express their views. The Lahore women lawyers' organization called for a press conference. Women researched issues and potential effects of legislation, raised awareness, brought a petition to the Supreme Court, and marched down a street in Lahore to present a memorandum to the Chief Justice. Police attacked, tear-gassed, and locked-up some of the 300 women marchers, drawing national and international attention to the issues. Women planned lectures, discussions, and meetings. They produced theatrical performances, print media, cassettes, and posters and used a number of other strategies. In her article, Zia also discusses the successes and failure of the women's movement, and its conceptual framework, and suggests strategies for the future.

In an important analytical chapter Farida Shaheed examines "Women's Experiences of Identity, Religion and Activism in Pakistan." One reason that the women's movement has not been able to cut across class identities is that it has focused on legal rights at the national level and neglected women's personal and family lives where women daily experience gender definitions and control mechanisms. In this chapter, she focuses on women's reported life experiences. Women's experiences of religion cannot be reduced to the use of religion in political mobilization, such as during the General Zia-ul-Haq era. Rather religion is a faith, a crucial self-identity marker, a behavior and ethical code, and a framework for viewing the world. Toward the end of the Zia-ul-Haq era, a household survey about women's lives and views showed how central the family and how significant the place of religion and religious rituals were in women's lives. The family bounded women's lives and mobility. Women believed they must obey their husbands. Although women complained about lack of freedom of movement and restrictions on their activities, they did not blame religion or God for their situation. Religious rituals provide identity, participation, belonging, a sense of peace, and self-affirmation, as well as an effective means of control.

Amtul Naheed and Shahnaz Iqbal write about Shirkat Gah and its outreach program to promote understanding about the legal system and how it is connected to customs, power, social movements, and political processes. The Women and Law program brought together extensive archival, legal, and field research. Shirkat Gah then held workshops with lawyers, politicians, social scientists, and activists, to discuss findings and strategies. The field research helped Shirkat Gah members to understand better the dynamics of patriarchal control of Pakistani women. Although women are forced by necessity to perform tasks defined as inappropriate for women, they do not incorporate such non-sanctioned accomplishments into gender identity. With their contributions thus hidden, women, as well as men, fail to see women as producers, but merely as consumers. Women are prevented from exercising self will for their own benefit. Their mobility is severely restricted, except when carrying out tasks useful to the family. Patriarchal society has so denied women's worth, the authors conclude, that women internalize this assessment. Overall, Naheed and Iqbal found that women were ignorant about law and also felt helpless to do anything about negative situations. In general, the main challenges to developing awareness and mobilizing for change, they conclude, are the unreliable political system and the "misuse of religion by both traditional conservative forces and newly emerging political groups (i.e. fundamentalists') for their own ends" (485).

This is an inspiring book. Such an effort is all the more relevant because politicians, academics, and citizens in many Muslim countries are arguing about the situation of women in Islamic societies and the role of governments in Muslim countries. We often hear emotional and dogmatic arguments, which are based on attitudes and beliefs, rather than on evidence from real situations. The authors of this volume base their analyses on extensive research, by observing what has actually happened to women under conditions of Islamization, in one nation. Rather than talking in ideal terms, they draw conclusions from the real experiences of women. The reading is not always easy. Necessarily, the authors use specialized legal and religious terminology. Sometimes, descriptions of laws become rather heavy. However, much of the material consists of well-written, accessible sociological and anthropological analysis and discussion. Through their personal activist experiences and extensive discussion with other lawyers, activists, and academics, as well as their reading and research on Pakistani women, the authors have gained impressive wisdom and insight. This volume will be useful for classes on the Middle East, South. Asia, and Islam. Professors of women and gender, political science, anthropology, law, legal anthropology, sociology, and religious studies courses will find it of great interest.

I greatly admire the authors of this volume. Unapologetically, they delineate gender discrimination in their society. Courageously, they document how politicians have wielded Islamic laws and policies to increase their own power through limiting women. They are straightforward in their assessments and criticisms. They do not pay homage to patriarchal imagined communities of nation and religion by defending gender inequality or women's internalized, religion-sanctioned, limited definitions of femininity. In spite of the strongly religious character of Pakistani society, the increase of fundamentalist pressures and the influence of the Shariat, they define Shirkat Gah as secular. Religion should be a personal matter, they believe, and state and religion should be separate.

Although they believe that ultimately, an Islamic framework cannot guarantee women's human rights, they also consider that efforts to improve women's situation can be applied in every venue, including religious ideology and organization. Women need not give up Islamic beliefs and identity to work for women's rights. In the current environment, when some people with ties to the Islamic world are perhaps going beyond cultural relativism in their attempts to explain sexist beliefs and practices, the reason displayed by these authors is inspiring. Certainly, wishing to abstain from joining the general crude condemnation of Islamic beliefs and peoples on the one hand, while also recognizing the gender inequity promoted in many societies, which in turn is Islamically sanctioned, presents a dilemma. For these authors, an apologetic and defensive stance is not the answer.

This book not only can provide insights into the conditions in Muslim societies, but, I believe, can provide more general insights for feminists and activists. As a feminist, I believe I should take a critical stance on gender discriminatory ideologies and practices wherever they exist, whether in Muslim societies, US academia, or in political or economic realms globally. Certainly, feminists need to develop strategies appropriate to the situation. Feminist activity has to be carried on in the real world. It is never free of environmental constraints. Sometimes working to improve women's situation needs to be done in a religious atmosphere if at all. But I believe, with these authors, that it is not useful to condone analytically limiting gender constructions in religion; rather it is necessary to acknowledge them for what they are. I stand in awe of Shirkat Gah's accomplishments.

Mary Hegland is associate professor of anthropology at Santa Clara University, Santa Clara, CA, USA.

Published in Association for Middle East Women's Studies Review volume xvii nos 3&4 fall 2002/winter 2003.