Justice for Women in Pakistan

Justice for women
By I.A. Rehman, Dawn, November 13, 2008

THE shelter for women in distress is often described as a halfway house and one wonders whether Pakistani women are considered entitled to anything more.

Another case of extraordinary barbarism towards a young woman is in the news. It is said that before being shot dead, young Tasleem Solangi was subjected to a forced abortion and a dog was set upon her and bit her repeatedly. The emphasis in the story as told by the media has been on the use of a dog to torture and humiliate the victim. No strong reaction was seen when the killing of Tasleem was first reported in a Sindhi newspaper in March and listed in the HRCP’s bulletin in April this year.

Earlier, the alleged burying alive of five (the precise number is disputed) women in a village in Balochistan was a nine-day sensation in the media. In that case the emphasis was on the victims’ burial before they were dead.

The manner in which such incidents are reported and discussed reveals both society and the media in a most uncomplimentary light. The story of a woman’s foul murder deserves front-page headlines and discussion at exalted forums only if the final act in the drama includes some unusual form of bestiality.

One of the problems with this approach is that the debate on the incident is restricted to the extra act of cruelty and the ascertainment of facts related to that cruelty, and due attention is not paid to the crux of the matter — the wanton willing of women. During the period between the Balochistan and Khairpur incidents 27 women fell victim to the karo-kari custom and the number killed between January and Sept 11 this year stood at more than 130. These murders were considered routine happenings, no more serious than deaths in road accidents and hence consigned, if considered newsworthy at all, to the bottom of a column on an inside page.

Karo-kari, the killing of women (and sometimes men too) for having illicit sex or the mere suspicion of it, has been an issue in public debate for at least 150 years since Charles Napier first noticed it. The increased awareness of women’s oppression in various forms has pushed the vile custom to the top of human rights activists’ concerns.

Two factors in particular have added to the gravity of the matter in recent years. First, while in the past the so-called honour killing was confined to some tribal settlements its incidence in the settled areas of the four provinces has shown an upward trend. Second, the jirgas (councils of tribal nobles/elders) that have a long history of dealing with karo-kari cases have been awarding and enforcing punishments that were never reported earlier. Newer punishments include forcibly marrying off women from the accused male’s family or raping or gang-raping the women.

Both these factors have been strengthened by the state’s failure to deal with the custom of honour killing adequately and effectively. No serious study has been done on the consequences of the migration of tribal families from rural to urban areas. All that we have is an intelligent guess that faced with newer and often harsher forms of exploitation in suburban settlements these families withdraw into their tribal traditions in order to protect their identity. The question of whether better work and living conditions in katchi abadis could facilitate their social advancement remains unanswered.

At the same time the state institutions have adopted an ambivalent attitude towards the jirga system. The system of lawfully created panchayats and jirgas introduced by the British disappeared long ago. Many factors, including the failures of the justice system, have contributed to the rise of non-formal panchayats and jirgas.

The feudals patronise jirgas and panchayats to preserve their social clout regardless of the size of their estates. They have borrowed two expressions from the state — quick justice and deterrent punishment — and have gone berserk in their attacks on the people’s rights, especially women’s. No feudal has condemned karo-kari murders, the auction of kari women in southern Punjab or the sack of girls’ schools in the Frontier.

The executive and the legislative organs of the state have devised no definite plan of action to eradicate the custom of sacrificing women to the male patriarchs’ warped sense of honour. On the contrary, the executive’s frequent calls on jirgas to establish peace in conflict zones have rehabilitated such forums.

As for the judiciary, the Sindh High Court’s valiant effort to extinguish a deep-rooted social evil with a single verdict has been thwarted by a coalition of political satraps, nazims and police officials. These self-appointed justices have held jirgas with impunity. Above all some of the political parties have helped the jirga and its champions survive because their support is needed in the curious system of representative government Pakistan follows. A politician denounced by the whole country for his advocacy of cruelty to women suffers from no handicap in securing high political office.

The state has not been unaware of the extreme forms of violence against women such as honour killing but it can be indicted for treating it as merely a crime against the victim concerned. Even in this respect, however, it has been guilty of tardiness. It took years of agitation to get the custom of vani made a penal offence.

Other instances are available to prove the government’s lack of interest in pushing legislation aimed at protecting women’s rights or in implementing laws and policies designed to achieve this objective. Quite some time ago the Council of Islamic Ideology proposed a measure to outlaw the outrageous custom of marrying girls to the holy book. Nothing is known of the government’s response. The Law and Justice Commission was rightly agitated over the continued practice of denying women their share of inheritance, especially in land. What has been done about it? Bills dealing with domestic violence have been lying in cold storage for a pretty long time. And this in a country where not only constitutional amendments but also legislation on banal issues, such as marriage feasts, can be adopted in a matter of hours.

Most of the conscious citizens, some of whom can also be found in government, will agree that laws alone will not guarantee women’s most basic rights, especially since strong social forces invoke belief and culture to fiercely resist any women-friendly measure. But how long will these be used as an excuse for denying women their basic freedoms and fundamental rights?

While laws may continue to be made and their implementation improved, it is time the government undertook a serious review of its national plan of action regarding women’s uplift, considered ways to implement the Saarc social charter and used the educational curricula to demolish the walls of myths, prejudice and feudal fads behind which the lives of countless women have been destroyed. A good beginning may be the creation of a working group to retrieve and implement pro-women plans which have drawn up over many decades.

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