Protecting women is now an act of treason, CII? Really?
Pakistan’s efforts of six years at gender equality reached a fever pitch in the past two weeks.
Late February the Punjab Assembly passed its Protection of Women Against Violence Bill 2015. Then last week Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy brought home her second Oscar for Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness, a documentary highlighting the horrors of honour killing. Following an at-home screening of the film, the PM’s office took the unprecedented and impressive step of promising law reform.
In response, several prominent clerics openly opposed and ridiculed the new law suggesting that not only was the new law against the spirit of Shariah but what is really needed is a law to “protect the rights of husbands”.
As the nation’s television channels flashed images of inflamed maulanas, a hanged Mumtaz Qadri, angry crowds protesting his hanging, and a victorious Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy wielding the Oscar as a victory for determined women, 26-year-old Mohammad Asif quietly returned from Dubai and shot dead his two sisters in the name of ‘honour’.
This was not Mohammad Asif’s first rodeo in the arena of honour killings. Four years ago he was arrested for killing his mother (also, allegedly in the name of family honour). But he was set free after his father pardoned him.
Last year, Human Rights Watch estimated that over a 1000 women are killed in the name of honour. This number is likely a modest estimate. Despite being banned from doing so local jirgas continue to rule the fate of these women.
Honour killings, known as karo kari in Pakistan, are not only a practice governed by jirgas or the family unit – completely outside of the ambit of the state – they are also forgiving of the perpetrator by other members of the household leaving no one to give a voice to the voiceless.
So, when Pakistan’s Prime Minister is emotionally moved to call for an end to the practice through a publicly announced commitment to end gender-based discrimination and violence – that is a big deal.
No matter if you are a Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy fan or detractor. No matter if you subscribe to the politics and policies of the Sharif government. This is a big deal.
Because our democratically elected representatives need to be working tirelessly to protect the nameless, voiceless, countless women who live under the fear of death in their home at the behest of their loved ones. And because various clerics – irrespective of sect, political affiliation, and location – are happy to coalesce with one another to wield their twisted interpretations of a set of laws as old as Islam with as many types of interpretations as there are types of followers of Islam.
Violence against women is not a binary. There is no confusion or sides to choose.
You either are for it or against it.
Violating or taking away the rights of womens’ personhood – whether it is done by the state or by the men in her life – does not require your short-term attention span to join an online movement, create a Facebook status update or Tweet or meme.
It requires action against the backdrop of a set of rules. Like Punjab’s Protection of Women Against Violence Bill.
What we don’t need is the vetoing of these necessary set of rules by those who, without even having read the new law, condemn it with vitriolic opinions loaded like bombs and flung into the general atmosphere with the hopes that one will hit hard enough to garner reactions.
Or, to enable the Mohammad Asifs of our country who – thanks to the nation’s maulanas acting under their self-constructed warped banner of Islam - continue to fearlessly act with impunity.
After a few weeks of ground-breaking steps nationwide, we’ve reached the inevitable impasse between religion and state.
On one hand we have the state which, at last, is moved enough to do something about the flagrant abuse of women in this country.
Whether the bill is wholly equipped to do this is not the immediate concern. Laws are frequently created then tested, rewritten, and retested.
On the other hand is the appointed religious establishment – a complex, evolving, and unpredictable threat to equality rights. Whether it is one group threatening to apply Article 6 of the Constitution (which deals with treason) against the Punjab Assembly for approving a bill without its consent or another group managing to make everything about them by proposing that instead of pushing through female-centric laws, a law be passed to protect menfolk, clerics with a platform are turning out to be something of a liability along the road to modern, civic society.
The best of times, the worst of times
The cynic in me is inclined to throw my hands up in frustrated defeat and declare that, well, we live in bad times but all times are bad.
But the optimistic in me wants more success because a newly minted law or another Oscar win for a hard-hitting topic is only the beginning. Because success usually tricks us into thinking we can stop working. But the Mohammad Asif’s are still out there unpunished and above the laws we create.
Time never changes. There will always be 168 hours in a week. What can change is the society running against the clock. And right now, for too many girls and women across the country, time is running out.
It’s relatively easy to be a critic or to align with the critics. After all, isn’t everything flawed? Perfection- whether it be in a filmmaker’s intentions or in a newly passed law – is not possible.
The point is not to create fool-proof perfection that pleases everyone.
The point is to engage in some good ol’ fashioned, tried, tested and true cultural rejection of those who oppress on the basis of human anatomy, those who cloud society’s judgment by turning a beautiful religion as linguistic virus, and those who wrongly, violently, and too frequently take justice into their own hands and get away with it.
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