A bill to prohibit underage marriages was withdrawn earlier this week after the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) declared it un-Islamic. Marvi Memon, the PML-N parliamentarian who moved the bill, withdrew her proposal following staunch resistance from the council, which advises the legislature whether or not a certain law is Sharia-compliant.
As if on cue, the National Assembly’s Standing Committee on Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony rejected the Child Marriage Restraint (Amendment) Bill 2014 after the CII dubbed it ‘anti-Islamic’ and ‘blasphemous’.
The committee meeting, which was presided over by its Chairman Hafiz Abdul Karim, unanimously rejected the bill on ‘purely religious grounds’.
Not one to take a stand, Marvi Memon then withdrew her proposal. The proposed legislation had recommended harsher punishments for those entering conjugal contracts with minors. What a shame that this piece of legislation could not pass through our parliament. The members of our ruling party remained silent.
It may be recalled that lawmakers in the Gilgit-Baltistan Assembly had also blocked a bill seeking ban on child marriages over similar concerns. The fear of a religious backlash forces parliamentarians to think twice.
The background to this setback is that the CII has already ruled the minimum age stipulated for marriage in the Child Marriage Restriction Act of 1929 does not comply with Islamic laws.
It may also be recalled that in May 2014, amid severe criticism from various quarters, the council had endorsed its earlier ruling that girls as young as nine years old were eligible to be married “if the signs of puberty are visible”.
About two years ago, CII Chairman Mohammad Khan Sheerani told the National Assembly that the council had given its recommendations over the suggested law and this should “not have been discussed anymore.” Is this at all part of its ambit?
One needs to put things in perspective. The Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) is a constitutional body that advises the legislature on whether or not a certain law is repugnant to the Holy Quran and Sunnah. It is strictly an advisory body and is not empowered to act like a supra-parliament.
But according to the CII’s 2008 special report, 90 per cent of the country’s laws are not in conflict with Islam and only 10 per cent may be reviewed by parliament. By implication, examining those laws is now the domain of parliament and not of the council.
In an editorial written in this paper, it was observed how over the years, the CII has acquired an extra-constitutional influence and it has become almost impossible to reverse the process. This is more so because, instead of constitutional and legal experts, the CII’s membership is dominated by religio-political parties, which wield an unhealthy street power and threaten violent public protest at the slightest self-perceived provocation.
But if we look at the CII’s performance, it is only logical not to rule out the possibility of a creeping backlash against its exaggerated self-image. The CII’s pronouncements started receiving royal treatment ever since the advent of General Zia.
Let us recall the pronouncements made by the council over the years. Regarding punishing the misuse of blasphemy laws, the CII has said that there are laws in the Pakistan Penal Code, which deal with registration of false cases and false statements, and these can be applied to blasphemy cases as well.
When using DNA test reports as proof to verify rape, it has insisted adherence to the current law that requires four mature individuals to testify the occurrence of this crime, while DNA reports can only be used as supplementary proof.
On the existing law that requires a “written approval” from the first wife if a man wants to marry a second time, the council is of the view that this law is against Islamic principles and therefore should be abolished. It also ruled that a woman older than 40 can serve as a judge, provided she is properly veiled. Only last week there was a debate in the Senate in which lawmakers suggested that the body should be abolished since it completed its constitutional task back in 1996. Going by the mood of the nation, this is not going to happen any time soon. We continue to be held hostage.
Published in The Express Tribune, January 18th, 2016.
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