The passage of the Protection of Women Against Violence Bill was hailed as a big achievement by many in the secular liberal circles while the religious circles are in serious opposition. The argument of the liberals is that the Bill presents a step towards the empowerment of women and the elimination of domestic violence. It will keep those husbands in control who treat their wife/wives as their subjects and exercise different forms of violence against them. On the other hand, the APC that included 35 religious parties condemned the law and said: “This Act … is redundant and would add to the miseries of women.”
Domestic violence is a reality in Pakistan and it needs to be reckoned with. According to Aurat Foundation, “In 2013, more than 5,800 cases of violence against women were reported in Punjab.” A 2011 Thomson Reuters Foundation expert poll showed that domestic abuse, economic discrimination and acid attacks made Pakistan the world’s third-most dangerous country for women. These are some serious statistics about which the religious group’s stance is quite frankly, ignorant.
But then, let us dig into the secular liberal stance — make a law to criminalise domestic violence and let us hope everything will turn out to be fine — which is absolutely immature. What they fail to see is that such a law does not take into consideration our unique societal dynamics. One can also question the effectiveness of such laws implemented in the Western world. According to data obtained from Health & Social Care Information Centre, Britain, the number of acid attacks against women in the last 10 years has doubled to 925. Two women are killed every week in England and Wales by a partner. A recent article in The New York Times states that “every year, in France, 223,000 women are physically or psychologically abused by their partners”. In 2014 alone, 134 women died as a result of violence at the hands of their husbands or partners. Even though the Western world has strict and intelligent laws on women protection-related matters, these laws are not necessarily solving this social problem.
So what is going wrong? An article, “The Limits of Law”, published in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, discusses the effectiveness and limits of a law, in an intellectual sense. Laws might fail and the failure could be dramatic if there is little understanding of society and human behaviour. Knowing what works and what does not and what will be counterproductive is important knowledge. An article titled “Law vs morality as regulators of conduct” by Steven Shavell of Harvard Law School presents an excellent perspective. He argues that a better sense of developing morality in many cases is the best manner of controlling a specific behaviour pattern. For instance, morality and not law is a means of control of much of our daily interactions and social discourse like fulfilling commitments or talking sensibly or treating guests or respecting the elderly, and so on. He rightly argues that establishing laws is not a very expensive process and does not take much time in being implemented. But the establishment of moral rules is extremely expensive and time-consuming. Making a law to punish littering is easy but inculcating the moral rule that one should not litter requires constant effort over the years of childhood and social projects in elevating the values of a society.
Therefore, without understanding the social dynamics of a Pakistani household, the state will only make laws that fail miserably and are not practised by society at large. Pakistan’s family structure is strictly non-individual. Therefore, in our society, when a problem in the home arises, the first priority is to resolve the issue within the realm of the husband and wife, but if it extends, the parents intervene and try to settle the disputes with utmost secrecy. They consider it a disgrace to discuss their family matters even with uncles and aunts, but where necessary, the elders intervene and try to resolve it. In such a climate of social bonding, interference and family dignity, a matter taken to the police will be considered devastating for the family prestige. The consequences it can lead to need to be investigated before enacting laws.
Secondly, the issue of domestic violence is directly linked to the cultural upbringing of males in society, which creates a male-dominated society with supersized egos. The Women’s Protection Bill provides for a 24-hour helpline for women, women’s shelter homes, women being distanced from men using GPS, etc., giving it a feminist colour and which could collide directly with the supersized egos of our male population. Problems are not solved by triggering the ego of another individual but by gradually changing mindsets. Moral awareness schemes through the media, sermons in mosques and through education curriculum, on the basis of correct social values are fundamental in changing mindsets. Additionally, the style of discourse needs to change i.e., there is a need to emphasise that women are not a rare species, who are being hunted down and need protection. Let us consider women as companions living in a household setting with men, as respectable homemakers or professionals, having an equal day-to-day contribution in any family’s life. Our male-dominated society needs to be educated that women are as human as men and laws are same for them as they are for men. The current police structure should be formalised and educated in this regard.
We need to think deeply about our social dynamics to solve our problems and find ways that would work for us. Ignorance towards problems or lack of objective analysis are dangerous trends.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 4th, 2016.