Chief Justice Holt of England said in a judgment in 1701 that “an Act of parliament can do no wrong, though it may do several things that look pretty odd”. This is an apt description for certain clauses of the Punjab Protection of Women Against Violence Act, which have puzzled many and created great controversy and uproar. Firstly, there is the forced entry of a woman protection officer into a home where a woman victim consents to being rescued. Secondly, there is the potential order to remove the violent perpetrator from his own house for 48 hours. Picture these scenes. A wife being rescued, or her violent husband being taken out of the family home with the consent of his wife. And all this, most probably, in a joint family system.
Lastly, there is the potential punishment in the form of an ankle or wrist bracelet with a GPS tracker. Many male voices were heard, including in the Punjab Assembly, expressing reservations about a GPS tracker, saying it would humiliate men and was unnecessary. The solidarity men have already shown towards a potential violent male perpetrator is ironic, but let’s not get into that just now. The real question is will this actually work, considering the device’s instructions are likely to be in Chinese?
These punishments are grave in a society where men have full impunity to do as they please and are congratulated for their violence as a sign of their manhood. It will be interesting to see how the Punjab government responds to pressure if these punishments are actually enforced. But only if enforced will those in favour of the punishments be able to judge their effectiveness and those against them be able to claim the flaws in them. Even so, no matter how proactive the law and harsh the punishment, unless the law is coupled with aggressive judicial training to deal with cases of violence, including understanding the underlying causes of it, we will continue to witness conservative interpretations of the law that will be detrimental to women.
Further, the Act has not provided long-term solutions to protecting the victim, including economic empowerment to ensure sustainability. She may be placed in a shelter home as stated in the Act, but what will come next? It is well known that most women do not leave violent homes because they are financially unable to do so. This must be addressed in a separate law or through secondary legislation; otherwise the short-term protection will achieve no long-term relief. The Act also fails to deal with the question of accompanying children and their age. If there is a son above the age of 12, the victim will be forced to choose between a violent home and a shelter home. We know what the answer has always been. The new law provides no new alternative.
But even with all the flaws, I still count myself amongst those celebrating the passage of the law, which is a recognition by the authorities that domestic violence is an offence and legal steps can be taken to protect victims. We are all aware that the law does not go far enough. But just like those who drafted the law, let us tread carefully. We have forgotten that with this law we have entered the private sphere of men, where they feel safest to do as they please, without the interference of anyone, let alone the law. And when the matter is as sensitive as entering the private space of a person’s home, in a country which is obsessed with safeguarding its four walls, initial legal reform can never go far enough for those championing the cause. The Muslim Family Laws Ordinance of 1961 is the only real reform law in Pakistan that provides basic marriage and divorce rights to women. In fact, it is Punjab that has managed to strengthen this law to favour women even further.
The real elephant in the room is implementation of this law or domestic violence laws in Sindh and Balochistan, for that matter. The reality is that the implementing factor requires effective, non-patriarchal institutional mechanisms and progressive social attitudes that work together to say to women who suffer violence, to come forward and claim what is rightly theirs. The law should enable the state to tell women that it will protect them, empower them and that society will support them. Until that happens, laws will forever be theoretically debated without any glimpse of what they will look like in practice.
A home in which violence occurs is already broken. There is no other way of looking at it. Let’s celebrate the small step forward that recognises this; celebrate the space this law has given us to demand that it be further strengthened. If there are consistent violations against a woman victim, who feels unable to use the law to protect herself, it will expose the failures of the governmental apparatus. Punjab has set a benchmark. Let’s hold the provincial government to it.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 12th, 2016.