The way male legislators in the National Assembly blocked the passage of the bill authored by Dr Donya Aziz for the second time makes one wonder why the country insists on calling itself an Islamic republic. As an editorial in The Express Tribune (“Keeping women down”, October 20) pointed out, “trivial objections from law makers, including the PPP’s dissenting former law minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, backed by some representatives of the PML-N, the PML-Q and the PPP, led to the bill being set aside once again”. The action of the retrogressive, male chauvinist elements in the assembly was expected. For under all the hype about equality and fundamental rights, there still lurks a sinister obscurantist streak in the Pakistani male.
It takes one back to the horrifying tale of Mukhtaran Mai, the unfortunate victim of tribal intransigence, a women of 35, a hafiz-e-Quran, who taught the Holy Book to young girls. She was allegedly raped by six men for four hours on the orders of a panchayat composed of seedy old men. It was the central spire in the swamp of indecision, distortion and injustice that led to the collective humbling awareness that no matter how hard progressive elements try to correct the injustices meted out to Pakistani women, there are forces that ensure the system will not change. As Plato put it over two thousand years ago, “change is evil, rest divine”.
When the story first came down the pike, due to the efforts of a courageous journalist, there was no immediate reaction. It was only when local television channels and almost every international channel presented the saga of the assault in painful and unprecedented detail that the ‘enlightened moderator,’ former president Pervez Musarraf, took note. An ATC court, which found the gang of six guilty, awarded the death penalty, the Lahore High court on an appeal overturned the decision of the ATC court, the Shariah Court tried to move in, the Supreme Court then stepped in, sidelined the Shariah Court and the Lahore High Court and well, the case is not yet over. Not by a long shot.
What made the episode so distasteful was that the women in the National Assembly, both of the veiled and unveiled variety, didn’t utter a word. The only two people who stood up and roundly condemned the incident were Qazi Hussain Ahmed, the amir of the Jamaat-e-Islami, and the obdurate Sherry Rehman of the PPP. The speaker in the National Assembly, who was more interested in obtaining a private airplane for himself and constructing an office which matched that of the president, watched over the proceedings with detached interest.
Things are different in grossly overpopulated India. In spite of the horror tales of dowry burnings, dreadful treatment of the untouchables and occasional harassment of the weaker sex, women are considerably freer than their counterparts in Pakistan. Can one imagine a girl riding a motorcycle, helmet on her head with a female pillion passenger in a saree roaring through the streets of Karachi or Lahore? The Constitution of India guarantees equality to all Indian women, whether Hindu, Jain, Muslim, Sikh, Christian or Parsee. It forbids discrimination by the state, renounces practices derogatory to the dignity of women and stipulates equal pay for equal work.
Rapes also occur in India, more so in the north than the south. The issue that led to wide-scale protests in 1979, which was liberally covered in the national media and spawned the feminist activist movement, involved the acquittal of policemen accused of criminally assaulting a young girl named Mathura in a police station. The event forced the government to amend the Evidence Act, the Criminal Procedure Code and the Indian Penal Code and introduced the category of custodial rape. Female activists united over issues such as female infanticide, gender bias, women health and female literacy. Pakistani women still have a long way to go to achieve their ends. They still have 50 per cent of the national vote. It’s time they used it wisely at the next election.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 25th, 2011.
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