The passage of the landmark ‘The Prevention of Anti-Women Practices (Criminal Law Amendment) Act 2011’ through parliament marks an historic occasion for women in the country. The new law promises to make society a safer place by putting in place tough penalties, including jail terms and fines, for those who violate their rights, by engaging in practices such as swara, wani, child marriage or other crimes against women, such as ‘marriages’ to the Holy Quran. Forced marriage to settle a dispute, for instance, becomes a non-bailable offence. Similarly, depriving a woman of her right to inheritance carries a prison term of between five and 10 years and also a possible fine of Rs1 million. Forced marriage in cases where a dispute is not involved carries a prison term of three to 10 years and a fine of Rs500,000. Similar punishments have been laid down for other offences so common in our society.
The legislation, authored by Dr Donya Aziz of the PML-Q and tabled three years ago as a private members bill, faced a long, hard struggle before it could be turned into law. The swim has been a hard one, pushing against a tide of resistance, both at the committee level and then within the house itself. This in itself reflects the mindsets that have played such a major part in shaping society and setting in place the mechanisms that play such a huge part in the discrimination suffered by women. The passage of the new law thus comes as a triumph; parliament and its members need to be praised for making this happen — and the words of appreciation that have come from the prime minister, the speaker herself and others must too be welcomed for setting the right spirit and making it clear that the country’s top leadership welcomes the new law. This sends out a message that is positive and signals strong support for the law.
We often speak, sometimes without intention, of women’s issues as marginalised ones. In doing so, we appear to forget that women constitute half of the country’s population. They are certainly not a marginalised group but they suffer high levels of discrimination and as such count among the most vulnerable sections of our society. It is essential that they be better protected and be treated as equal citizens under law. Even today, in this age of so-called civilisation, the bartering of women takes place, as does the ‘sale’ of young girls and women. Many such practices persist in the name of ‘tradition’, passed down from one generation to the next and perpetuated because the essentially patriarchal nature of our society has not changed for centuries.
The new law sets out the road at the end of which change could lie. Tough penalties immediately put in place a deterrent. Of course, our history of implementing laws is not good — but even so, simply having legislation on the books helps create the momentum that is needed to bring change and raises awareness about the issues that exist. The passage of the law also brings right to the forefront the advantages inherent in increasing the number of seats for women in assemblies — even if the majority of female representatives is selected, and not elected. Their presence has generated far greater debate on issues of significance for women, and as a result facilitated a string of laws which at the least makes their legal position stronger.
The latest law in particular goes a significant way towards this. But it needs also to be backed by other steps that can help empower women and make them better able to grasp the equal status granted to them under the Constitution, while escaping practices that result in them being treated as property rather than human beings. Also, while we warmly welcome its passage in the National Assembly, those who think that the fight for equal rights for women, and for an end to the discrimination and harassment they face in their daily lives, is over are fooling themselves. This is but a much-needed first step and in a society as deeply patriarchal and misogynist as ours, changing attitudes and mindsets will be the harder part.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 17th, 2011.