Last week, I visited the Acid Survivors Foundation in Islamabad. Acid attacks, in which acid or other corrosive substances are thrown at someone, with the intent to disfigure, are a particularly brutal form of gender-based violence. And it is, on the whole, gender based. While men are occasionally attacked, the vast majority of the victims are women and the vast majority of perpetrators are men. A significant proportion of cases take place within the context of domestic violence. In the last two years, aided in part by the Oscar-winning documentary Saving Face, as well as by the tireless efforts of committed lawmakers and activists, awareness of acid attacks has risen sharply. But, as the co-director of the Acid Survivors Foundation told me last week, acid attacks may be the most horrific form of gender-based violence, they are certainly not the most prevalent. Indeed, campaigners say that it is impossible to take serious steps forward on eliminating acid violence without tackling the broader issue of domestic, gender-based violence alongside it.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines domestic violence as “the inflicting of physical injury by one family or household member on another; also: a repeated or habitual pattern of such behaviour.” Usually, though not always, this is violence by men against women. A 1999 report by Human Rights Watch estimated that somewhere between 70 and 90 per cent of women in Pakistan will suffer some form of spousal abuse. An academic study in 2007 found that 5,000 women die every year in domestic incidents, while thousands more are killed or maimed. At the most extreme end of the spectrum are acid attacks, burnings, and honour killings. But at the other end are beatings which do not require hospitalisation, psychological torment, and other forms of daily abuse. For many women, this is the norm, and they have nowhere to run to. In general, people at all levels of the criminal justice system view domestic violence as a private matter that does not belong in the courts. The police frequently respond to such complaints by encouraging the two parties to reconcile, rather than arresting and investigating the perpetrator. The few women who are examined by doctors, as part of a criminal investigation, face scepticism from physicians who should be neutral.
There is no real impetus for the police, lawyers and doctors to change the way they view domestic violence, because Pakistani law does not criminalise it. In 2009, the Domestic Violence (Prevention and Protection) Bill was passed unanimously by the National Assembly. Supported by President Asif Ali Zardari and the prime minister at the time, Yousaf Raza Gilani, it defined domestic violence as “all intentional acts of gender-based or other physical or psychological abuse committed by an accused against women, children or other vulnerable persons, with whom the accused person is or has been in a domestic relationship.” However, the bill lapsed after the Senate failed to pass it within the required three months. It was opposed by Islamist parties in the upper house, some of whom had been urged to do so by ministers who privately disagreed with the bill. The Council of Islamic Ideology said that the bill would increase the number of divorces and said that the punishments laid out in the bill were already enacted by other laws.
In 2012, it was tabled again and it looked as if it was going to be passed. But, despite the tireless efforts of female MNAs like Yasmeen Rehman and Attiya Inayatullah to win over the support of the religious right, these parties continued to oppose the law change. The Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F) said that the domestic violence bill undermined Islamic values, and “promote[d] western culture”. They were not alone. “We cannot let the government legalise anti-Islamic values in the name of so-called rhetoric of women’s emancipation,” said Qari Hanif Jalandhry, a cleric with Wafaq-ul-Madaris Al-Arabia Pakistan. The deadlock persisted and the law was not passed, except in Islamabad Capital Territory.
Why does this matter? As women activists pointed out, it was a relatively soft bill, carrying sentences ranging from just three months to three years. On top of this, there is the fact that a raft of pro-women legislation introduced in recent years frequently goes unenforced due to a lack of accountability and entrenched misogynistic attitudes at ground level. However, these factors do not change the fact that the law is an important point from which to start. Defining something as a crime takes it out of the private sphere and into the public one. It is no longer something to be dealt with quietly behind closed doors, but is recalibrated as an appropriate matter for the police and the courts to investigate. Defining what is right and what is wrong by law is a vital means by which a society says what is acceptable and what isn’t. For many women, domestic abuse is such a normal feature of daily life as to be unremarkable. Criminalising such violence would not change attitudes and eliminate it overnight, but it would give some basis from which to change the attitudes of both battered women and their abusers. There is something inherently flawed about the logic of the JUI-F and other right-wing religious groups tying domestic abuse to Islamic values. A higher instance of domestic violence may be noted in traditional, patriarchal societies, but this does not mean that it should be defended as some form of religious freedom.
The election campaign is heating up. Given that women are an under-represented group at the ballot box, it seems unlikely that any of the major parties will include a commitment on gender-based violence in their manifestos. But make no mistake — this is not a personal issue, it is a political one. A 2011 Thomson Reuters survey ranked Pakistan as the third-most dangerous country in the world for women, after Afghanistan and the Democratic Republic of Congo. We can only hope that the next parliament builds upon the progress already made and makes serious efforts to work against this silent menace.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 1st, 2013.