By Harris Khalique
October 23, 2013
When nations of the world – advanced, developing and underdeveloped – are striving hard to make or keep their countries drug-free, polio-free, malaria-free, tuberculosis-free, cholera-free, and diphtheria-free, etc and taking steps to counter chronic poverty and illiteracy, our society and legal system continue to focus most diligently on making Pakistan a women-free society.
There are three mindsets at work here. The first two mindsets may be seen as somewhat independent of each other, while the third is a combination of the first two.
The first mindset stems out of the tribal and feudal societal norms traditionally prevalent in large parts of Pakistan where women are considered almost like animals that can speak, a different species, a commodity and a living thing to be reared and then put to use like cattle. They have to be herded, controlled; they should be allowed to roam about during the day within prescribed limits like free-range chicken in order to do chores delegated to them, and then kept within the barn for the night.
If they transgress their boundaries, they can be tortured, killed, incarcerated and ‘put to rest’ by their men, family, tribe or community. Even if they do not cross any boundaries, they can still be bartered for peace between feuding men or presented at a very young age to a much older man for power or financial gains.
Women killed in the name of honour, women traded between tribes and families to settle disputes, women buried alive for trying to marry someone of their choice or even for abetting other women in such acts, women flogged or stoned for being considered of easy virtue – all this happens without a wee bit of regret or remorse in some segments of Pakistani society.
The second mindset is rooted in an interpretation of Islam. A certain kind of orthodox Islam was revived largely in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century’s under the patronage of British and European imperialism. The establishment of kingdoms and dynasties went hand in hand with this version of faith. Women were oppressed like never before in Middle Eastern lands.
The changes, revival and revisions in theology in the Arabian Peninsula cast major ideological effects on Muslims of the Indian Subcontinent soon after the new political and religious order was established in the lands they considered holier than any place in the world including their own country.
However, South Asia had a different and far more plural cultural character which prevented a massive spread of orthodoxy in matters of faith. Even when a section of the Muslim population in united India wanted a separate homeland for themselves, they chose to be led by a man who belonged to a minority sect within Islam and had willingly embraced a European lifestyle. This changed with time owing to a host of factors and interests of the ruling class and the state institutions that dominated policy and public discourse for decades.
In the legal realm, it is important to remind ourselves again Gen Ziaul Haq’s introduction of the Hudood Ordinances in 1979 and the Law of Evidence in 1984 had a deep impact on the status of women as equal citizens in the eyes of the law. Thousands of women languished in jail, many for being victims who could not prove their innocence due to the very nature of these laws, court proceedings and criminal procedure codes that were followed.
Therefore, in theory, in the presence of these laws, the state of Pakistan discriminates against its women citizens. It is partial. It provides opportunities for perpetrators of crimes against women to go scot free.
The Women’s Protection Bill, introduced in 2007, relaxes certain conditions and provides limited relief to women but the nature of the Hudood laws remains unchanged. The law of evidence reduces a woman to half of a man. If you then interpret it in the case of women belonging to religious minorities, four women will be seen as equal to one Muslim man.
These laws are essentially in contradiction with Pakistan’s constitution, which declares that there shall be no discrimination on the basis of sex and that all citizens are equal under the law and are entitled to equal protection of the law. In the case of the Hudood laws, if a Muslim woman is raped by a Muslim man in the presence of Muslim women, the rapist cannot get the Hadd punishment because women’s testimony against a Muslim accused is excluded.
If a non-Muslim woman is raped by a Muslim man and non-Muslim men or women have witnessed it, the rapist cannot be tried under Hadd because the testimony of non-Muslims against a Muslim accused in this case is excluded. Pregnancy can be used as a proof against a woman while the case of rape can be easily converted into a case of adultery. On top of that, the police and the so-called elders in the community consider a woman reporting rape to be shameless.
The state of Pakistan has created a permanent state of harassment and fear for women in the name of faith. What a disservice to the faith they claim to champion and what a tragedy for women, Muslim and non-Muslim both.
Within our society, all preachers, evangelists, televangelists, as individuals or in groups, for instance the likes of Jamaat-e-Dawat-o-Tabligh or some women proselytisers like those of Al-Huda, are not only allowed to say whatever they wish to but encouraged and financed by influential and affluent groups within society to spread orthodox ideas of restricting and subjugating women in the name of faith.
Historically, the Pakistani state has not just looked the other way, its intelligence agencies have nurtured such outfits that believe in completely castigating women from public life. Those traders, shop owners and large and small businessmen who knowingly evade taxes continue to support such outfits.
The third mindset is rested in an amalgam of the orthodox interpretation of faith and local cultural practices under the tribal and feudal orders of life in Pakistan.
In my humble view, when they fail to defeat the profane man of the west because they find him to be more powerful, more knowledgeable (in matters of this world at least) and much more technologically superior to them, the faithful and the lovers of culture and tradition here, impose their ideas on the weak within their own precincts, their own community and society – women being the first at the receiving end, followed by minorities and other excluded groups.
There is an aversion to and abhorrence for women being seen as equal citizens or even half as free as men are in social situations. There is disgust when women are seen to be making progress in education or in public and professional lives if given even a limited opportunity. The sky will fall if they start participating in decisions that affect their lives – let alone making their own decisions freely and independently.
The attitude of many from the so-called liberal lot in our society is highly deplorable as well. One is not speaking about the crimes or violence against women that are rampant in Pakistani society irrespective of social class, faith or ethnicity. The behaviour towards girls and women who go to school, college or a work place is reflective of two things – the inherent prejudice against a woman who is behaving like an equal and the sexual objectification of a woman.
Women are putting up a brilliant fight in different walks of life. Only they themselves, individually and collectively, can quash all designs and efforts to oppress and subjugate women and eliminate them from any public or professional life.
Harris Khalique is a poet and author based in Islamabad.